Andrew Garfield braves the Battle of Okinawa as real-life war hero Desmond Doss, an army medic who saved 75 men without ever picking up a service rifle, in “Hacksaw Ridge,” an intense and inspiring WWII drama costarring Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Teresa Palmer (“Lights Out”),
Stepping behind the camera for the first time in a decade, Academy Award-winning director Mel Gibson (“Apocalypto,” “Braveheart”) makes an audacious return to filmmaking with this gutsy tale of a Seventh-day Adventist whose deep-rooted religious beliefs conflicted with his patriotic duty. An exceptional war film with the kind of brilliantly choreographed, visceral battle scenes that call to mind “Saving Private Ryan” and other standouts of the genre, “Hacksaw Ridge” is unique in that it uses an abundance of blood and guts to promote its protagonist’s pacifistic beliefs. A classically constructed narrative whose formulaic structure and occasional corniness never diminish its dramatic force, this violent but heartfelt true tale is chock-full of the kind of superior acting and expert filmmaking that more than justifies yet another WWII drama. With a story this inspiring, it’s no surprise that “Hacksaw Ridge” received a ten-minute standing ovation at its Venice Film Festival premiere.
The first section of “Hacksaw Ridge” chronicles Doss’s early years in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he and his brother were raised devoutly Christian by their compassionate mother (Rachel Griffiths) and stern father (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic veteran of the Great War. After establishing Desmond’s nonviolent beliefs, the film jumps ahead fifteen years to the height of WWII, when his brother voluntarily enlists despite the objections of his battle-scarred father. But unlike his brother, who believes killing is justifiable in wartime, Doss is steadfast in his pacifism, leading him to enlist as an army medic. Before shipping off to Fort Jackson, Doss meets and quickly gets engaged to a lovely local nurse named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer).
Upon arriving at boot camp and meeting the hilariously ruthless Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), Doss and his fellow enlistees – a diverse group with colorful nicknames like Hollywood (Luke Pegler), Grease (Ben Mingay) and Ghoul (Goran D. Kleut) – begin the brutal training process. When it comes time for weapons training, however, Doss refuses, citing religious beliefs, which doesn’t sit well with Sergeant Howell or Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and prompts a dereliction of duty charge. But thanks to a well-timed visit from his fiancée and persuasive father, the army allows Doss to serve at his own risk.
Then comes the Battle of Okinawa, and it’s a relentlessly gruesome hour of nonstop warfare. After the company’s initial offensive results in devastation and an eventual retreat, Doss proves his mettle by staying behind and single-handedly rescuing dozens of injured comrades, and even a few of his enemies to boot. As the battle advances toward its brutal climax, time and again, through incredible acts of heroism, Doss demonstrates why he became the first-ever conscientious objector to receive The Medal of Honor.
As he proved with “Braveheart” back in 1995, director Mel Gibson can stage incredibly complex battle scenes with a high degree of skill, and if “Hacksaw Ridge” is any indication, he’s only getting better with age. Although some moments in the final hour are hard to watch – mangled limbs, exploding bodies and rat-covered corpses are on prominent display – one can’t help but marvel at how realistically the director captures the utter chaos of war. Also, Gibson’s use of extreme violence is intended to emphasize war’s inherent savagery, which in turn effectively underscores his protagonist’s peaceful message. It may seem completely misguided to make a blood-soaked war film in the name of promoting nonviolence, but Gibson used a similar strategy with “The Passion of the Christ,” and here the approach is agreeably paradoxical.
Performances are superb across the board, with Andrew Garfield’s combination of boyish sensitivity and steely determination proving a perfect fit for war hero Desmond Doss, and Vince Vaughn’s trademark intensity lending itself particularly well to the role of Sergeant Howell. Other standouts in the cast include Luke Bracey as Smitty, a surly soldier whose hostility towards Doss softens in the trenches; Hugo Weaving as Doss’s guilt-ridden veteran father; and Teresa Palmer as Doss’s war-weary wife-to-be.
Best picture and director nominations are strong possibilities for this impactful addition to the ever-expanding list of WWII films.
Running Time: 131 minutes
Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.