A decade after the intense Apocalypto, Mel Gibson returns to directing with a little-known World War II story that focuses on courage and saving lives instead of taking them. Private Desmond Doss was the first Conscientious Objector in American History, saving approximately 75 men in the battle of Okinawa. As a medic, Doss was on the frontlines of a brutal invasion on what was known as Hacksaw Ridge without any weapon to protect himself.
The film is split into two halves. The first chronicling Doss’ early life with his family, particularly his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who fought in World War I and moving to his courting of Ms. Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). This gives us insight to why Doss decides not to use a weapon in combat, leading us into his basic training. The second half is the assault on Hacksaw, giving us some of the most brutal and intense depictions of war since the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan. Gibson does not go overboard here, but keeps things fast, brutal, and terrifying. He makes you feel the fear and helplessness the men felt as they climb that rope wall up the ridge into battle. This is an extraordinary story and Mel Gibson, love him or hate him, is the perfect director to tell it. He brings both the savagery of war and the courageousness of Doss’ actions in battle. Gibson also brings an outstanding cast who, on paper, may feel a bit out of place in a film like this.
Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider Man) is actually a great decision for Doss, who is consistently described as weak. He’s small in stature, but Garfield makes you believe in his determination to serve his country. Hugo Weaving is especially great here, with the horrors of WWI written all over his face throughout the film. It’s a different character for him and I can’t think of anyone who could have done it better. He’s tough and despicable when he needs to be, but also sells the heartbreak and care that he has for his family. It’s not an easy thing to make such an abusive man sympathetic, but you feel it here. One odd standout in the cast seems to be Vince Vaughn. You know, the funny guy from Wedding Crashers and Old School who hasn’t made a legitimate hit movie since 2005? Well I have good news for you, Vaughn kills it here. As Doss’ intimidating and sarcastic drill instructor, Vaughn is perfect for the part. He’s the film’s comic relief when needed, without feeling out of character. The real standouts for me were two actors I simply have not cared for in a film yet. Sam Worthington (Avatar) plays Doss’ Captain and the first one we see have a natural reaction to his desire to not carry a weapon, informing Doss that “quite a bit of killin’ does occur in war.” He brings a charisma and nobility here that I had not seen from him, and his performance sticks with you. On that note, a real highlight of the film was Luke Bracey. To be honest, it took me awhile to recognize the actor and he is great here. Bracey’s character, Smitty, is the hammer to Doss’ nail. He truly believes that Doss is a coward and does not have the strength or courage to back him up on the battlefield. The relationship between Doss and Smitty stuck with me and it’s primarily due to the performances from both actors.
I feel like it’s been awhile since we’ve had a truly great war film the likes of Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, or Flags of Our Fathers. I’m glad to say that Hacksaw Ridge really fills that void and does not disappoint in terms of storytelling, character, or warfare. It’s a fantastic story of courage, religion, and brotherhood that is a perfect film for celebrating Veteran’s Day.
Runtime: 2 hours, 11 Minutes