“a story well crafted, relentless action and the swelling of strings to tickle your feels in case you weren’t getting it from the screen” – Dara Higgins on Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story, of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a devout Seventh Day Adventist who went to fight in World War 2 but refused to carry a weapon. As a medic he’s credited with rescuing 75 of his comrades and received the Medal of Honour for his troubles. The Medal of Honour is a big deal, not just a so-so FPS franchise. And for a conscientious objector to win one, well, that’s double big.
The film starts with Doss as a young child, living with his brother and parents, his father, Hugo Weaving, an alcoholic ex-doughboy who served in the Great War is a steaming, aggressive, self pitying waster. Apparently. The entire first act gives us rambunctious youngster who brains his brother in a fight, swears off violence, grows up and falls in love with a local nurse and develops a self-taught interest in medicine. It’s lathered in country bumpkin cornsyrup. Doss really is just a likable Joe Average. Except for the fundamentalist religious beliefs, and the steadfast belief in the commandments, especially that Thou Shalt Not Kill one.
In the second reel our intrepid hero goes to boot camp, a trope beloved of the war movie. No-one ever gets and easy ride during training, and some are ridden harder than others, especially the outsiders with the funky ideas. Doss inevitably comes in for flak from all corners: his fellow soldiers, the brass and his drill Sargent. Well, of course he does. He won’t hold a bloody gun, and that’s kind of what the whole war is about, right?
Vince Vaughn is an unconvincing choice for an insult wielding, fit as fuck, hard-ass drill Sarge. R. Lee Ermey he ain’t. Carrying the kind of timber more suited to a Sunday league centre back, he lacks the lean, antsy energy you associate with these roles. He’s more like your favourite ball breaking barman, serving the dry wit, insulting your new shoes. The army, had it up to here with Doss’s pansy way, want shot of him. How can his fellow combatants respect him or trust him? They offer him an easy way out, which he refuses, or the hard way. A court martial is interrupted by Doss Snr with an entirely fictional intervention, but it serves to get our young protagonist off to war.
Andrew Garfield, seen here in Japan beseeching his silent God for the second movie running, is good, as ever. His manchild’s face fixed look of permanent bewilderment suits the situation his character finds himself in. He exudes the affable bafflement of a domesticated alpaca, constantly surprised to find itself in its pen, graciously accepting oats and water. Skinny and boyish, Garfield’s not a typical alpha-male superhero, certainly not in the William Wallace mould. But then, that’s the point. Neither was Des Doss.
Mel Gibson has a fascination with rampant machismo. He’s a man out of time, a man in need of a war. In times of peace, as Freddie N once observed, the war-like man attacks himself. And when he’s done pissing on the floor of his 4×4, there’s global Zionism and women police officers to lambast. But Mel’s changed. His heroes don’t need to wield blades or muskets. They have bandages and an ever present bible. Doss’s essential goodness grants him the protection of god, it would seem. He faces adversity with an equanimity and the unflappable shield of faith. Just like Mel would, you reckon.
I digress. The third act is the war movie you came to see. Mel has a deft hand at action scenes, vast battlefields, and the last hour of the movie is an attack on the senses. Explosions and lead flying around and men’s flesh being stripped from their bodies. The battle for Okinawa was notoriously brutal. No quarter was given by a retreating Japanese army. Surrender was not an option for these lads and fighting to the nasty, bloody end was all their code of honour could accept. As such gruesome, visceral verity is very much the order of the day.
Doss’s selfless heroics are a matter of historical record. But despite that, and the film’s insistence it’s a “true story”, it seems his antics as a medic in Okinawa are not Hollywood enough, and a certain licence has been taken with the events and how they happened. You might think, having watched the movie, Doss did all his rescuing of his stricken comrades over the course of a night or two, but that’s not true. It was over the course of a number of weeks. When his unit turn up at Okinawa, they’re already veterans of Guam and Leyte, and Doss already has a citation for his bravery under fire. At this point he has nothing left to prove to his mates. Taking liberties with the hard facts, and some tiny inconsistencies across the acts that suggest a number of scriptwriters, are basically the only faults in this film, to be fair. All biopics suffer from this problem: real life ain’t cinematic enough.
If I were watching this at home, the wife would ask me to turn the TV down. No way, this is war; in your face, loud, and pointless. This is Hollywood, heroic and brash. This is Mel Gibson, behind the camera for the first time since 2006; a story well crafted, relentless action and the swelling of strings to tickle your feels in case you weren’t getting it from the screen. And this is Desmond Doss; a stoic and affable alpaca right to the end and whose story is pretty remarkable and stands up to this stylised telling. As veteran and writer Tim O’Brien would tell us, feeling uplifted at the end of a war story means we’ve bought into the “very old and terrible lie”, but in this case, there’s a smidge of hope. What if everyone who went to war refused to carry a rifle? It would be a lot quieter for a start. But Mel wouldn’t stand for that.