It has taken decades for Hollywood to get around to making a movie about World War II hero Desmond Doss, but it hasn’t been the industry’s fault. Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for bravery in battle, did not want his story told on the screen and resisted all studio attempts — including those from Darryl F. Zanuck and others — to turn it into a film about his heroic efforts in saving 75 men during the ferocious fight for Hacksaw Ridge. As I say in my video review above, it is no wonder filmmakers came calling because being a conscientious objector and never touching a gun was unheard of for soldiers actively involved in the war. Doss was nearly court-martialed for his refusal to carry or even handle a weapon, but eventually became a medic who turned out to be more brave than just about anyone in his unit — a true uncompromised hero.
Andrew Garfield is simply great portraying Doss, whose story is only now being told because his Seventh-Day Adventist Church made a difference in granting rights several years ago. It is a natural for the long litany of movies about war and courage, and it is especially a natural for the directing talents of Mel Gibson who does his best work here since winning an Oscar for Braveheart in 1996.
It is also entirely appropriate for Gibson, who directed the massive faith-based hit The Passion Of The Christ, because Hacksaw Ridge — with its focus on Doss’ strong religious belief in the power of the Bible, the book that never left his side even in the heat of battle — is tailor-made for that same faith-based audience. But this one should have large appeal beyond that as a film that will inspire all moviegoing audiences everywhere. It is a truly remarkable and moving story about unimaginable courage in the face of impossible odds.
The film’s first half details Doss’ childhood and young adult life in the small town in which he grew up. An early incident in which he accidentally nearly kills his brother changed him forever and shaped his view that taking anyone’s life is something he could never do. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to serve in the war effort just as his brother was doing. Of course, his refusal to touch a gun caused enormous problems and ridicule among his superiors who include his drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn, in an effective change-of-pace role). The film also details his checkered relationship with his alcoholic father (an excellent Hugo Weaving), as well his girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) whom he would marry before heading to Hacksaw.
But it is the fierce, exciting and realistic scenes of the pure hell of combat that make this magnificent war film so unflinchingly unforgettable. Without using CGI effects, Gibson puts us right in the center of battle as has rarely been accomplished on screen with the possible exception of that first half of Saving Private Ryan. What the director achieves here is truly astonishing, even if it may be too stomach-churning violent for weaker hearts in the crowd. What makes these sequences so compelling is the emotional hook of Doss and his sheer determination and bravery even without carrying a weapon for his own protection. If it weren’t all 100% true you would have a hard time believing it really happened, but it did, and that is always the mark of a genuine hero.
The supporting cast is excellent, but it is Garfield who again impresses in a performance that will bring tears to even the most stone-faced in the audience. Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s excellent screenplay adds nice layers to the portrait of a man of principle who put saving lives first instead of taking them. Special mention should also be made for the superb cinematography of Simon Duggan, editing by John Gilbert, and fine score of Rupert Gregson-Williams.
There were several listed producers on the film including Terry Benedict, Brian Oliver, Paul Curry, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson and Tyler Thompson, but it was Bill Mechanic and David Permut who were most responsible and tenacious in getting this film made — and to get Gibson to make it. It was well worth the wait.
Lionsgate releases it Wednesday in a limited run before going wide Friday. Do you plan to see Hacksaw Ridge? Let us know what you think.