During the Pacific Campaign of WWII, Desmond Doss, a U.S. Army Medic in the 307th infantry, 77th Infantry Division single-handedly saved over 50 men during the Battle of Okinawa, a battle that the Japanese dubbed “Rain of Steel” because of the ferocity of fire. And he did it without carrying any weapon to defend himself. If this sounds too hard to be true, then you might be surprised that the biographical war drama that is based on Desmond’s exploits only told a fraction of his actual story.
Hacksaw Ridge marks Mel Gibson’s directorial debut after a ten year hiatus (his last directed film was the excellent Apocalypto) and stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, Sam Worthington as his Commanding Officer, Vince Vaughn as his immediate NCO SGT Howell, and Teresa Palmer as his wife, Dorothy Doss. Hugo Weaving also stars as Tom Doss, Desmond’s alcoholic father burdened by his combat experiences and lost friends during WWI.
The film opens up as we see Desmond on a stretcher, being carried off the battlefield as the U.S. and Japanese Imperial Army engage in vicious hand to hand combat all around them. The movie then flashes back to the first of three parts, where we see a young Desmond and his brother compete in roughhousing and adventuring in the forests and hills of rural Virginia. Following an incident where Desmond injures his brother during a fight, Desmond takes his religious principles of being a Seventh Day Adventist seriously, including the Sixth Commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Along with his father’s alcoholic and violent outbursts, Desmond swears off using a weapon or acts of violence against fellow human beings.
The film introduces his wife, Dorothy, a Nurse at the local Lynchburg Hospital, where they encounter each other by chance. His awkward charm endears her, and they plan to marry after an extensive courtship. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII changes that, and Desmond is determined to do his part despite his religious and personal beliefs. He enlists as a Medic, confident that he could still serve while not having to violate his own religious convictions.
The film then kicks off to part two, where Desmond faces considerable disdain and even wrath from fellow Soldiers and his CO during basic training at Fort Jackson. After telling his CO, Captain Glover, that he cannot pick up a weapon or train on Saturday (Sabbeth), Glover tries to have him chapter-ed out by a Psychiatrist. When that doesn’t work, SGT Howell proceeds to use peer pressure and accusation of cowardliness to force Doss to leave on his own accord. Despite these pressures, Doss refuses to give up which leads to an eventual court martial on charges of insubordination for failure to pick up a rifle. The trial is interrupted by his father in his old WWI uniform, with a letter stating his son’s actions are not prohibited by the U.S. Army or Constitution. The charges are dropped and Doss is allowed to continue with his training.
Part three sees Doss’s unit as reinforcement for the Battle of Okinawa, to secure an objective dubbed “Hacksaw Ridge.” The violent aftermath of the battle is laid out in pieces as the unit ventures deeper to their objective, until finally they come face to face with the Japanese defenders in a display of violent bloodletting choreography. After his unit is forced off the ridge by a massive Japanese counterattack, Desmond makes the ultimate decision to go back alone and rescue his wounded comrades. While doing so, he faces many trials and tribulations that test his ability to keep his promise and ultimately, his faith.
It’s easy to see the directorial hand of Mel Gibson in this movie, as previous films such as “Braveheart,” “Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto” lend their own personal violent repertoire to the screen. Some critics have previously chastised this approach, but Gibson’s experience of conveying carnage to the human body unfortunately has its place here in the film. The Battle of Okinawa was one of the last major battles in the Pacific Theater during WWII. The Japanese forces were violently desperate to bleed the Allied forces dry in order to make the invasion of mainland Japan almost inconceivable. The hand-to-hand combat was brutal, and I frequently heard gasps from the audience when U.S. and Japanese forces resorted to bludgeoning one another with swords, bayonets, and fists. It’s one thing to see men drop quickly after being shot through the head (which happens plenty), but it’s another thing entirely different to see two men grapple in the blood strewn mud while one man gouges out the eye of the other. For the most part it works, but I personally disliked the frequent use of slow motion. Whether or not this was intentional, it almost devalues the carnage of the battle to a conventional action film. The “shaky” cam effect has been overused in recent years, but I think there is a fine balance between these two approaches. The HBO series “The Pacific,” although not as tight of a narrative, does a little better job of distilling the Pacific theater carnage to the big screen.
Oh and for some reason, there seems to be a persistent lack of reloading with the firearms. SGT Howell seems to have acquired a rare M3 Grease Gun that never runs out of bullets.
The movie hums along briskly at 2 hours and 19 minutes. Although not short, the movie still packs a lot during that time, which requires almost clean breaks between acts. Some may not like these abrupt transitions, but I didn’t personally mind it. However, some transition would have been nice between Doss’s time in boot camp and the deployment to Okinawa. Andrew Garfield portrays Doss’s seemingly naive world view, budding romance, and grit during the battle with utmost commitment. Although he may not win an Academy award for it, his work would make the real Desmond Doss proud. And his religious views, which are prominent in the film, come off as seemingly genuine. Most importantly, it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the film. In fact, all the actors perform well, and even Vince Vaughn holds his own as Doss’s tough but experienced NCO. Granted, “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn’t really tread any new ground when compared to other war films (and at times seemingly cliche), does it competently.
Historically, the film keeps the general accounts factual while altering some minor events for plot and narrative purposes. Minor changes include the account of his wife being a Nurse (she wasn’t one when they first met, only after the war) the exact accounts of his father’s action being the sole precipitous account towards Desmond’s decision in faith, and even the court martial scene (his father did not burst into the trial with a letter from his former CO now Brigadier General validating Desmond’s decision). What’s most striking are the accounts that the director chose not to include. Desmond Doss, unlike the movie portrayal, participated in battles on Guam and the Philippines prior to Okinawa, and was already awarded two Bronze Stars for valor. While lowering his wounded comrades off of Hacksaw Ridge, a Japanese machine gunner supposedly sighted him in but the gun jammed every time he pulled the trigger. Desmond was also shot by a sniper after giving up his stretcher litter to a more badly wounded man, which shattered his left arm. Yet he was able to crawl a total of 300 yards to safety while under fire. The director felt that some of this was already too hard to believe and decided not to include these parts. Even the actual number of men Desmond saved is in a bit of dispute. Supposedly Desmond counted 50 men, his CO insisted it was 100 men. They agreed to compromise at 75 men.
Overall, I would say this movie is certainly worthy of viewing. The choreography, acting, and story is all done extremely well, only let down partially by lack of transitions and questionable decision-making regarding the action sequences. All in all, a film that doesn’t re-invent the war drama, but does a huge service to the life and actions of MOH recipient CPL Desmond Doss.
Hacksaw Ridge is currently in theaters and rated R.
Hacksaw Ridge Official Movie Site: http://www.hacksawridge.movie/
History Vs. Hollywood Hacksaw Ridge: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hacksaw-ridge/
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