Based on the true story of Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge is a lot of things, many of them contradictory. It is compelling, gory, uplifting and hokey. It celebrates a famous pacifist with lovingly detailed violence. In the end, it is highly flawed but always entertaining. Whatever else may be true of Mel Gibson, he knows how to make a film.
Desmond Doss, played by former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, comes from rural Virginia. His father is an alcoholic, his life shattered after his service in WWI. A couple of incidents in young Desmond’s life, in one of which he nearly kills brother during a fight, cement his religious belief to never use, or even hold, a firearm. He is an avowed pacifist. After a quick, and awkward romance with a pretty nurse, he feels compelled to join up when WWII starts. His problems start in basic training, when his refusal to carry a weapon and serve as a medic is challenged. That is the essential part of the story, how can a pacifist serve during his country during war? For Doss this means as medic on the battlefield, attempting to save lives as others are taking them. His fellow recruits and superiors feel he would be a liability. While it is easy to see the military’s point, or at the point of those immediately around Doss, it is impossible to not admire his perseverance and conviction. They try everything to drum him out, up to an attempted court martial, only for him to refuse and stick around, determined to do his part.
That is the first half of the movie, and while it does tend toward some hokeyness, it is a solidly entertaining story. That hokeyness comes from Garfields over the top hick accent and his fellow recruits. His meeting the recruits almost feels like a scene out of Forrest Gump, with their array of similarly strong accents and immediately evident personalities. Vince Vaugh plays the drill sergeant and he is clearly having fun. Still, it is enjoyable. Then they go to war.
The movie does some early prep for the carnage that unfolds during the fighting. Early on Doss saves a man from a car accident that leaves a blood spurting gash in an artery. Nothing, though, can prepare the viewer for the amount of blood and guts strewn across the scene in the battle that takes up that back half of the movie. If it were accompanied by a restrained take on the violence, showing Doss the sane man in a world of madness, it could have been very effective. But Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t show restrained, somber, terrible violence; it shows heroic, exploitative, action movie violence. It is a bad mix. This is a movie celebrating a pacifist, but it spends a lot of time glorifying violence. No chance for extra violence or gore is left on the table. The movie loving shows rats feasting of the corpses of those killed in the battle. It even adds some seppuku and a beheading just because it can.
All that only obscures the simple beauty of the central story. After a bad day of fighting with the Americans forced to retreat, Doss stays behind to rescue as many of his wounded comrades as he can. It is a magnificently heroic thing, worth all the buildup it gets. It being surrounded by that violence would really help cement the sheer heroism of his actions if the movie didn’t go out of its way to show everyone else as heroes too. I am not objecting to the idea of their heroism, they were all undoubtedly brave and valorous men, but this isn’t their story. A lot of what is shown seems to only be there for sake of having more blood and guts.
Even as I write this review I’ve been waffling about how much I like this movie. There are times I am sure it is a genuine classic and others where I think it is a piece of crap. It is certainly an uneven. It is an amazing true story, told in a way that mostly does it justice.