*This review may spoil the movie for you*
I was watching the annual ‘Oscar Director’s Roundtable’ video on YouTube this week and found myself strangely magnetised towards Mel Gibson. He’s a burly character with a pretty impressive beard, there's an intensity in his stare that could grow intimidating. ‘He’s a good storyteller’, I thought to myself. I was excited then to see his latest movie "Hacksaw Ridge", the remarkable WWII story of Desmond Doss.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a medic in the U.S. Army who was the first to be awarded the Medal of Honour despite being a 'conscientious objector' during the Second World War. Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist and refused to carry a rifle during his time in the field. He would save the lives of 75 soldiers, many of whom originally considered him a coward for refusing to bear arms.
"Hacksaw Ridge" can be viewed as two distinct parts. The first provides the character's grounding, it's Doss' backstory. How he came to be as as religious as he is. His families struggles at home, especially the violent, drunken behaviour of his father (Hugo Weaving). How he met his girlfriend (Teresa Palmer). The way he was singled out and punished for his religious beliefs at training camp. The hearing he had with a court-martial that sought to prevent his serving abroad. All of these parts serve to ground the character, and particularly his beliefs, in the wider narrative of what it stereotypically meant to fight for your country and to be a hero. They act as a counterpart for the second half of the movie; the bravery shown and the respect earned (in light of his beliefs) during battle. The problem was that this all felt very rigid and predictable, each scene was explicit in its functionality, leaving little to the imagination.
As we explore Doss' home life we meet a deeply religious family. The Ten Commandments are proudly framed on the wall, there to serve as a guide for daily life. As Doss knocks his brother unconscious with a stone during a play-fight he visits this hanging frame: 'Thou shalt not kill', he reads. This this will resonate with the young Doss.
Demond's father, a World War I veteran, has sinned. Early on we see him drinking whiskey from the bottle as he visits the graves of his comrades departed. He eventually smashes the bottle, cutting himself, he's clearly a man haunted by his military past. Doss Snr. strikes us as the type who would be adamant his sons must fight in the war. He's in fact quite the opposite. His violent outbursts and drink problems are the scars of a man damaged by war and its baggage. Doss Snr. is angry when his sons tell him they've signed up for battle, he knows too well the fate of most young soldiers.
We can see what Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkann are trying to do here. When Doss Snr. breaks into the hearing of Desmond's court-martial case and delivers a letter which allow his son to serve, it is him confronting some of his inner demons. He's forced to revisit and accept a part of himself which he has tried (unsuccessfully) to forget. His character’s arc is rounded off, but with little pay out. Desmond’s mother tells her son that she wishes he knew the man his father used to be, before the war and the drinking. Sadly he didn’t. And neither did we. A large portion of the movies first half was spent on Doss Snr.’s journey, and without any real emotional connection with the character, it felt like time wasted.
During the training camp at Fort Jackson we meet the characters that will populate the rest of the story. Few, if any, feel genuine. Think of the 'better' war films and how the ensemble cast play an integral part in providing empathy come the inevitable casualties. Take "Saving Private Ryan”; Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and the rest of his battalion each felt like they added something to the film. Each character is as developed and memorable as the next. That's what makes the final battle of that film as powerful as it is; the humanisation of each character makes their eventual demise as poignant.
The men of Doss' unit feel inauthentic and even slightly gimmicky. Three of his comrades stand out: ‘Sergeant Howell’ (Vince Vaughan), ‘Smitty’ (Luke Bracey) and ‘Hollywood’ (Luke Pegler). We are vaguely introduced to others but our interest in them fades with their lack of screen time. ‘Smitty’ is the antithesis of Doss; ruthless and aggressive in training and battle, he scorns Desmond for his apparent passivity the most. He feels comically villainous, he bullies Doss by taking his Bible and every time we see or hear Doss do something controversial Gibson cuts to a close up of 'Smitty' looking angry. Sergeant Howell also dislikes Doss, he wants him out of the group. Vince Vaughan brings an added humour to the part which isn't perhaps necessary- it’s ‘Hollywood’ who provides moments of comic relief.
When we arrive at the fight for Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss shows great bravery as he goes above and beyond the call of duty to save his wounded comrades. It is during the second counterattack of the Japanese that we see Doss remain on the Ridge when most others have fled. He collects the injured and lowers them to safety using a self-improvised pull system.
The scenes here are aptly graphic. Bodies fly, abdomens explode and bayonets pierce. Gibson takes particular pleasure in showing the proximity at which both sides fought, it's reflected in the intimacy of the shots as soldiers trade blows at arms length. Up until we see Doss fly swatting grenades away and dragging the machine-gunning Sergeant Howell to safety, the fighting feels scarily authentic.
Pity then that the films other parts don't do service to these battle scenes. Desmond eventually sparks a (somewhat predictable) friendship with his nemesis 'Smitty' during a night spent together in the field but when 'Smitty' eventually passes we feel little remorse. The same can be said for Sergeant Howell. When Doss heroically comes to his rescue there should be a flooding of emotion. Yet nothing.
His was a story that demanded telling. Desmond Doss was a hero without a rifle. His comrades and his superiors mistook his commitment to the script as a sign of cowardice. They were wrong, but they didn't pay the price, instead they were simultaneously salvaged and humbled by his actions. In the final scene Doss goes to 'work' on his day of sabbath; he puts the life of others ahead of his most personal belief. Another selfless act from a remarkable man.
Mel Gibson is a good storyteller. We know that from some of his earlier work and you can even see it when he interviews. In his latest film "Hacksaw Ridge" Desmond Doss follows the word of God religiously. But I get the feeling Gibson doesn't follow the script of real-life Demond Doss with such exactitude. Much of the film felt highly fictional, and predictable too. A good storyteller can entertain us with their aura and charm as they please but the best storytellers touch us with moments of truth. Much of "Hacksaw Ridge felt as though it was lacking truth.