Honor, courage and glory come in many forms. For the young volunteer soldier Desmond Doss, they came in ways that redefined many Americans’ understanding of patriotism.
Doss joined the Army in World War II to serve his country, but insisted on doing it on his own terms. His religious faith made him refuse to kill others, or even to carry a weapon into battle. As an unarmed medic caring for wounded infantrymen on the front lines of the Okinawa campaign, he served with astounding bravery, dignity and distinction, becoming the most awarded conscientious objector in U.S. military history and the first to receive the Medal of Honor.
In “Hacksaw Ridge,” Mel Gibson, returning to directing after scandal sidelined him for a decade, reaffirms his reputation as a master storyteller. This could have been another dime-a-dozen war story about rah-rah patriotism, but Gibson has made something much deeper, artistically and morally. Shot, edited and acted dazzlingly, this equals Gibson’s bravura work in “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.” “Hacksaw Ridge” is their spiritual sequel.
Gibson has crafted a riveting and inspiring film, exploring the dark side of mankind alongside its heroism. While the film has moments of sentimentality and war movie cliché, Gibson molds the carefully documented facts into believable and powerful drama. He pulls no gut-wrenching punches, and they strike that much harder after we are lulled by the film’s innocent and romantic buildup in its first hour.
After an electrifying, visually stunning battlefield prologue, the story begins in peaceful Lynchburg, Va. This rural Eden is where Desmond, a pious and somewhat naive youngster, introduces himself to sin. During a scuffle with his brother, Desmond hits him with a brick, causing a head injury. Later, when his drunkard father (Hugo Weaving), a traumatized World War I veteran, treats his wife violently, Desmond protects her with a pistol. Humbled by those outbursts, he vows never to touch a weapon again.
Andrew Garfield acts the part superlatively, mixing happy-go-lucky humor, humility and a warm sense of budding manhood as he falls in love with a nurse from the local hospital (charming Teresa Palmer). A generous spirit, he wishes he had enough schooling to become a doctor himself. Gibson uses thoughtful, comfortably tight storytelling to hook our emotions to this likable farm boy’s fate long before it is pulled into the firing line.
Signing up to help promote the war effort, Desmond arrives at boot camp, where his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn at his best in ages) eyes him and declares, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques.” Desmond baffles, then incenses, the enlisted men and officers when he refuses to accept his rifle, respectfully citing his Seventh-day Adventist’s adherence to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
Despite his promises to fulfill all of the Army’s other decrees, cynics call him a coward and beat him. The brass launches a court martial against him. Eventually, the pacifist is sent into battle with the squad as a medic, one of the most highly targeted personnel in the conflict, still scarcely trusted by many of his comrades.
The film’s devastating second half moves us into what one officer calls “the hellfire of battle.” That’s an understatement. The battle for control of Okinawa is presented as a terrifying symphony of blood and mud and flame — imagery as much from apocalyptic theology as history. As grenades and machine-gun fire blow bodies in half, Desmond’s comrades move ahead courageously, and each has been so carefully sketched beforehand that we care about every one. Desmond shows even greater valor crawling to them, tending to them and pulling them back for surgical treatment, stanching their jets of blood and boosting their morale even when we know they’re dying.
Gibson, always a faith-based sermonizer, captures these convulsions with such virtuoso control of film craft that he can express devout associations beyond the narrative. When the saintly Desmond transports men on his shoulders, their wounds bloodying his back, there are clear parallels to Christ carrying the cross. As Desmond is pulled by a rope lift to the top of the towering stone cliff that borders Hacksaw Ridge, it’s a clear parallel to the ascension. Rescuing American and Japanese wounded alike, Desmond endlessly prays for the strength to save “just one more, Lord, just one more.”
Carrying the savagery of “Saving Private Ryan” to a deeper level, this film will trigger more manly tears than any in memory. It earns them.