Mel Gibson returns to directing after a ten-year hiatus with Hacksaw Ridge, a fact-based story of faith and violence surrounding a US Army medic who singlehandedly saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa without firing a single shot.
Former Amazing Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, last seen in the 2014 indie drama 99 Homes, stars as Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector whose efforts under enemy fire during World War II earned him the Medal of Honor.
The film’s balance of fervent belief and bloodletting falls well within Gibson’s filmography as a director; Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004), and Apocalypto (2006) cover similar thematic terrain. Gibson has been under the radar since 2006’s well-documented personal problems, although he has appeared in a handful of acting roles since 2010’s Edge of Darkness.
That said, his strengths as an action filmmaker are anything but rusty. The lengthy battle portion of the film is clear to follow, even in its chaos, with graphic images – soldiers burning in flames, exposed entrails – that don’t seem gratuitous as much as the harsh reality of war. Blood droplets pelt soldiers like rain. The enemy fades in and out of smoke, and bullets ping off and crack through helmets. The cinematography, editing, and sound pack a surprising amount of suspense, no small feat considering audiences know the outcome.
This pragmatic tone creates a fitting tribute to the real Doss, a gentle, humble soul who died in 2006 at age eighty-seven. He appears in interview footage toward the film’s end, recounting battlefield moments such as how he kept praying, “Please, Lord, help me get one more.”
That matter-of-fact approach contrasts with the film’s first hour, which seems preachy as it establishes how Doss’s small-town Virginia upbringing shaped his convictions, then has him repeat them in one form or another. Once the Okinawa segment begins, however, this necessary groundwork enhances Doss’s heroics, already remarkable considering 1940s medicine and technology.
The script by Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (The Quiet American) depicts formative moments in Doss’s life before he discovers his medical calling and meets his future wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer of Lights Out), a nurse handling blood donations for the war effort. Their sweet courtship unfolds after a date to the movies with newsreels of the fighting abroad.
Doss follows his older brother (Nathaniel Buzolic of TV’s The Originals) into the military, saying he can’t let others risk their lives while he stays behind. As an unarmed medic, he reasons he can save lives instead of taking them. His father (Hugo Weaving), a psychologically wounded World War I veteran, and the Army find this incongruous. The brass first sends him to a psychiatrist and then a court martial over his refusal to handle a firearm. Along the way, those trying to wrap their minds around Doss’s beliefs beat him and berate him as a coward.
Does he think he’s superior to them? Can’t he just train with a gun and never touch it again? Why doesn’t he quit? The doe-eyed Garfield answers these questions and more with sincerity but not sanctimony and even a bit of humor. “I pray to God, and I like to think He hears me, but it’s not a conversation,” he says.
As Doss’s sergeant, Vince Vaughn isn’t as shake-in-the-boots intimidating as Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman) or R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket), but his jabs at Doss and the other soldiers land well. Also effective are Sam Worthington (Avatar, Everest), as Doss’s flinty captain, and Weaving, whose first appearance pouring out whiskey for his dead peers gives way to believable vicissitudes of anger and pain.
Once Doss and the others are on the ground in Okinawa, any bravado evaporates as the soldiers make their way to the front lines. Doss scrambles into and out of foxholes and behind cover, chasing cries of “Medic!” with morphine, tourniquets, and assurances—first with his unit and then alone after an air strike forces those not wounded off the ridge. The film doesn’t cast him as a saint in these moments but rather an ordinary man who became the answer to other soldiers’ prayers.