Hacksaw Ridge is more than just Mel Gibson’s first directing gig since Apocalypto in 2006. It’s a riveting piece of cinema that hearkens back to the golden age of historical epics, even if it is formulaic at times.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the heroic actions of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who enlisted into the army to serve as a medic during World War II. During the Battle of Okinawa, where divisions of American soldiers scaled the Maeda Escarpment (nicknamed ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ because of the unforgiving landscape of battle) Doss saved the lives of numerous injured men without firing a bullet.
Mel Gibson’s return to the directors chair is very much a film of two halves. The first introduces us to Doss, a young Seventh-day Adventist Christian who becomes compelled to enlist in the Army despite the reservations of his family and fiance. After signing up and starting his training, Doss’s beliefs and reluctance to carry a rifle lead him into an unwanted conflict of interests with his commanding officers. It’s this part before battle feels and looks like a glossy formulaic set up exploring faith and ideals. In this time Doss’s actions leave him as an outcast to the unit, with his CO’s looking to discharge him from the army by any means necessary. This we’ve all seen before. Just this time where the man goes against the system defending something he has done, Doss is defending his beliefs and his right to exercise them whilst fulfilling his personal obligation to serve his country. In all honesty it’s nothing to write home about, but Andrew Garfield’s stellar gentle performance and Hugo Weaving’s support carries us through the opening of the film. But come the dawn of battle, Hacksaw Ridge evolves into a raging cinematic extravaganza.
Mel Gibson has an unflinching way of depicting war and the gruesome opening battle at the top of the Maeda Escarpment embodies it entirely. As the soldiers finally ascend the ridge the bountiful colour of rural life found during the opening of the film is overcome with dirt and death. The chaos of war and unrelenting nature of the conflict is captured with precision, Gibson demonstrating he still retains a profound punch behind the lens. On the one hand this heart racing action soaked in the bloody grit of war is riveting cinema, but on the other is a much needed sobering reminder of the extremity of warfare. Regardless like the chariot race of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, or the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, the scale and execution of this half of the film truly defines a brilliant cinematic experience.
From scenes to sounds Hacksaw Ridge is a old fashioned film about a heroic subject during a harrowing conflict. The set up is formulaic fare, but you can barely criticise what it builds up to. There are interesting themes that go untouched, but if they had it would take away from the remarkable feats of Desmond Doss which this film is a whole hearted celebration of.