“Hacksaw Ridge” (2016)
Running Time: 139 minutes
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Featuring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths and Vince Vaughn
Desmond Doss: “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
This is the most conflicted I have been about a film for quite some time, I went into it with a very open mind and I have liked most of Mel Gibson’s directorial efforts, my absolute favorite being the excellent “Apocalypto” (2004), which was also his last film as director – it was at this time that his much publicized issues were raised, when almost everyone turned on him. He has appeared in a handful of films since 2010, but they have all been pretty ordinary, in fact it has been well over a decade since Gibson made anything remotely interesting. Unfortunatelt for all the promise, the Oscar nominations and wins this is not a great film, it should not be remembered fondly.
“Hacksaw Ridge” (2016) revolves around Desmond Doss who takes his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing seriously, in particular the commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
At the outbreak of World War II, Doss is motivated to enlist in the Army. His father, a troubled World War I veteran, is deeply upset by the decision. Because he is a conscientious objector, Doss intends to serve as a combat medic. Doss is placed under the command of Sergeant Howell. He excels physically but becomes an outcast among his fellow soldiers for refusing to handle a rifle and train on Saturdays. Howell and Captain Glover attempt to discharge Doss for psychiatric reasons but fail. Howell then torments Doss by putting him through grueling labor, intending to get Doss to leave of his own accord. Despite being beaten one night by his fellow soldiers, he refuses to identify his attackers and continues training.
Doss’ unit is assigned to the 77th Infantry Division and deployed to the Pacific theater. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss’ unit is informed that they are to relieve the 96th Infantry Division, which was tasked with ascending and securing the Maeda Escarpment (“Hacksaw Ridge”). In the initial fight, both sides sustain heavy losses..
The next morning, the Japanese launch a massive counterattack and drive the Americans off the escarpment. Doss hears the cries of the dying soldiers and decides to run back into the carnage. He starts carrying wounded soldiers to the cliff’s edge and rappelling them down by rope, each time praying to save one more. The arrival of dozens of wounded once presumed dead comes as a shock to the rest of the unit below. After rescuing 75 soldiers at Hacksaw Ridge, Doss is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman.
There are a variety of moving parts to any film, these can either benefit or hurt the movie depending on how well each is handled and carried out. I don’t believe this is a bad film, but I do think the structure, casting and ultimately budget hinders what could have been a great film, it could have done much better worldwide. To see that it was up for six Academy Awards was at the time, and still is disappointing, this says more to the make up of the Academy than anything else.
I am assuming it was Gibson’s reputation itself that limited the budget to a paltry US$40 million, which means that all the effects and casting were extremely limited. It also means that he had to shoot in Australia on a beach instead of anywhere that actually looks like the South Pacific. As well as this, it means the special effects look amateurish and any extensive practical effects cannot be done, as time is very limited. The other thing that is limited is any kind of wide shots as well as aerial shots – when I was watching this you could see that this was a production short on money. By comparison “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), film made almost twenty years ago cost US$70 million dollars to make, this is over $100 million dollars in todays dollars.
The cast in the film is predominantly Australian except for Andrew Garfield as Doss and Vince Vaughn as his drill Seargent. Vaughn who has not appeared in a drama for years seems like he is playing his normal straight man except this time there is no comedian to back him up – his performance rings as untrue as any performance I have ever seen. Garfield is fine as Doss but in my opinion his Oscar nomination was for the wrong film – not once did I think he carried off the performance in any realistic sense.
The narrative that is used to push the plot along is flawed as well; it is obvious that over half the film is about Doss and his family prior to the outbreak if World War II as well as an extensive section of the film set in boot camp. This is such a weak part of the film and meanders for a long time until we arrive in the South Pacific and the action. It’s the first time I felt war being a welcome relief to the boredom I was feeling beforehand.
The one thing Gibson did well was to create a film that does stick together despite its weaknesses and it is coherent as well which is saying something. He has an excellent eye, which you can see in all of his films – and he can direct action as well as any other great director around. I only hope that his next film has a budget and other talent to make it a true return to form.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.