Note: This review contains SPOILERS. Even though the story is based on well-documented true events from some 70 years ago, fair warning.
When the young Desmond Doss is growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, he is constantly fighting with his brother, sometimes to shockingly violent results. It’s as if they’re Cain and Abel reborn.
When the wounded Pvt. Desmond Doss is lowered from a cliff on Okinawa via pulley, the camera swirls around and ultimately beneath him, producing the effect that Doss is actually ascending into heaven.
When Pvt. Doss is cleansed of the blood and sweat and mud of war, the water drenches him from above as the sun glows behind him. It’s as if he’s being baptized anew.
And when Pvt. Doss comes literally face to face with an enemy soldier who would kill him without pause if he could, Pvt. Doss does not vanquish his enemy. He tends to the man’s wounds.
Director Mel Gibson dishes out the symbolism and the sermonizing in blunt and unrelenting fashion in “Hacksaw Ridge,” a gruesomely effective and ultraviolent World War II movie about a man who was so nonviolent he refused to pick up a gun, even though he was with a combat unit stationed in the bloody hell of Okinawa in 1945.
Andrew Garfield (from the latest round of “Spider-Man” movies), an onscreen specialist in earnestness and quiet resilience, is well cast and does a fine job as Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who grew up in a home where his violent, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a World War I veteran ravaged by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (before it was given a name), abused his wife (Rachel Griffiths) and sons.
Two pivotal moments in Doss’ upbringing lead to a commitment to God and to an unwavering belief in nonviolence — even in times of war. He enlists in the Army as a medic, proclaiming he’s going to save lives while those around him are taking life.
Working from a solid screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan that nevertheless embraces many a wartime cliche (including a barracks filled with familiar stereotypes), Gibson divides the main section of “Hacksaw Ridge” into two distinct halves:
— At boot camp, Doss stuns his fellow enlistees, his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and his CO (Sam Worthington) by declaring he literally won’t even touch a rifle.
Doss’ fellow soldiers torment him and beat him. The Army tries to have Doss declared a Section 8. Court martial proceedings are initiated. But Doss will not quit and he will not give up, and the Army is stuck with a soldier in a combat unit who won’t pick up a weapon.
— In Okinawa, Doss is with the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry as they try to take a 400-foot cliff the Americans call Hacksaw Ridge. As bullets hail all around Doss, as grenades explode, as soldiers are engulfed in flames and reduced to fragments by artillery fire, Doss repeatedly risks his life to tend to the wounded — and adheres to his vow to never touch a weapon, under any circumstances.
“Hacksaw Ridge” features an international cast, and some of the actors do a better job of sustaining their American accents than others. (Garfield was born in Los Angeles but raised in England. Hugo Weaving was born in Nigeria to British parents. Sam Worthington is British. Rachel Griffiths and Teresa Palmer, who plays Doss’ wife, Dorothy, are Australian.)
“Hacksaw Ridge” is faithful to the story of Desmond Doss in every sense of the word.
Rating: Three Stars out of Four