Hacksaw Ridge is a biopic that tells the remarkable story of Desmond Doss, who enlisted to serve in the American army during the Second World War but refused to bear arms. He opts to serve as a medic, saving lives rather than taking them. With the convictions of his faith powering his actions, Doss miraculously saves the lives of over 75 fellow soldiers during the horrific battle on Hacksaw Ridge.
Mel Gibson returns to the director’s chair after over a decade away and, regardless of your views of his character, his intentions with this film are well meant if not perfectly executed.
Andrew Garfield plays our reluctant hero Doss who, after an altercation with his brother, is told that ‘murder is the worst sin of all’ by his mother. This moment has a deep, formative impact on his beliefs and character and is vital in his decision to resist the rifle he is offered upon enrolment.
Doss (a Seventh Day Adventist) faces persecution from his peers and his Sergeant for his beliefs. Attempts are continually made to break him mentally and physically. The American army view him, not as strong willed but as a problem, a conscientious objector. Doss however, prefers to think of himself as a ‘conscientious co-operator’. Eventually court marshalled, he is cleared of all charges and heads into battle armed only with his medic equipment and bible in his breast pocket.
The battle sequences are intense, gruesome, chaotic and extremely violent. Nothing is left to the imagination as soldiers on both sides are blown apart, lost in a sea of humanity with Doss scrabbling among the rising body count searching for lost souls. His actions at this point are nothing short of heroic as he carries wounded compatriots to relative safety, putting himself at continual risk removing them from battle again and again repeating the prayer ‘Lord, let me get one more’.
Doss was a man driven by his firmly held beliefs. These convictions led him to acts of magnificent bravery. In the face of persecution, he held firm. In the face of adversity, he remained strong. In chaos he brought healing. In the midst of war, he brought peace to troubled and broken souls.
While the core of the story has great value there are moment so ludicrous they are laughable. In the heat of battle one soldier picks up the severed torso for use as a shield from incoming fire which garnered laughs from several around me. Slightly suspect CGI when watching naval ships lay down cover for the American forces also jars the viewer and there are clear moments when a set is used rather than location.
As well as these minor incidents there are also storytelling threads that fray during the battle. While battle becomes the focus, family is all but forgotten particularly Doss' wife (Teresa Palmer) who disappears once Desmond heads to war and is given little consideration once battle commences. On the one hand this is understandable but to completely disregard a character so important to the first half of the film seems a little misjudged. The nature of these biopics though, is that a certain element of Hollywood will always be added to any story to make the narrative more cinematic. Doss was a humble man, who wanted all glory for his feats given to God, and it would be interesting to see how comfortable he would be with this portrayal in places.
Despite its minor flaws Hacksaw Ridge is very much worth going to the cinema for. In the midst of great terror, for those of us with a faith the film asks us to question if our faith holds a high enough conviction in our own lives? Does it control and/or form our decisions? Are we living out what we believe? Are we loving our neighbour? Are we carrying our cross? Are we prepared to put the needs of others first as the Bible says we should?
A version of this review will feature in the March edition of the Presbyterian Herald