Hollywood has always loved a good war. From DW Griffith's 1915 silent Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation through to All Quiet on The Western Front, The Longest Day, The Great Escape, Platoon, The Dirty Dozen, Full Metal Jacket, MASH, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Jarhead, filmmakers have told and retold various conflicts from all sides. And has time has passed, the films have moved from being gun-ho glorifications of war (Ra Ra! USA!!) to graphic treatises of just how truly horrific and pointless war is. Thankfully, Mel Gibson's true-life story falls into the latter category.
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a religious man and a pacifist (he's a Seventh Day Adventist) who enlists in the US Army as a medic in World War II - and he is determined to never pick up a weapon, never fire a shot, and never kill anyone. When he gets to the fields of battle, he sticks to his guns and never picks up a gun; in fact, at the Battle of Okinawa, he saves 75 men without firing a shot, for which he was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As with Kubrick's masterpiece Full Metal Jacket, Hacksaw Ridge is a film of two halves. In the first we first meet Desmond as a boy in Virginia, whose strong moral values are instill by father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a WWI veteran, and mother Bertha (Rachel Griffith). As a young man we see Desmond meet, fall for and wed nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before he enlists for the war and heads off to boot camp, where he comes under the command of bullying drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). Doss's "conscientious objection" to picking up and firing a gun cause him all sorts of problems with his platoon as well as those in power, but he persists, determined to go off to war and do what he can as a medic to save lives.
The second half is a full-on war movie as Doss and his platoon head to the field of battle as the US forces attempt to take Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese. And it's here that the film really comes into its own as a powerful and moving essay on the true forrors of war. As Spielberg did with Saving Private Ryan, Gibson does not pull his punches - he wants to show the true, horrifying reality of war, and here he succeeds. The battle scenes are loud, messy and gory, with bodies being torn apart, limbs being ripped from bodies, rats feeding on the corpses strewn across the ground - the carnage is explicit, and all the audience's senses are assaulted. And through it all Doss ducks and dives and carries his comrades to safety - the same comrades who beat him in the barracks back at boot camp because he was a pacifist.
War films should never glorify war - they should move you as they disgust you, and make you hate war with every fibre of your being. A war film should be a horror movie, one that should shake and terrify each and every member of the audience. War IS hell, and that is exactly what should come across on the screen; this should be a "fun" film to watch, it should be harrowing and uncomfortable. Gibson has done a superb job with Hacksaw Ridge, delivering a visceral, powerful and satisfying tale of man who does what he truly believes is right and honorable depsite all the obstacles put in his way.
As you would expect from looking at the cast involved, the performances are all perfect. Garfield show great acting chops in the central role, portraying Desmond Doss with surpising guts and determination in spite of his feelings about war. Gibson has called upon a regiment of top Australian talent (much of the film was shot in Australia) such as Palmer, Griffith and Weaving - with Weaving in particular giving one of the most powerfully emotional turns we have yet seen from him. Vaughn is errific as the tough drill sergeant, with Sam Worthington as great as always as the platoon's captain. Hacksaw Ridge is a great comeback film for Gibson after his few years in the wilderness. The film received an almost 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September 2016, and was nominated for six Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, winning two. In years to come, hacksaw Ridge will be listed alongside the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket as the great films about the true horror of war.
EXTRAS: No audio commentary from Mel, unfortunately. The bonus material there is consists of: the featurette The Soul of War: Making Hacksaw Ridge (1:09:43), a fascinating almost feature-length documentary about all aspects of the filmmaking process, as well as the real man who the film is about, Desmond Doss; a Veterans Day Greeting With mel Gibson (1:02); the featurette A Conflict of Faith (10:00); and six Deleted Scenes (4:26).