A soldier who doesn’t believe in killing or violence? Seems like a bit of a dichotomy, but that is the true story of Desmond Doss: a medic in World War Two who saved hundreds of lives.
The story begins in Doss’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia when he is just a child, and his father (Hugo Weaving), a Great War veteran, encourages him to fight with his brother: it doesn’t end well and Desmond contemplates the consequences of his actions while considering the ten commandments, particularly the one that his mother (Rachel Griffiths) tells him is the worst: Thou shalt not murder.
Fast forward a few years to Desmond in his late teens (played from here on by an excellent Andrew Garfield): a good Christian boy who wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the education for it. When he helps save a man trapped under a car and fashions a tourniquet from his belt, he ends up accompanying him to the hospital and falls in love with a young nurse named Dorothy on first sight. He courts and eventually woos her and tells her of his desire to help people and his interest in medicine; she lends him books on anatomy which he devours.
At this point in the film, WW2 is well underway and Pearl Harbour has just happened; all the local young men are enlisting, including Desmond’s brother, which infuriates his father, who suffers from PTSD and depression as a result of his service. Desmond feels it is his duty to sign up too, but wants to be a medic as he feels that way he will be saving people, not killing them. But despite his noble intentions, Desmond faces trouble when he becomes Private Doss in the army.
Doss’s problem is, he refuses to even touch a gun, and all military personnel are required to carry one when serving and must pass the rifle requirements to qualify for the forces. He endures mockery and physical violence from his cohorts who continually bate him, and punishment from his Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and Captain (Sam Worthington), but sticks firmly to his belief.
It seems like Sergeant Howell has some sort of sympathy or understanding for him, but the Captain wants to try to make things as difficult for Doss as possible in an attempt to make him quit. I was surprised to see Vince Vaughn in such a serious role, but he pulls it off with aplomb; the stereotypical drill sergeant that shouts and spits in the faces of all his privates as he puts them through their paces in training. Though not quite as terrifying as R. Lee Ermmey in Full Metal Jacket, and there’s an emotional side to his character as well as he tries to understand Doss and this side comes through again when he fights on the battlefield.
He is eventually allowed onto the battlefield with his unit, and it is a violent affair. It’s probably more gory representation of war than Saving Private Ryan, but with the comradery of Band of Brothers. For Doss, who is so brave in the face of danger when it comes to helping and saving others, the battlefield is almost easier for him than training camp when he had to fight for his right not to carry a weapon.
As the US fight as against the Japanese, the film portrays war as truly brutal. Shots are fired, grenades are thrown, the Japanese spear men with their bayonets, blood and guts fly, literally. It’s not the easiest of watches. I’m not particularly squeamish and I flinched and yelped several times as men had their legs blown off and tried to stuff their own guts back in.
Amidst the violence and mayhem, It’s Doss’s faith, that he so adamantly stuck by throughout training, that helps him survive Hacksaw Ridge, the eponymous battleground that the soldiers fight on, named so because it is at the top of a sheer cliff face that looks like it has been hacked off. Doss always carries with him a picture of his girl Dorothy inside her miniature Bible, which fits neatly in his breast pocket. I did wonder if he was going to get shot in the chest and saved by the Bible: it’s cheesy, but hey, it is a Mel Gibson film.
Gibson seems to have redeemed himself with this film, earning nominations for Best Director and Best Film at several of the big award ceremonies, including the Oscars, after years of controversy and faux pas, remember Passion of the Christ? The film is well shot with Hacksaw Ridge seeming bleak and immense, with clever use of the fog on the battlefield. As discussed in my previous blog, I think it could win the Oscar for Best Film Editing (won the BAFTA), and for Sound Editing.
The star of the film is Andrew Garfield, who’s voice is slightly grating, but in fact is a spot on impersonation of the real Desmond Doss (who is shown in footage at the end of the film). Garfield dropped of the radar after he was ditched as Spiderman after just two films, but this really shows his talents as an actor. He’s had a busy couple of years while he’s been out of the limelight filming Hacksaw and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. This is a demanding role, both physically and emotionally, but he nails it. My only criticism is that his hair remains perfectly coiffed throughout, even on the battlefield. That’s a lot of product to maintain such a beautiful quiff. I thought the army made you shave your head?!
Perfect hair and all, Garfield has already won several accolades for the role, including Critics Choice for Best Actor in an Action Movie, and awards at Palm Springs and London Critics Choice, but it unlikely to pick up the Best Actor Oscar as he faces tough competition from the likes of Casey Affleck, Ryan Gosling and Denzel Washington.
Hacksaw Ridge is a unique and captivating story and it’s wonderful when true and inspiring stories like this can be told to millions of people through the medium of film. It’s hard to believe that this really happened, that there is someone so brave and selfless as this in the world. He was the first man to receive the Medal of Honor without ever firing a weapon, and until his dying day remained humble and dignified.