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Hacksaw Ridge


From the brink of extinction, out of the ashes of time it rises. Yes I'm back on reviewing duties. Now I still have dozens of reviews kicking about in various places that I need to organise and post in my Movie Musings thread. However with this being a current film I wanted to get it out there just now so I've revived this thread for the time being.


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Year of release
2016

Directed by
Mel Gibson

Written by
Andrew Knight
Robert Schechkkan

Starring
Andrew Garfield
Vince Vaughn
Sam Worthington
Hugo Weaving
Teresa Palmer
Luke Bracey

Hacksaw Ridge

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Plot - 471 military personnel were the recipient of the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions during World War II. Of those 471 individuals, only one of them received the honor without firing a single shot. That man was Desmond Doss (Garfield), an army medic who became the first ever conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His religious beliefs meant that he would not even touch a gun, let alone fire it. Despite this, he still volunteered to serve his country and would go on to do so with great bravery. His anti-gun stance certainly doesn't endear him to his fellow soldiers; during training he is marked out for abuse, both physical and verbal, as those around him attempt to drive him to the point of quitting. Doss' incredible conviction and determination will not allow him to give up however, and eventually begins to win over those who have doubted him. And when Doss does arrive in the field, at the hellish spectacle of Hacksaw Ridge, he will display a level of bravery that is tough to top.

Courage. It's a quality that features in just about every war film ever made. What sets Hacksaw Ridge apart from the crowd is the very different face of courage that it presents to us. I've seen my fair share of war films over the years and there's one thing I always come away with from them; the thought that I could never do that in a million years! I just can't conceive of the bravery required to do such a thing. Well the hero of Hacksaw Ridge goes a step beyond even that. Not only does he throw himself into the hellish fray of war, he does so without a weapon at his side! To put yourself in such a situation with no way of defending yourself strikes me as pure insanity. Well pure insanity or one of the most incredible examples of valour I've ever heard of. It's definitely one of those two.

His bravery is not restricted merely to the battlefield. Before we even reach the blood-soaked expanse of Hacksaw Ridge we are treated to numerous examples of Desmond Doss' courage and conviction. It's no surprise to find that his unconventional stance not only confused, but actually angered those that he served under and alongside. At every turn he finds someone pouring scorn on his beliefs and urging him to pick up a gun. No matter how often he is confronted by such attitudes however, and no matter how physical or abusive the treatment becomes, Doss never allows it to break him. He maintains and stands up for his beliefs throughout. And as for the actual actions that earned him his Medal of Honor, well they're extraordinary. So extraordinary in fact that for the film to work it really does need that tag of being 'based on a true story'. Without that you would just dismiss it as fantastical nonsense. It turns out however that truth is indeed stranger, and more amazing, than fiction. And the fact that it has taken so long for this story to be committed to film really is something of a mystery. I can only guess that perhaps Hollywood didn't know what to do with such an unconventional hero; he's not exactly Rambo after all. Films tend to prefer their heroes to be men of action, and by his own admission Desmond Doss was a man of inaction, at least when it came to taking up arms against his enemy.

In charge of conveying this incredible true story is Mel Gibson, making his return behind the camera after a ten-year absensce. Now if there is one thing above everything else that Gibson has proved as a director it's that he certainly knows how to deliver when it comes to grand spectacle, and that remains the case with this film. He is of course no stranger to delivering warfare on the big screen. Twenty years ago he not only directed but starred in Braveheart, depicting the 13th century war between England and Scotland. The manner in which Gibson has tackled the respective bloodshed however is quite different. Now don't get me wrong, Braveheart is not a film that skimps on the gore of war. It does however feature moments of levity (lifting the kilts en masse) and moments designed to have you enthusiastically pumping your fist in the air (Freedom!). There are no such crowd-pleasing concessions to be found in Hacksaw Ridge. The warfare that Gibson presents here is truly horrific; it's relentlessly ugly, it's inhumanely brutal and it shows some of the very worst things that humanity has ever done to itself.

I can understand war films inspiring people to join the armed forces for numerous reasons; being moved by the bravery of those that have gone before them and wanting to honour them by enlisting themselves for example. However I staunchly believe that no-one should be inspired because a film makes war look 'cool'. If that is the case then that individual is either mentally unsound or the film has been reckless and irresponsible in glorifying war. Well I certainly can't see anyone finding the combat of Hacksaw Ridge to be an appealing prospect. Now I'm sure that some people who view this film will take issue with its graphic portrayal of warfare; they'll argue that a film chronicling the life of a pacifist should not be so incessantly explicit with its violence, that the film is being hypocritical with its message. Well I don't consider this to be the case. I think that by presenting events in such an unflinching, and sadly realistic way, it highlights just how strong Desmond Doss' convictions were. It's one thing to say that you won't pick up a weapon when you're just in training, but to maintain that position when you're right in the thick of it, face-to-face with such horror, is a true testament to his character and certitude.

Film Trivia Snippets - History has it that Desmond Doss was responsible for saving 75 lives at Hacksaw Ridge. In reality it was likely much more than that as several witnesses who were there that day said that the total number was closer to 100. Doss himself, who was always very humble and modest about his accomplishments, had claimed only to have saved around 50 men. /// Descmond Doss is sadly no longer with us, having passed in 2006. His son, Desmond Jr., is still alive however and has seen the film. According to Mel Gibson he was moved to tears by the film and how accurate Andrew Garfield's portrayal of his father was. /// Hacksaw Ridge received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on the 4th of September. Following its screening the film received a standing ovation from those in attendance that lasted for 9 minutes and 48 seconds. Those exact numbers came from Mel Gibson himself, having personally timed it. /// The incredible story of Desmond Doss could actually have hit the big screen for the first time well over half a century ago. Casablanca producer Hal B. Wallis had tried to buy the rights to his story back in the 1950s with the intention that Audie Murphy would star in the lead role. Doss however had no interest in motion pictures and didn't want his story turned into a typical Hollywood movie.
If there's one criticism I would have of Gibson's direction it's that just on occasion he strays a little too far into the territory of canonising his subject. The actual feats that Desmond Doss performed are enough on their own to convince us of his heroic standing; Gibson doesn't need to force this feeling upon us. There's one moment, one image, in particular that harks back to one of Gibson's previous works, The Passion of the Christ. You almost feel like he is christening Doss as the second coming. Helping to balance out this eulogising admiration is the performance of Andrew Garfield as the stout-hearted Doss. I think it could actually be quite easy to turn against someone like Doss if the man portraying him really pushed his heroism, making him seem like the holier-than-thou individual that his fellow soldiers initially believe him to be. Instead, Garfield grounds his performance with a quiet dignity and grace that makes for a very honourable and likeable personality.

Given the group dynamic you find amongst the soldiers, war films are often real ensemble pieces. In this instance though, Hacksaw Ridge feels like a predominantly one-man show. Though Garfield does receive solid support all the way around. In particular I feel that I should give a mention to Vince Vaughn of all people, and no-one is more surprised about that than I am. He takes on the role of Doss' drill sergeant, Sergeant Howell, and it's about the most I've ever liked a performance of his. As a result I also have to give credit to Mel Gibson for having the vision to cast him as he certainly wouldn't be the most obvious candidate for the role. Where you to run through the roster of Hollywood actors alphabetically, Vince Vaughn, with those double V's, would place quite near the bottom of the list. However where you to run through the roster in terms of who'd be the most obvious choice, then I think he'd be even lower! Rather bizarrely, given the film's war context, it may also be just about the funniest I've ever found Vaughn to be.

For anyone who has seen even a small handful of war films in their lifetime there are several elements here that will feel comfortably familiar. For example we are treated to the none-more-traditional scene in which the drill sergeant, the aforementioned Vince Vaughn, dresses down his troops with a series of scathing but amusing insults. And while having a conscientious objector as the protagonist may provide a new twist, the actual journey that the character undertakes is rather familiar. The only difference being that it would usually feature a black man in his place; a black man who would overcome all the oppression and intimidation, gradually win over his comrades and prove himself to be a hero beyond all reckoning - Cuba Gooding Jr. in Men of Honor for example.

The opening exchanges of the film are predominantly dedicated to a budding romance that the lovestruck Doss strikes up with a local nurse portrrayed by Teresa Palmer. While I can imagine some people finding their relationship to be just a bit too precious, verging on the saccharine, I persnally found it to be utterly charming. To be honest much of the time that is spent depicting the pre-war home life of Doss is on the soapy side but I found that it worked, even if sublety is often left on the sidelines. In fact you could perhaps argue that subtlety is in short supply throughout the film as a result of some clichéd scenes and dialogue. However between the performance of Andrew Garfield, the powerfully delivered scenes of combat and just the story of Desmond Doss, I was certainly able to overlook any of those potential nitpicks.

Conclusion - Around these parts I'm aware that it's films like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea that are getting the most love amongst the Oscar contenders. And that by comparison, Hacksaw Ridge may be a more traditional, old school slice of Hollywood filmmaking. However I personally found it a much easier story to invest in. It may not revolutionise the war film but it is a damn solid addition to the genre and the plethora of World War II movies in existence. Welcome back Mel.