Hacksaw Ridge (2016): Mel Gibson
Ten years and loads of tabloid covers passed between Mel Gibson’s previous directorial output Apocalypto and Hacksaw Ridge. Hollywood essentially blacklisted him for a decade partly for his deeply anti-Semitic remarks following a DUI arrest in 2006.
Hollywood, like America, loves second chances, and Gibson got one with this story of a man who went to war without fighting.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A conscientious objector and Army medic holds onto personal beliefs and saves dozens of lives without firing a shot during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Desmond Doss grew up as crazy as his old man. Fighting’, wrasslin’, gettin’ whoopins, Doss one day knocked his brother out with a brick during a scuffle. It set him straight.
Seeing the power of violence, Doss swears to never do so again. He also has an awakening one day in his early years, when he saves a boy’s life after a car fall on his leg. At the hospital that day he meets a right purty nurse.
Saving a life and meeting a hottie, such a day will change any man’s life. It’s love for that woman, love for his God, and, I guess, love for his country propelling Doss to join the Army and serve in his nation’s greatest hour of need.
Love for God and wife are unquestioned, but it’s the patriotism that remains an open question. As Doss explains to his father, all his buddies were “on fire to join up,” so he did too. Millions of other men felt the same way, joining because it seemed like the right thing to do AND because their buddies would be with them.
That’s certainly why Desmond’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) joined the fight in World War 1. That war wrecked him, and his fingerprints are all over young Desmond and the movie.
Tom is a drunk who “hates himself,” and takes it out on his family. One day he was angry who who knows what, and he pulled a gun on his wife. Desmond scrambled in at the last moment to point the gun away. Tom fired it anyway, into the roof. No one was harmed, physically, but the moment stuck with Desmond. It was the last time he would touch a weapon.
Doss is a Seventh Day Adventist, a Christian faith with a Saturday Sabbath and a prohibition on violence. Doss has seen the destructive power of violence, and he will join the Army, not to kill, but to save lives. “With the world so set on tearing itself apart,” he says, “it don’t seem like such bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
With a sly grin and determined attitude, Doss graduates basic training, thanks only to a last-minute save from a brigadier general Tom Doss fought with. Congress protects the rights of military noncombatants to serve, and Doss will not be kept out of the Army for refusing target practice.
The first half of Hacksaw Ridge follows Doss in America. The second half takes him to the hell of Okinawa, late in the war. The actual battle is covered in later sections, but it’s the moments in between the shooting where Doss shines.
“Lord, help me get one more,” is Doss’s late-night mantra after the first day of battle atop the ridge. That night and next day, Doss rescues more than 80 wounded men, some of them Japanese, and sends them down the ridge to safety.
The movie depicts him working alone throughout the night, under enemy fire, and sending the men downward as if an angel. These actions earned him the Medal of Honor, and unbelievable achievement for a person who never fired a shot in battle.
Andrew Garfield plays Doss with unbridled conviction and a sunny disposition, even in the nastiest of environments. His initial trip to a hospital evokes kid-in-toy-store vibes. Kids don’t grow up to work in toy stores, but they can grow up to become medics covered in blood, as Doss does.
You’d think the Japanese would be the villains, but that’s not true. Hacksaw Ridge poses the Army as the villain, a shocking idea for a World War 2 movie to have.
Doss is ridiculed and fought from day one in the Army. Howell calls him Private Cornstalk. Glover constantly asks him to drop the morals and get with the killing. He calls him “Son,” at least once, as clear a message of condescension as there is between men.
Doss is court-martialed for refusing orders, and he spends time in military jail. His barracks mates beat him bloody several times. Howell tells Doss, “It’s time you quit this.” Glover tells Doss, “Let the brave men go and win this war.”
The brave men do, and Doss is one of them. He never reneges on his beliefs. “It won’t be hard; it’ll be impossible.” That’s Papa Doss about trying to maintain one’s beliefs in a manic war. “If by some miracle chance you survive, you won’t be giving no thanks to God.”
Tom was wrong about Desmond. So were every soldier in the Army, and by movie’s end they all apologize for doubting him. Doss’s story is impressive and admirable, but he’s not like other men. Most folks picked up rifles and shot at their enemies. Many died. Doss did not, but he did suffer tuberculosis, which cost him a lung and five ribs.
The corn syrup budget must have comprised half the cash spent on Hacksaw Ridge. There’s plenty of gore to go around in the movie’s depiction of the siege of Hacksaw Ridge.
The movie’s first half deals with Doss’s trials (one literal trial) and tribulations from pledging to join the army to his deployment on Okinawa. The battle sequences are where the movie makes its mark.
Hacksaw Ridge is depicted as a large plateau on which are hundreds, perhaps thousands of embedded Japanese. Before Doss’s company climbs the ridge, we learn from the relieved unit that six times they tried to advance and six times they were thrown back. It’s the kind of carnage Papa Doss warned his boys about for years.
One day Doss and his brethren climb the rope ladder leading to the ridge. Rarely to people ascend into hell, but that’s what happens here. Blood drips on them from the recently shot.
The attack starts shortly after a naval artillery barrage on the ridge. Glover leads the assault into an area that resembles No Man’s Land. The soldiers walk over bodies, many of them torn in two in creative ways, always with an unhealthy does of guts trickling out like uncased sausage.
The Japanese strike before the smoke clears. Men are shot in the face and head in mid-sentence, beside their friends. A machine gunner is torn in half by bullets. Doss doesn’t wait long to save his first victim.
Smitty has a moment of grit. Pinned down behind a post, he uses the upper half of a dead body as a human shield, killing Japanese holding a crater. Smitty takes that crater.
It’s nasty up there. Gibson does a solid job orienting viewers during the chaos of the battle. Hacksaw Ridge, despite its height, is only a few steps from Hell. With all the pockmarks and rent iron, it’s hard to make sense of the landscape.
Yet the men have a clear objective. After taking an initial beating on the ridge, showing how the men react, the men reach a machine gun bunker. Dozens of Japanese fighters are inside and surround this bunker, and it’s clear the Americans must capture it to capture the ridge.
Howell leads the the attack. The GIs drop mortars and fire a bazooka at the concrete bunker, killing many but not stopping the barrage of bullets. Someone has an explosive device about the size of a backpack, and whoever tosses it inside the bunker will destroy it.
Volunteers creep ahead of the American line, into shell craters and out of sight of the enemy while his buddies lob the explosive pack toward him. One of Doss’s squad mates is the man to lob the device into the bunker. It explodes and rains concrete chunks onto the men.
That’s about it for battle sequences. Hacksaw Ridge is the story of a man who wouldn’t fight, so it does little good to show much fighting. However, those guys have to fight if Doss is to save them, and he spends most of the ensuing night and day doing so.
Credit to the crew for giving the battlefield a hellscape-ishness to it. That ridge could have been any battlefield. Nothing indicated it was on an island, in the Pacific, or that it occurred during World War 2.
Only Dorothy Schutte stands firmly beside her boyfriend/fiancé/husband. She’s a bird person, and into Doss from the get-go, as she agrees to attend a make out movie with him as their first date. When Doss kisses her, she slaps him, saying that he should have asked first.
Nothing wipes away that Doss smile, even when she’s mad at him for enlisting as a medic. He proposes to her at that moment, at her urging, and she agrees, only to say that she loves him but doesn’t like him much right now.
This gal’s got spunk. Unfortunately Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie and Schutte recedes after Doss leaves for basic training. She believes in her man, waiting at the altar for him on the day he’s thrown in jail for disobeying orders. Even her belief wavers. She tells Doss it’s just his pride and stubbornness preventing him from picking up a gun.
Hacksaw Ridge has plenty of Japanese to die, and we’ll watch them perish in interesting ways. We know, thanks to the returning troops, that six times the embedded Nipponese have driven back the Yanks. They are formidable, but their days are numbered.
A single American flamethrower kills several Japanese, before one of them shoots the gas tank and explodes the American. Many more Japanese die from bayonet and take many americans in the same manner.
Doss spends a long sequence exploring their intricate tunnel system. We see him wander halls branching and forking and tall enough in which to stand upright. That comes as a surprise and hard to believe.
The Japanese try a dirty trick late in the movie. Haggard, dirty, and threadbare, a group of them raise the white flag. It’s a lie. The men in their underwear light grenades and toss them. Most GIs survive the dastardly attack. Did they try this in the actual battle? I’ll leave that to historians.
Mel Gibson movies, if you don’t know by now, are gory. He makes violence as if he’s paid by the gallon of gore. Hacksaw Ridge is no exception, of course, as dozens of mangled, red bodies and detached parts are on display, framed with only dirt, the less to distract you with.
You’ll see guys with a leg missing, two legs missing, legs detached, heads shot, and bodies on fire. Many, many bodies are burned by flamethrowers, more so than I believe took place in real life. Helps up the hellishness, though.
Doss does most of his work at night, sneaking around the deserted battlefield. He grabs an injured person and drags or carries him back to the ridge edge, ties him with his special knots, and lowers him dozens of feet to relative safety.
So there’s less stunt work than you might imagine for a war movie. No one is flying planes or driving tanks. A couple of naval barrages, possibly CGI, accompany the attacks. Hand-to-hand combat doesn’t last long either, as men are tired and stab each other with bayonets first chance they get.
That’s fine with me. World War 2 battles were long slogs. Many died from random shots, or were blown up with bombs, grenades, and mortars, of which we see plenty. Soldiers got tired or shot quickly, as is human nature. It’s hard to sustain life-or-death energy for too long.
Doss spends a night alone saving man after man. His hands are bloody from running ropes. (Why not use a shirt on the ropes?) Next morning, he’s showing little signs of fatigue. Few living soldiers are left. One of them is Howell.
Doss approaches his commanding officer hours after first applying a tourniquet to his shot leg. Howell seems no worse for wear, and will probably live to be 95 if he can survive the afternoon. That will be a problem, as a sniper is currently attacking their position.
Howell targets the sniper after the enemy shoots Doss in his helmet, and kills him. Suddenly a bunch of Japanese are onto their position. They have to leave now. Doss asks for Howell’s rifle, the first and only time he’s touched a gun in his Army career.
But not to shoot it. Doss wraps a blanket around the gun, dragging Howell on it, while the latter shoots the approaching Japanese. They aren’t shot, but the enemy is angry. After Doss lets Howell down, he ties himself to a dead body and leaps over the edge as the Japanese approach. Doss’s buddies on below kill the overzealous enemies.
That’s not the end of the movie. The men are ordered to attack again the next day. Problem is, that’s Saturday, Doss’s Sabbath. Will he attack with them? His colleagues, for their part, refuse to fight without Doss their to drag them to safety.
Doss prays about it, and God apparently tells him it’s OK this one time to go into battle on Saturday.
So battle they do. Plenty of slow motion shooting and flame throwing accompanies the battle. We know what Hacksaw Ridge looks like, and Gibson sees little reason to go over it again.
The Japanese wave a white flag and emerge from a crater in their underwear. Turns out it was a dirty trick, as they light grenades and throw them at the surrounding Americans.
Doss is there, and he reacts by roundhouse kicking one lit grenade, which explodes and sends him twirling around. Now, finally, it is Doss’s turn to be dragged away.
And that just about wraps ‘er up. Actual footage ends the movie, showing the real Desmond Doss receiving the only Medal of Honor ever awarded to a conscientious objector. The real Doss speaks about his time in the war, as does the real Glover.
I found these videos the most touching moments of the movie. Perhaps a documentary would have been a better choice to tell this story. Then again, Hacksaw Ridge was up for Best Picture.
Howell is funny. You’d expect Vince Vaughn to be funny, and he is, but not in the way Vince Vaughn is usually funny. Many raised eyebrows must have accompanied news that Vaughn would play a drill sergeant in a war movie, but he does a fine job.
Nevertheless, he’s the man to hand out nicknames to the sorriest bunch of mud munchers he’s ever seen. The ghoulish-looking guy becomes Ghoul. The naked guy is Hollywood. Doss is dubbed Cornstalk. Good name. “Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds,” he says.
I’ve said plenty about the placelessness of Hacksaw Ridge. I can’t decide if this helps or hurts the movie. I would like some idea of where Okinawa is, but all we get is Glover telling his men that if they take the island they can take Japan. Okinawa’s close by. I get it.
Is it fair to ask someone else to do your killing for you? Doss several times needs his fellow troops to kill Japanese because he won’t. I think it’s not. I support Doss’s stance of nonviolence, but his commanding officers make good points about the enemy. They won’t lay down their arms because he won’t pick one up.
However, why would Doss serve on the front lines? He’s a medic, and medics need to survive to save the shooters. He never should have been on that ridge during the first charge. Perhaps that’s failed movie logic and not the Army’s misguidedness.
“This is Satan himself we’re fighting.” That’s an Army psychiatrist evaluating Doss’s fitness for duty. The doctor thinks Doss is insane, after making a statement like that.
The doctor exemplifies all the wrong thinking about war. Considering the other side purely evil makes war easy to accept. It continues today and will continue for a long time. It’s why Japan thought it natural and right to attack the United States and invade all the places it invaded. The Axis of Evil shit needs to die. Doss was right. Violence doesn’t solve problems.
No director makes more successful religious-friendly movies than Mel Gibson, not now, probably not ever. Desmond Doss has unusual beliefs (to WASPy Americans, though most Indians would find little strange about nonviolent vegetarians), but they are treated fairly.
Doss was an interesting subject for Gibson, who is well known for starring in violent movies and for making even more violent ones.
If offense is to be taken, it must come with its depiction of the Japanese. They are not a faceless enemy, but a voiceless one. Not as invisible as the Germans in Dunkirk, the Japanese in Hacksaw Ridge embody all stereotypes of Japanese soldiers–they are suicidal, they never give up, they are deeply embedded in the landscape.
- (3) Automatic war movie bonus.
- During the battle Doss tells another soldier, “I never claimed to be sane.” He claimed exactly that to the Army psychiatrist.
- Not many movies feature a blood cloud.
Summary (34/68): 50%
The soldier who wouldn’t fight, Desmond Doss, makes a good story, and in Hacksaw Ridge that story is well told. Six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and two wins, proved that Hollywood accepts Mel Gibson again. On to his remake of The Wild Bunch. Should be a bloodless afternoon at the cinema when that one hits the big screen.