In every war, there is brutality and in every battle, there are casualties. Despite the erroneous nature of warfare, there arise tales of human strength, dignity, and compassion in places where one would expect savagery, cowardice, and selfishness. At the Battle of Okinawa, a man and his Virginian accent, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), became the first Conscientious Objector to be rewarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 50 men as he claimed, but 100 men as witnesses had claimed. Doss settled on recognizing he saved “approximately 75” fellow soldiers by carrying each of the casualties one-by-one away from the war zone- all without the protection of a gun, which he refused to touch in training, let alone carry in battle. In Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson was even forced to downplay various acts of Doss’s heroism in order for Doss’s story to be accepted by audiences as believable.
The story of Desmond Doss is one that filmmakers have wanted to present on the silver screen for decades, producers knowing the appeal of his story to American audiences and attempting to persuade Doss that a film about his life should be made. In 2001, screenwriter/producer Gregory Crosby was finally able to convince Doss and wrote a treatment for a script. Doss desired that the film accurately reflect both the horror in war and the conviction of his faith and the film remained in development hell until Mel Gibson agreed to direct Hacksaw Ridge.
In the film, Gibson is able to illustrate Doss’s youth and upbringing, dedicating about half of the film’s screen time to Doss’s childhood and initial military training. In some ways, particularly involving Doss’s cluelessness about love in pining after a nurse he meets, his childhood is adorable, but it is arguably Doss’s father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), who influenced him the most in becoming the man he was at Hacksaw Ridge.
Tom was a soldier who survived the Great War and witnessed the deaths of many of his friends. Hinted as once being religious, he lost his faith and became an alcoholic, clearly shook by his experiences fighting, and physically abused his wife and children. One night Desmond wakes up to hear his parents yelling and sees his father threatening his mother and pointing a gun at her. He disarms his father and points the gun at him, his father breaking down into tears. That night influenced Desmond to vow never to touch a gun again.
Desmond is drawn to enlist following the attack at Pearl Harbor since he desires to act responsibly and assist the war effort as a medic. He knows he would feel guilt and cowardice if he did not enlist. Tom fears greatly for Desmond because of his refusal to carry a weapon, but he comes to recognize and respect his son’s objections to violence and the strength of his faith.
Mel Gibson films the frenzy of warfare with accuracy, depicting men suffering excruciating pain from rather unsightly wounds. The first fighting starts at an instant, explosions lighting up the screen shortly thereafter at unexpected intervals. His depiction of war is jolting and would have satisfied Doss, the person, who desired the brutality and unrelenting nature of warfare to be emphasized, not glorified. The enemy at Hacksaw Ridge, the Japanese, are ruthless and would rather die than be captured alive to preserve their honor.
Through fighting, Gibson creates a motif of sorts out of the human body, perhaps reflecting the strength and utility of the human body and life. He shows a soldier using a body as a shield to charge the Japanese, a man hiding under a fellow dead soldier to avoid detection, a man who grabs a corpse and uses it to jump on a grenade to save the lives of nearby men, and the Japanese leader committing ritual seppuku upon defeat amongst other, for lack of better terms, creative uses of the human body. Despite the destruction of warfare, Gibson wishes to convey a humanistic tone through Hacksaw Ridge.
After the initial battle the soldiers retreat, unable to take Hacksaw Ridge for their own. All except Doss. He continues to treat the wounded and transport their bodies to the edge of the Ridge where he lowers them to the men below, anonymously. The men below are surprised, especially as a few injured Japanese soldiers are lowered as well. “One more, help me get one more” becomes Doss’s prayer to God and it is largely successful, resulting in the saving of those 75 men. He continues treating the wounded throughout the night and into the morning, right up until the next battle is to be fought.
At the military camp, the injured reveal who saved their lives- the men who had previously ridiculed Doss astonished by his heroism. When Doss finally lowers himself from the Ridge, he is taken to the camp where the men are assembling for another battle. They refuse to return to battle without Doss, but it is the Sabbath. Doss prays near the Ridge before the men ascend and another battle commences, resulting in victory. However, the pacifism message that Gibson wishes to express is undermined to an extent in these final scenes, the slow motion fighting seems epic and not nearly as repulsive as the fighting the previous day- the conflict resulting in certain victory for the Americans, contrasting the gloom and anti-war sentiment established during the night before.
A highlight of Hacksaw Ridge is Andrew Garfield’s acting as Desmond Doss. The best acting performances are the ones where not an ounce of the actor seems visible, where they are able to disappear into their role entirely. Garfield is able to express Doss’s belief in his faith, his charisma, and his courage in warfare in a way distinct to Doss’s character. We don’t see Garfield while watching Hacksaw Ridge. We see Doss, a determined savior of men, and the seemingly insurmountable challenges he faced at the Battle of Okinawa, protecting himself and others not by his weapons, but by his courage.