Hacksaw Ridge review: Where war and peace collide

Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie where the lead character won’t bear arms. A curious premise, but it turns out it’s worth a shot: The movie – Mel Gibson’s first directorial attempt in over a decade – is definitely a compelling watch. 

The film tells the amazing true story of Desmond Doss, the first and only “conscientious objector” to win the Medal of Honor during World War II. As America readys to invade Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbour, Doss volunteers for the army despite his conviction to never hold a weapon.

Doss, you see, is a Seventh-Day Adventist, holding the words “Thou Shalt Not Kill” close to his heart. Beyond that, two events earlier in his life have strengthened that resolve: Him nearly killing his own brother in a fight, as Cain would do unto Abel, and another involving his abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving with a wavering accent). Doss volunteers instead as a combat medic, and despite being derided as a liability at the frontlines, he persists, even when threatened with military prison. It might seem insane, but truth is stranger than fiction – and Doss becomes a hero without firing a shot. 

There’s a lot of setup before we actually get to the action, and the first half meanders through Doss’ life, informing us on what drives a man like Doss. Good thing, then, that we have Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) in the role. Garfield’s earnest grin and lovable puppy-dog demeanour go a long way in helping us get into Doss’ mind – little wonder that Garfield’s been nominated for an Oscar.

But it’s not a war movie without war, and the movie truly kicks in once we hit the frontlines in Okinawa, where American soldiers try to take the titular “Hacksaw Ridge”. Here, it becomes a Mel Gibson movie through and through, with violence in full swing. The horrors of war are juxtaposed with Doss heroic efforts to save lives in the face of death. It doesn’t glorify war per se, but it’s something to note when the movie only really gets good once we get into the violence.

Just A Little Faith

Here is where the movie succeeds or fails – in the eye of the viewer. During my viewing there was one person who would laugh – derisively – each time Doss did something mind-blowingly insane to save a life, and one would assume such a person is not alone. But yet, even director Mel Gibson had to leave out certain events in Doss life that he felt no audience could believe. And so, in a movie about faith, we need to have a bit of faith to believe it.

 

As a Christian and a Medic – even I admit to moments where it is difficult to reconcile Doss’ sheer, almost improbable acts of courage. And therein lies the movie’s purpose, that through the story of a single man one might begin to see the bigger picture –  whether about God, or about what a man can achieve with conviction. 

The Redemption Of Mel Gibson

It’s not possible to discuss the movie without examining the director himself. Mel Gibson, the man with a dark past, creates yet another faith-based film. He’s been out of the headlines for a long time now, and while it’s unclear if he’s a changed man – it appears that this is part of his path to redemption. On a pure movie level, it shows that Mel Gibson is a great director, especially when it comes to carnage.

Hacksaw Ridge is a movie that needs to be chewed on, even amid the spectacle of death. On the front lines, whether powered by faith or by the obligation to save your fellow man, how many of us would have the wherewithal to state death in the face like Doss?

Those aren’t easy questions, especially when bodies drop to the floor constantly, their guts spilling out. But while Hacksaw Ridge posits that one can win a war without violence, there is some irony in how it can’t tell its story without the said violence. But let’s not take away from it’s spectacle – in full swing, Hacksaw Ridge is amazing to watch, and Doss’ story more amazing still.

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