It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long to tell the tale of Desmond Doss on the big screen. Given the gazillion World War II films that have been made over the decades, the story of a pacifist conscientious objector who refused to brandish a weapon but ended up saving dozens of lives seems perfect for Hollywood to latch onto. It’s likely the fact that the motivations for Doss are couched both by religion and family violence, hardly usually the stuff that makes for an action blockbuster.
To Hacksaw Ridge‘s credit, it’s taken up this mantle, trying to make cinematic the exploits of this remarkable individual. I recommend you read the actual citation for Doss for his honours, the things he accomplished are near super human, demonstrating a tenacity both admirable and humbling. It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that the film chose to be a jingoistic, manipulative romp rather than something that dealt with the central irony, the soldier who refuses to fight, in a sympathetic way.
As much as one can rid their preconceptions about director Mel Gibson’s personal faults, it’s hardly revelatory to point out that his fascination with violence and redemption is at the heart of his work. He’s no stranger to meshing brutality with the sublime, and in this film he once again plows over-the-top violence with moments of solemnity, trying through brute force to craft this dichotomy. Unfortunately, despite languid slow-motion shots and teaming throngs of enemy soldiers swarming forth it all feels more like an exercise in sadism.
Even Doss’ greatest accomplishment is staged in a strange way – I can’t speak for the logistics of schlepping up a rope bridge to clamber the titular ridge, but the logistics of the assault seem visually flawed. Strictly from a battlefield perspective it doesn’t make a lot of sense, the high ground clearly a superior position, the rampaging enemy only needing to cut a single thread to prevent the advance. It’s the kind of simplification that I guess makes things even more black and white, and yet it once again signals that the film could use a lot more grey and lot less in the form of jingoistic, manipulative battlemongering.
Andrew Garfield is satisfactory in the role, making the best of the man’s moral anxiety while still coming across as sympathetic. The rest of the cast seem cookie cutter, and even the always preposterous Vince Vaughn seems to blend into the background at times. The film takes a while to get going, plowing through clichéd tropes of basic training until we’re thrust right into…1945? We just skip from his enlistment in 1942 right to the end of the land battle in the Pacific, again a complication about his “drive” to join following Pearl Harbor that doesn’t quite work chronologically.
Like most aspects, however, we’re not supposed to look too closely at Hackshaw Ridge, which is both its greatest flaw and likely its saving grace. People watching it will want some stuff to blow up and the feeling that the religiously motivated can elicit a miracle. It’s a film that doesn’t necessarily pretend to be more than it is, but it certainly drips with a solemnity and sadism that’s unfortunate. It’s an inadvertent spiritual sequel to Passchendaele, that truly egregious abomination of a film, and if Hacksaw ends up being not as shit as Gross’ gross flick then it’s a small, perhaps Pyrrhic, but nonetheless victorious moment.