Powerful. Compelling. Inspiring. Overwhelming. These are just a few of the inadequate words that come to mind when I think about Hacksaw Ridge.
I’ve just got back from an advance screening of this new movie directed by Mel Gibson based on the true life story of World War II medic Desmond Doss. It stars Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths.
Now if you haven’t heard about this movie, then so much the better because you are in for a moving and very entertaining experience. Desmond Doss was a real person who signed up for the Army in the rush of most every young man enlisting after the bombing of Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. However, unlike every other enlistee, Desmond refused to touch a rifle. He was a conscientious objector who wanted to serve his country and he was very very serious about his pacifist beliefs. It’s no spoiler, but just a matter of history, that Doss made it through boot camp despite the best efforts of his fellow soldiers and superior officers to stop him and he ended up in combat in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. As you can imagine, life was not easy for him in boot camp but it got much worse when he actually went to war.
Now just to set the stage for you, the 82-day long battle was one of the bloodiest in all of World War II, a series of fights to take control of the Ryuku Islands and included the single largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War when Okinawa itself was invaded. There were an estimated loss of somewhere between 82,000 and 110,000 people when you add up all the dead, including 14,000 Allied soldiers and a shocking 77,000 Japanese soldiers. The toll was simply unbelievable and part of the casualty count were cases of pure mental breakdown.
According to the account of the battle presented in Marine Corps Gazette:
“More mental health issues arose from the Battle of Okinawa than any other battle in the Pacific during World War II. The constant bombardment from artillery and mortars coupled with the high casualty rates led to a great deal of men coming down with combat fatigue. Additionally the rains caused mud that prevented tanks from moving and tracks from pulling out the dead, forcing Marines (who pride themselves on burying their dead in a proper and honorable manner) to leave their comrades where they lay. This, coupled with thousands of bodies both friend and foe littering the entire island, created a scent you could nearly taste.”
Into this hell hole went private Desmond Doss and his company in the final days of the battle to take the island. As told in the book, The Unlikeliest Hero by author Booton Herndon and translated for the screen by Andrew Knight, Randall Wallace and Robert Schenkkan, Doss got stuck up on a high ridge overnight after a desperate day of fighting. He was the only fit man left up there, with no support and no weapon in hand, yet rather than come down like all the rest of his company had in a massive fall back, he stayed all night and single handedly saved 75 wounded and left-for-dead soldiers by lowering them from that ridge to the beach below.
There are countless ways that this story could have been told, but with Mel Gibson at the helm, I think this movie is a cinematic masterpiece. I don’t use that word lightly. If you remember Braveheart or Apocalypto, you know that Gibson can do combat scenes amazingly well. I have seen a lot of war movies and never have I seen the horrors of war depicted better than in this movie, and that includes Saving Private Ryan. The violence is relentless and you feel for every one of these poor men fighting to take a piece of real estate from the Japanese, who were so desperate at this point in the war that they were starting to enlist teenage boys and girls in the front lines as well as liberally using kamikaze tactics.
But it’s not just the combat scenes that are so well produced. Every part of this movie builds up a sequence of events where it is very clear how and why Doss had the beliefs that he had and why he stuck to them as strongly as he did. This recalls Gibson’s other often forgotten directorial work in the softer Man Without a Face. He gets some of the best performances of their careers from Andrew Garfield and Sam Worthington, but everyone here really came to work, especially supporting actors Vince Vaughn and Hugo Weaving. I honestly didn’t think that Worthington was up to this level of performance, but I was wrong. One of the genius moves with Gibson as a director is his ability to show a scene with little to no dialogue and yet have the characters communicate what would be paragraphs of text and emotion in lesser films. No one was wasted in this movie and no one showed up to set just to collect a paycheck. This is solid work all around, with some very long takes and truly breathtaking cinematography
Finally, I need to comment on the real life Desmond Doss, who is the real center of this movie. Andrew Garfield said that Doss, who died in 2006, was “a wonderful symbol of embodying the idea of live and let live no matter what your ideology is, no matter what your value system is, just to allow other people to be who they are and allow yourself to be who you are.” Hero doesn’t even begin to describe Desmond Doss, a man of simple grace and intense belief who never ever backed down from what he believed was right and who, in the end, won a Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery without ever even holding a weapon.
This movie uses an intense level of violence to tell a story about the power of belief and pacifism, about going against the grain and defying what almost every single person in your life is telling you to do. Beyond that, it’s not just bucking the system or being who you are that is the central focus of this movie, it’s that there is no greater power than the power of belief and what we can do because of it.
We all know how belief, especially religious belief, can bring out the very worst in people. I’ve talked extensively about that on my channel. Yet do we really look often enough at how it can also bring out the very best in us? I don’t think we do. I think it’s far too easy for us to degrade and denigrate other people when they don’t share our own beliefs. What do tolerance and understanding mean? What kind of power do we grant others when we really let them believe as they want to and let them get on with their lives? Well, in the case of Doss, it resulted in a feat of unmatched bravery and truly, a kind of miracle. There were 75 combat veterans who lived because of what Doss believed and what he did. That is a powerful statement and I don’t think this movie could have done a better job of making it. According to Deadline.com, is received a 10-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the 73rd Venice Film Festival and I totally believe that.
This movie gets an unequivocal rating of Sheer Awesomeness from me. I cannot recommend more highly that you see this movie and see it on the big screen where it deserves to be seen. I can almost guarantee you won’t regret it, but you let me know in the comments what you think. I’d love to hear from you and know what you get from this.
Thank you for watching.