I’ve already reviewed Hacksaw Ridge previously on my blog, but I rented it at my local Redbox recently and decided to rewatch it – and yes, it’s just as incredible the second time. I’d like to go a little bit more in-depth with this movie, which I regard as one of the best of 2016.
In case you missed it, Hacksaw Ridge grossed over $175 million worldwide, received six Oscar nominations (winning two), got a 10-minute standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and was listed as one of the top ten films of the year by the American Film Institute. It’s also a big comeback for its director, Mel Gibson, and has further cemented its star, Andrew Garfield, as a major Hollywood A-lister.
As mentioned in my original review, the plot revolves around the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss, an Army medic who felt duty-bound to enlist in World War II – but as a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he refused to fire a weapon or carry a gun into battle. He ended up saving the lives of 75 men and became the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The film’s first half shows Doss’s childhood and upbringing in rural Virginia, including his relationship with his parents and brother. Doss is raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, avoiding all forms of violence and attempting to live his life according to his Christian beliefs. He also has a difficult relationship with his father Thomas, who served in WWI and suffers from PTSD and alcoholism.
One day, Doss comes to the rescue of a man whose leg has been crushed by a car, saving him by using his own belt as a tourniquet. After helping take the injured man to the hospital, Doss offers to donate some blood and begins to chat with a pretty nurse named Dorothy Schutte. They take a liking to each other and soon start a relationship, while Doss, intrigued by the medical field, wants to enlist in WWII and serve as an Army medic.
During basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Doss refuses to touch a weapon, drawing the ire of his superiors, Captain Glover and Sergeant Howell. They attempt to get Doss kicked out of basic training via a Section 8 psychiatric discharge, but he insists that he can serve as a medic while retaining his pacifist beliefs. Doss’s fellow recruits abuse him mentally and physically, considering him a coward. Despite encountering many hurdles, Doss relies on his faith in difficult times and is eventually allowed to serve in the Army without being rifle-certified.
The second half of the film focuses on the Battle of Okinawa itself. The Americans are attempting to reclaim the island from Japanese forces, and the key to doing that is to take the eponymous ridge and beat back the Japanese soldiers guarding it.
Easier said than done.
The film’s battle sequences are uncompromisingly graphic and harrowingly realistic; they might even be better than Saving Private Ryan. I can’t even describe how many times my jaw dropped during the Okinawa scenes and I actually lost track of the body count very quickly. The cinematography and editing are exceptional at capturing this visceral battle. We get to see the atrocities of war up close and personal, especially the real physical agony of Doss’s duties – while having no method of defense. Doss’s constant refrain is “Please, Lord, let me get one more” as he continues to head into the fray, rescuing his buddies, surrounded by flying bodies, explosions, and bullets. Even when his unit is forced to retreat for the night, Doss stays up on the ridge, tending to the wounded and carrying them back.
One of the most powerful moments in the battle sequences is the culmination of Smitty’s character arc. Smitty (played by Australian actor Luke Bracey) is a hardcore, alpha-male soldier who has been one of Doss’s frequent tormentors, mocking him for his perceived cowardice. However, after seeing Doss rescue numerous men in the first assault on the ridge, Smitty sees the young medic’s value. The two men share a foxhole that night.
Smitty admits that he “learned how to hate quickly” growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage. Drawing upon a traumatic event in his childhood, Doss explains why his rejection of violence is an integral part of his faith and worldview. Smitty begins to begrudgingly give Doss some respect.
In the next assault on the ridge, Smitty is mortally wounded. And this tough guy is finally shown to have vulnerability, simply saying, “Doss, I’m scared” as Doss bandages his wounds and gives him a shot of morphine. Doss is then shown crying when he carries Smitty back down the ridge, knowing that his friend won’t make it. It’s such a simple and poignant scene that could have easily been overly melodramatic, but Gibson and his actors execute it so well.
Andrew Garfield is very good in this role. We see some film clips of the real Doss at the end of the film, and Garfield, in addition to the facial resemblance, really nailed the cadence of Doss’s walk and his charming country-boy personality.
Garfield was moved by the script and stated that he was drawn to Doss’s spiritual convictions. Previously well-known for playing Spider-Man, Garfield embraced the fact that he could play “a real-life superhero.”
“The fact that this man, who’s built like me, dragged men across the most rugged terrain under gunfire, the possibility of mortars and shells, and then lowered them down a 75-foot escarpment, not just once, but 75 times. It’s that kind of divine help,” Garfield remarked at the film’s premiere.
Garfield, a Brit, also does an excellent job with Doss’s thick southern accent. It’s common for actors to overdo regional accents like this – having grown up in Virginia and knowing how some people talk, I was initially afraid that the accent would come across as cheesy or overdone. But the real Doss had an extremely strong drawl, and Garfield nailed that part of the character, too. It’s worth mentioning that Doss’s son, Desmond Jr., saw the film at its premiere and was moved to tears by Garfield’s portrayal of his father.
“Mel makes films that, I think, get to the core of our humanity, and I think that everyone leaves his movies feeling deeply moved,” Garfield said in an interview.
Aussie actress Teresa Palmer was so excited to have the opportunity to work on Hacksaw Ridge that she auditioned simply by taking a video on her iPhone. After not hearing back for nearly a month, Palmer eventually got a Skype call from Gibson saying that she got the part of Dorothy Schutte Doss.
Meanwhile, Bracey read the script and was moved to tears. “I called my agent and said, ‘I’ll play a tree in this movie – anything just to be a part of it.’ Then I put myself on tape and luckily Mel responded to it,” Bracey said.
The entire film was shot in rural New South Wales – including the Blue Mountains, the outskirts of Sydney, and other locations. The filming schedule was only 59 days – half of the time Gibson had to shoot Braveheart. But the actors involved were always game to attack each day with intensity. “Everyone knew the importance of the story, and there were no egos on set,” remarked Bracey. “We were all aware of how lucky we were to be a part of this.”
And now onto the man behind the camera.
I’ve long been a fan of Mel Gibson as an actor, but especially as a director. His love of slow-motion shots is on full display in Hacksaw Ridge, and the sheer epic scale of the entire film is very Gibson-esque, echoing Braveheart. Simon Duggan’s cinematography really gives the film a genuine period piece feel that is difficult to recreate.
Apocalypto was actually the last film that Gibson had directed before Hacksaw Ridge, back in 2006. I was a big fan of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, but Apocalypto is a criminally underrated, beautifully-shot action film that deserves more praise.
The reason I bring it up is because this film feels like it takes the best elements of all of Gibson’s best-known films – the heroism and inspiring tone of Braveheart, the in-your-face graphic violence of Apocalypto, and the powerful spiritual themes of The Passion.
However, Hacksaw Ridge is also a departure for Gibson, because the protagonist doesn’t engage in any violence himself – in fact, quite the opposite. That’s what makes the film so incredible: the fact that a skinny young man who was so far out of his element in every way still managed to save so many people. World War II represents the polar opposite of Doss’s values, but he still knows he must serve the best way he knows how. “While everyone else is taking lives, I’m going to be saving them,” Doss tells his skeptical father early in the film.
Film critic/YouTube personality Chris Stuckmann (one of my personal favorites) said in his video review of Hacksaw Ridge that he saw another review from a prominent critic which claimed that the movie contradicted its message by glorifying violence, even though its protagonist doesn’t believe in violence. Stuckmann responded:
I personally don’t feel that way; I think that this film depicted its war scenes almost like a horror movie. They are terrifying….the battle scenes in this movie are frightening and brutally realistic. Nothing has been held back, and nothing about about it seemed Hollywood-ized or glamorous. The message is ‘This happened. This sucked. But here’s one guy who tried to do something good.’
Gibson himself stated that his goal was to show the brutality of war, adding that he was very pleased and moved to see that groups of veterans had enjoyed watching Hacksaw Ridge, and that he hopes that the film can shed light on PTSD issues. As Gibson put it – hate the war, but love the warrior.
This story is truly amazing on multiple levels. But, alas, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I’d like to address (warning: spoilers).
- Gibson actually modified the film’s ending, believing that audiences would find it too good to be true. In reality, Doss did not kick a grenade away from his fellow soldiers, wounding himself with shrapnel in the process. Actually, the story was even more amazing than that. Doss was, in fact, wounded in the legs by a grenade, but had to wait five hours before his fellow medics could reach him, during which time he dressed his own wounds. While Doss was being carried back to safety by three stretcher bearers, they were attacked by a Japanese tank. Doss crawled off the stretcher to a more seriously wounded man and insisted the others evacuate that soldier and then return for him. While waiting for the stretcher to return, Doss was shot by a sniper as another soldier attempted to come to his aid. This caused a compound fracture in his arm, for which he improvised a splint using a rifle stock before crawling 300 yards to an aid station for treatment.
- Another plot point that I heard had confused some audiences was the controversy surrounding Doss not being allowed to graduate basic training without being rifle-certified. Hacksaw Ridge never explicitly states it, but the Army did have a procedure for conscientious objectors in place at the time. The film adds to the tension by showing Doss being court-martialed for insubordination, until his father steps in and declares that, under U.S. law, his son’s pacifist beliefs are protected under the First Amendment.
- Other devout Adventists who served in WWII were classified as A1-Os, meaning that they were willing to serve in various capacities without carrying a weapon. The issue with Doss is that he wanted to directly serve on the frontlines with no weapon, which was unprecedented. Many other Christian pacifists – including Adventists, Mennonites, and Quakers – had volunteered as medics or nurses in previous wars without issue, but never in a combat unit.
- The film also depicts Doss as being part of a unit that is sent straight to Okinawa. In reality, Doss had already served in battles at Guam and in the Philippines before he rescued 75 men at Okinawa. Doss himself estimated that he saved about 50 at Hacksaw Ridge, but some eyewitnesses claimed he saved 100 or more. Therefore, when Doss was given his Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman, they split the difference at 75. During all three battles (Okinawa, Guam, and the Philippines), it is estimated that Doss saved over 300 men combined.
Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, I would occasionally hear the name Desmond Doss. In high school, I remember seeing that the section of U.S. Route 501 that runs through Lynchburg had been renamed the Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway in honor of him. Growing up, I loved history, but I wasn’t terribly informed about local war heroes and had no connection to Seventh-Day Adventism. Therefore, I was unaware of the true story behind Doss’s heroism, his faith, and his humility.
To put into context, Doss’s story was something that had eluded Hollywood’s grasp for many years. The real Doss never viewed himself as a larger-than-life figure and didn’t particularly care for Hollywood movies. Many producers had come and gone over the years, trying to recreate this incredible tale of faith and duty and translate it to the big screen.
Stan Jensen, a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, had tried to drum up support within his denomination for a movie about Doss, eventually enlisting the help of producer Greg Crosby, who met with Doss personally in 2001 and convinced him that making a movie about his heroism was the right thing to do. Eventually, Doss relented and appeared in a documentary called The Conscientious Objector shortly before his death in 2006 at the age of 87.
Producers David Permut and Bill Mechanic became involved in the early 2000s, trying to secure finances and distribution rights for a film about Doss. After Doss’s death, the film rights were acquired by Walden Media, but they wanted the war violence to be PG-13 level, which severely disappointed Mechanic, and he spent many years trying to buy the rights back.
Gibson originally said no to the project when he was sent a script, but eventually reconsidered and decided to move forward with the project (coincidentally, he had done the same thing with Braveheart many years earlier). Given Gibson’s controversial status in Hollywood at the time, money was hard to come by, and the producers had to get creative with procuring the finances.
Eventually, Hacksaw Ridge was green-lit with a budget of $40 million after Permut and Mechanic took advantage of film tax incentives in Gibson’s adopted home of Australia. In addition to Mechanic, Permut, and Crosby, the film was also co-produced by Gibson’s long-time colleague, Academy Award winner Bruce Davey.
I’m so very glad I got to see Hacksaw Ridge and write about it in-depth here. If you haven’t seen the film, watch it now; you won’t regret it. I’m happy that a true hero like Doss finally had his story told accurately onscreen, and it’s great to have Gibson back making films steadily. I hope that this film continues to have a profound impact on many people.
- Directed by Mel Gibson
- Screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
- Produced by Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut
- Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Young, Richard Pyros, Milo Gibson, Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Jim Robison, Andrew Sears, Sam Wright
- Director of Photography – Simon Duggan
- Music by Rupert Gregson-Williams
- Edited by John Gilbert
- Production Designer – Barry Robison
- Costume Designer – Lizzy Gardiner
- Casting by Nikki Barrett
- Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, including grisly bloody images.
(wins are in bold)
- 6 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing)
- 3 Golden Globe nominations (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director)
- 5 BAFTA nominations (Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Makeup & Hair)
- 13 AACTA Award nominations (Best Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Hair & Makeup)
- 7 Critics’ Choice Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Hair & Makeup, Best Action Movie, Best Actor in an Action Movie)
- 9 Satellite Award nominations (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Art Direction/Production Design)
- 2 SAG Award nominations (Best Male Actor in a Leading Role, Best Stunt Ensemble)