A remarkably subversive and moving biographical war film about Desmond Doss, a pacifist soldier that refused to carry arms, instead acting solely as an unarmed combat medic on the battlefield.
François Truffaut said “there is no such thing as an anti-war film”, generally taken to mean that portraying war on film inevitably glorifies the combat to some degree, as it’s simply too inherently exciting, thrilling, and engaging for people. Director Mel Gibson certainly has made such sequences before. The battle sequences in “Hacksaw Ridge” certainly are exciting, thrilling, and engaging, but the glory comes from seeing how Desmond Doss transcends the nature of war, of battle – not just attributes like the brutality and horror of it, but its most basic features, conflict and violence – by saving lives rather than taking them.
The skill displayed in these battle sequences cannot be overstated – the cinematography, music, direction, efforts of the actors, everything works so well, so powerfully together. The viscera and gore prevent the battles from being seen as anything but what they were – horrifying, dehumanising stages of conflict that wounded men in ways beyond just the body. The righteousness and purity of Doss’ behaviour stands out so strongly against such a horrifying backdrop, showcasing some of the worst of how mankind treats itself. The real Doss’ acts were so otherworldly that Gibson actually tones them down to a degree, shown in how the film downplays and at times omits the vast amount of injuries Doss incurred while still persevering in saving lives on the battlefield.
Gibson never ascribes such feats purely to religion; Doss is more humanist than fundamentalist, as transformative family conflicts earlier in his life led him to espouse the sanctity of life and disavow any tools that could violate it. He doesn’t act in accordance with any dogmas or fear of God, but instead according to his belief in the sanctity of life. It would be vastly reductionist to call them film “religious”, “a religious film” as if it was purely a vanity appeal to those flattered by the positive portrayal of Christian values and practises in the film, though it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Mel Gibson film got such feedback! I see the film as a tale of humanist triumph rather than religious pride.
Andrew Garfield does an admirable job as Desmond Doss, even emulating his mouthful of an accent well, but Hugo Weaving was the most impressive performance of the film in my eyes, portraying the anguish and ugliness of such a wounded soldier and twisted man so well. Vince Vaughn was utilised well in some of the more comic scenes of the film, but his superiors, including the ever dull Sam Worthington, never amount to anything particularly memorable. Teresa Palmer does a good job as Doss’ love, Dorothy Schutte, her own convictions and passion for medical science elevating her beyond just a standard girlfriend type role.
Mel Gibson is too talented, too much a natural when it comes to action sequences, that he doesn’t manage to completely revolutionise cinematic portrayal of war and prove Truffaut wrong, but he certainly makes a valiant effort in this very subversive, pacifist war film. I give it four bags of morphine, and a kicked grenade.