In WWII a horrific battle is fought on Hacksaw Ridge, a strip of land on the top of a 100-foot cliff on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The battle begins about an hour into the 131-minute film. The first hour is spent meeting the central characters. Key among them is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. The film is based closely on his true story.
This is one of those films where knowing how it ends makes it better. What you need to know is this: Desmond Doss, a pleasant young man who refuses to pick up a weapon because the Bible says “Thou Shall Not Kill,” saved 75 men on Hacksaw Ridge. After his unit had withdrawn from the ridge along with the other U.S. troops, he continued to search the battlefield; finding wounded men, looping a rope around each of their bodies, and lowering them, one at a time, down the cliff to friendly hands. He dodged enemy soldiers while on his mission of mercy, repeatedly asking God to help him rescue “just one more.”
The film is directed by Mel Gibson, who dealt with violence and sacrifice in films like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. If you want to read about Gibson's infamous personal problems, go online and google his name, because I'll only be addressing the movie in this essay.
In Lynchburg, Desmond meets and falls for a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), announcing that she will someday be his wife. To his father's great disappointment, Desmond enlists shortly after his brother does. We meet his fellow soldiers, most given colorful nicknames by his tough-as-nails commanding officer, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn, barking one-liners like R. Lee Ermey on Open Mic Night at the Chuckle Hut).
All hell breaks loose when weapons training begins and Desmond refuses to touch a gun. Sgt. Howell and his boss, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) do their damnedest to chase him out, but Desmond is as hard-headed as they are. He wants to be in the fighting unit, serving as a medic on the front lines like the other soldiers.
Desmond's childhood moves into pure melodrama. His romantic overtures towards Dorothy are corny. The whole “getting to know the unit” section of the film plays like a parody of similar scenes in other war movies. I winced more than once, but I also smiled, because Garfield uses his big, goofy, sincere smile to sell the cheese. He makes the first hour of the film work, and when the story moves to the battlefield, he makes the nightmarish transition work.
With this film, Mel Gibson takes the grim, hyper-violent visuals of modern war movies and wraps them in the clichés of the old-fashioned war movies we see on TV. It pays off because Garfield is so genuine, and part of the reason he is so genuine is because he's playing a real man. You'll get to see and hear the real Desmond Doss at the end of the movie and good luck keeping a dry eye when you do.