Hacksaw Ridge – Movie Review

A Movie Review
of Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
By Lance Zedric

The battle for Okinawa was the last major Allied campaign of World War II and the most costly in the Pacific Theater. Over 12,000 Americans and an estimated 80-100,000 Japanese troops were killed, including tens of thousands Japanese civilians, many of whom committed suicide rather than surrender to the cruel “American devils.” It was a bloody preview of what lie ahead for the American soldier in the planned invasion of the Japanese homeland. Most of those who fought there are gone, and those who remain are in their late 80s or 90s. To baby boomers, millennials, and those after, Okinawa is but a dusty relic of the past, a fading moment in the collective memory of a passing generation. But Hacksaw Ridge, if only briefly, reminds us of the savagery that occurred on a tiny island in the late spring and early summer of 1945, and of the heroism and compassion that was borne from it.

Directed by Hollywood heavyweight Mel Gibson, and starring the “aw shucksy” Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a real-life conscientious objector and Medal of Honor recipient, Hacksaw Ridge was a pleasant surprise. In short, Doss is a Seventh-Day Adventist who detests violence, but is compelled to enlist like his older brother and others in his hometown. His father, an alcoholic veteran of World War I played by Hugo Weaving, has experienced the horrors of war and does not support his sons’ decision to enlist. Although eager to serve, the younger Doss refuses even to hold a weapon in basic training, which leads to conflict with the other troops, his commanders, and the Army itself. Although offered a discharge, he refuses and is court-martialed. Ultimately, he is allowed to serve as a medic in 1st Battalion, 307 Infantry, 77th Infantry Division, and saw action in Guam and in the Philippines before shipping out to Okinawa, where the protracted battle enters its second month.

The battle scenes are gruesome to say the least. Blood, guts, mud, fire, rats, maggots, sand, and mass human carnage is the rule of the day. Gibson succeeds in re-creating hell on earth, and there’s nothing pretty about it—nor should there be. Normally, any movie with battle scenes exponentially more graphic than those in Saving Pvt. Ryan, or any other war movie for that matter, shouldn’t be referred to as pleasant, but the movie unexpectedly loaded up on enough pre-war nostalgia and sentimental moments in the front end to match the gore bullet for bullet. But it is only in the backdrop of such misery that Doss’s incredible story could be told. Doss personally rescued 75 men on an enemy held cliff and lowered them to safety under fire. His real-life prayer and personal mantra, “Please Lord, help me get one more..,” was great Hollywood, but an even greater testament a man who would earn his nation’s highest military award for valor without firing a shot—one of only six men to be so awarded the MOH on Okinawa.

The acting was solid throughout the movie. Kudos to Gibson for casting the beautiful Teresa Palmer as Doss’s fiancée. She added just enough X chromosome to drive the story and counterbalance the violence. Vince Vaughn was another pleasant surprise as Sergeant Howell, who began as Doss’s drill sergeant and accompanied him to Okinawa. Vaughn provided comic relief at the just the right time, and despite firing a “grease gun” that never needed reloaded, was credible in a dramatic role. For my money ($9 with popcorn), actor Sam Worthington, cast as Captain Jack Glover, Doss’s company commander, stole the show and should be first in line as comic book hero, Sgt. Fury, if such a movie is ever made.

But as good as the story and acting were, Gibson went a little too far at times, invoking the ghosts of Braveheart, The Patriot, We Were Soldiers, and even The Passion of the Christ. Change the uniforms, weapons, and enemies, and the battle scenes could’ve been the same. The Japanese banzai charges, mostly in agonizing slow motion, were eerily reminiscent of those by William Wallace, Benjamin Martin, and Hal Moore in Gibson’s aforementioned movies. In another scene, Doss is lowered from the cliff on a stretcher, which seemed more like a thinly-veiled 180-degree allegory to the ascension of Christ.

Other mistakes, such as soldiers wearing modern style boots, walking into enemy territory shoulder-to-shoulder in a skirmish line, men grabbing machine gun barrels after shooting hundreds of rounds, and pulling grenade pins with their teeth like they were biting an apple, added to the cheese factor. The most odious “limburger effect” was the ubiquitous never-need-reloading weapons, but those have been a staple of Hollywood war movies since Birth of a Nation in 1915. Apparently, there’s no romance or drama in replacing an empty clip. That is, unless an enemy is charging!

Lastly, the movie implies that Doss went straight from basic training to Okinawa, but actually, he had already earned two Bronze Stars for valor by the time he arrived on Okinawa. But revealing such info would likely diminish the impact of the movie (and we can’t have that).

On the artistic front, the cinematography was crisp, clean, and instilled a nostalgic feel. Likewise, the musical score was powerful—but occasionally too melodramatic and transparent—akin to watching a Frank Capra movie marathon while listening to a numbing loop of a Dodge truck commercial with Sam Elliot growling, “Guts, Glory, RAM!” A little was okay, but after a few too many rounds to my psyche, I began hemorrhaging I.Q. and needed a transfusion.

Thankfully, the real Doss was a medic, and the factual aspect of his intrepid and selfless action at Hacksaw Ridge helped patch me up. And given the current political and social climate in our nation, that’s something we could all use. Worth a see!   7.5 out of 10  stars.