Hacksaw Ridge (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A pacifistic medic struggling in a brutal war movie

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“Hacksaw Ridge” is rather interesting for its ironic contradiction. While evoking those sincere old-fashioned Hollywood war films such as Howard Hawks’ “Sergeant York” (1941) on one side, the movie is also far more brutal and sanguinary than them on the other side, and that aspect often contradicts with the gentle bravery of its noble hero, who adamantly sticks to his pacifistic belief even when he is in the middle of the sheer horror of war.

The movie is based on the real-life story of Desmond Doss, an American medic who participated in the World War II. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, Doss, who is played by Andrew Garfield in the film, refused to carry any kind of weapons and kill enemy soldiers, but, as mentioned at the end of the film, he saved the lives of 75 infantrymen during the Battle of Okinawa and then became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

After the opening battle sequence, the movie moves back to Doss’ childhood in Blue Ridge, Virginia, and it show us how young Doss was deeply affected by an accident which was inadvertently caused by him while he played with his older brother. Although his brother only suffered a minor injury, this consequence made young Doss more conscious of one of the ten commandments, and it came to be the base of his religious faith.

15 years later, many young men enlist in the US Army because of the World War II, and Doss is willing to be a solider just like his brother, but he wants to serve for the country in his way without violating his faith. Since he saved a seriously injured man’s life through one quick measure, he has been interested in first-aid treatment while dating a hospital nurse named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), so he decides to participate in the war as a combat medic, but that is not accepted well by his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a bitter, troubled man who has struggled with his alcoholism and post-traumatic stress order for years due to his combat experiences during the World War I. During one scene, Tom takes his son to a local cemetery where his fallen friends were buried, and Weaving is poignant as conveying his character’s longtime guilt and torment. He surely knows that war is hell, and, though he has not been a good father and husband to his family at all, losing both of his two sons to a war is the last thing he wants.

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When Doss enters the training camp in Fort Jackson, we meet a bunch of stock war movie characters including Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), who is as tough and intimating as your typical drill instructor. Howell is definitely not so pleased when Doss refuses to carry a rifle right from the first day of training, and neither is Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), Howell’s direct superior who tries to discharge Doss after a failed attempt to persuade him but then comes to make some compromise with him in the end.

As he is allowed to continue his military training without any compromise on his faith, Doss is naturally alienated and harassed by other trainees in his barrack, but he gradually comes to earn their grudging admiration as he keeps going on, and he also get some respect from Howell. Surprisingly effective in his against-the-type dramatic role, Vince Vaughn imbues his stereotype character with considerable intensity, and he is good particularly when Howell comes to recognize Doss’ integrity and determination.

After an inevitable narrative point where Doss is court-martialed for being a conscientious objector but eventually acquitted (this is not a spoiler at all), the movie promptly moves forward to 1945 May, and we see Doss and other soldiers arriving in Okinawa. Their army has fought the Japanese Army over a stiff rocky ridge called Hacksaw Ridge, and there has not been much progress for them except increasing casualties, as reflected by one brief, harrowing moment which shows a group of soldiers returning with many dead bodies.

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During the following battle sequences unfolded on the ridge, the director Mel Gibson goes all the way for bombarding us with numerous moments as gritty and gruesome as we can expect from modern war films. We frequently see many soldiers killed or maimed amidst lots of bullets and explosions, and there are a number of moments which will certainly make you cringe for their graphic details. Even during the most frantic moments during these sequences, the physical impact of the actions shown on the screen is always palpable to us, and we come to feel the real sense of danger around Doss and other characters in the film.

This unflinching depiction of the brutality of war in the film is supposed to accentuate Doss’ courageous dedication, and that storytelling strategy works when it focuses on his heroic one-man feat, but then the movie sometimes goes to the overkill mode which generates a glaring contradictory impression. While it surely wants to honor his faith and courage, it sometimes seems to be more interested in its brutal and bloody spectacles, and that aspect made me a bit uncomfortable during my viewing.

I am not so sure about whether “Hacksaw Ridge” entirely succeeds in what it intends to do, but I recommend it mainly because it is a competent war film on the whole. I admired the visceral quality of its battle sequences, and I also appreciated the earnest lead performance by Garfield, who was nominated for Best Actor Oscar in last month (The movie received total 6 Oscar nominations including the one for Best Picture). I still think there is a better (and more coherent) movie somewhere inside it, but I am so far content with it – with some reservation.

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