Sometimes it takes a while for the film world to find historical stories that should have been told years ago. Two recent examples came out in 2014, seventy years after the events: The Imitation Game with the story of Alan Turning, who helped create the computer revolution with his work during WWII but who was destroyed because of his homosexuality; and Unbroken, with Louis Zamperini’s experiences at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and as a POW in Japan during WWII. Now another fascinating story from WWII is finally being told in Hacksaw Ridge: the story of a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor.
Desmond Doss was a Virginia farm boy who, because of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs as well as experiences when he was young, refused to carry a weapon. However, he felt convicted to help in the war effort, and became an Army medic. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was credited with saving 75 soldiers who were injured during a battle on top of the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge.
That’s the nuts-and-bolts of the story, but how they’re assembled is important. Director Mel Gibson has done thrilling war stories as a director and actor, such as Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, and the war scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are effective. There’ve also been times when he’s compromised on history, especially in Braveheart where you have the Battle of Stirling Bridge take place without the bridge, which was central to the Scottish strategy. (Having Robert the Bruce consort with William Wallace even though they lived a century apart more properly is the fault of the screenwriter.) In Hacksaw Ridge Gibson, working from a script by Robert Schenkkan (who wrote several episodes of HBO’s The Pacific) and Andrew Knight, exaggerates some parts of the story while underplaying others, including some aspects of Doss’s heroism. For instance, the story presents Doss’s participation on Okinawa as his first experience of war, where he’d actually been in combat on several islands over the course of a couple of years before Okinawa. From here on I’ll focus on the movie itself, but the website History vs. Hollywood has done an excellent breakdown of what the movie gets wrong, as well as what it gets right. Warning: it is, of course, full of spoilers.
Hacksaw Ridge breaks down into three acts. In Act I we’re introduced to Doss (Andrew Garfield), a poor farm boy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia. Doss’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a veteran of the First World War, an experience that left him a broken alcoholic with a propensity for violence, often focused on his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Living with that violence along with his deep faith leads to Doss’s decision not to take up arms. By accident he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a young nurse at the local hospital, and proceeds to woo her. But the coming of the war interferes with their courtship. Act II covers Doss’s basic training, where his refusal to take up arms leads to constant conflict with his commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and his trainer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). Act III covers the fight on Okinawa, which was one of the most violent of the war because the island was considered Japanese soil. The Japanese suffered over a hundred thousand casualties, including boys as young as fourteen who were used as suicide bombers against tanks. It’s believe the experience during the 84 day campaign, which cost nearly 20,000 US lives, was a major factor in Truman’s decision to use the A-Bomb to end the war.
What elevates the movie from simply an effective war story to a deeply powerful and thrilling experience is the performance of Garfield as Doss. His recent outings as Spider-Man were not high quality acting experiences, but with Doss Garfield fulfills the promise that was seen in his first major role as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. Garfield makes Doss’s convictions not only understandable but completely believable. The convictions cost him dearly, as shown in the film, but he has the audience rooting for Doss to make it.
Weaving, Palmer, and Worthington all turn in sterling performances. Vince Vaughn, though, rises to the top with the best dramatic performance of his career. His Howell is the sharpening stone to Garfield’s steel, and the sparks that fly between them grab your attention and won’t let it go. It’s also through Vaughn that you first see the grudging respect and eventually full-fledge honor for Doss by his comrades.
While Okinawa is only a third of the film, Gibson pulls out the stops in the portrayal of the violence. It is not for the fainthearted, and some scenes, while accurate for the war, are extremely disturbing. Still, that makes the contrast to Doss’s position stronger. What brings home the reality even more, though, is the end of the movie that features clips of the real Doss talking about his experience on Hacksaw Ridge shortly before his death in 2006. Garfield’s performance squares perfectly with the real man, and that is an accomplishment.