A good piece of cinema should be thought-provoking and stay with you long after the credits have rolled. This is the exact impact that Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge had on my housemate and me as we sat in silence awestruck at the atrocities we had just seen played out in front of our eyes.
Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector of World War II. Doss refuses to carry a weapon or exercise his right to bear arms for religious purposes and instead enlists into the armed forces as a medic. A relatively basic premise for a particularly complex film, this, of course, is not as easy as first perceived. Doss becomes subject to scrutiny, torment (at one particularly brutal moment, he is tossed out of bed in the middle of the night and beaten to a bloody pulp) and ridicule for his religious devotion. The bittersweet irony, however, is that Doss’ bravery and this exact devotion leads him to rescue 75 men in a bloody battle against the Japanese nicknamed ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.
And bittersweet this irony is. This is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch. I recently had the opportunity to watch it again a few weeks after my first viewing and I could not bring myself to sit and endure it again. This film is phenomenal but difficult and hard-hitting. It is a story of religious devotion to such an extent that life and situations become unbearable and the belief in a Divine becomes the only thing that one man can hold onto. Difficult viewing yes, but wholeheartedly worth the watch.
Andrew Garfield plays the role of Desmond Doss incredibly. A naïve southerner who marries a nurse, he is the epitome of the southern gent in 1930s America. This naivety quickly diminishes when he is thrust into the horrors of warfare and he is forced to defend his actions and his beliefs. A particularly harrowing moment of the film sees Garfield as Doss whispering to an injured soldier to trust him as he buries him under a mound of dirt and climbs under the dead body of another soldier to avoid being seen by the Japanese. Garfield takes on the role with great sensitivity and humility. There is never a moment when his performance appears weak or unbelievable and instead we are presented with a man whose devout beliefs are an ingrained part of his identity. The modesty of his character is particularly poignant when instead of asking God to rescue hundreds of men, the audience witnesses him chanting ‘please God, let me save just one more man.’ Based on true events, the humble Doss died in 2006 and personally I perceive that he would have been touched by the performance of Garfield.
Gibson’s track record with gore and brutality, which can also be seen in his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ borders the line between watchable and extremely graphic. And a fine line it is. The scenes on the battlefield at Hacksaw Ridge appear to last for longer than is comfortable viewing. Paul Asay notes that it is ‘bloody-as bloody as we’ve seen on screen for a long time’ and this is evident throughout. The audience is faced with lingering shots of men being gunned down almost immediately after they get onto the battlefield and the sadness and extremity of this situation force you to consider how difficult this war was for these men. This film made me extremely grateful that I live in a country without the imminent threat of a world war.
Hacksaw Ridge is a thought-provoking masterpiece. A harrowing cinematic experience that forces you to re-examine history and consider the impact of beliefs – religious or otherwise. Particularly living in a world as cruel and punishing as we do now, this film seeks to highlight that humanity and kindness go a long way in the face of cruelty and terror.