The true story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life, without firing a shot, to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.
It’s been awhile since Mel Gibson directed a film with the last being 2006’s Apocalypto. Because of his widely publicized problems, he’s kind of fated from obscurity but he is slowly finding his way back. Over time, I’ve forgotten that he directed but I’m glad he’s back directing here. You wouldn’t guess it based on the marketing of the film which doesn’t mention him by name.
This film tackles the true story of Pvt. Desmond Doss (Garfield), who became the first soldier to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor during WWII while being a conscientious objector, a person who for reasons of conscience objects to serving in the armed forces. This stance did not go well with his fellow soldiers and commanding officers but after his showing of bravery, selflessness and compassion, he earned the respect of his peers by saving 75 men without ever engaging in combat.
There’s more to it than that, of course, the film deals with morals early on as a young Desmond got to learn morality at an early age during a freak incident with his brother. This incident thrusts him towards religion and his beliefs. Even with his beliefs, he still felt it was his duty serve his country since many of his friends were doing the same. In order to follow these beliefs, Doss was able to find a compromise and wanted to serve as a combat medic so he can save lives instead of take them.
Doss also had to contend with his parents Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving). Tom was a traumatized WWI veteran and alcoholic who did not support his sons’ decisions to go to war as as he did not want what he saw to happen to them. He doesn’t think that Desmond’s beliefs can survive during the war. Desmond had a love interest in the form of a nurse named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). While many romantic subplots have the potential to bring down a film, this one is handled with a great amount of restraint.
The main story here is Desmond’s determination to hold onto his beliefs despite what was happening around him. On the way to the war, he had to face opposition from the army and his fellow soldiers and commanding officers which included Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). They did not believe that Desmond’s beliefs were viable and tried to get rid of him. His fellow soldiers didn’t agree with his beliefs either as they felt like his unwillingness to fight would make him a liability on the field. He was abused both physically and psychologically but after all that, Doss still held onto his beliefs and did not quit as he still felt like it was his duty to serve.
Desmond was then sent to Japan to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, where American soldiers had to climb the cliff face of the Maeda Escarpment, nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge,” to take on Japanese forces. This was when we got to see the true nature of war and the film definitely did not shy away in the realism department. It was gritty, it was violent, but that’s what war is like. There was a lot of shooting, a lot of explosions, and a lot of action and the film did not show any restraint here, showing us the true horror and nastiness of war. This contrasted well with Desmond’s belief system, making his actions stand out even more.
These battle scenes that dominated the second half of the film were both entertaining and engaging to watch thanks to the immersive cinematography and sound. They help to show the sheer scale of the action but it never gets to a point that it’s overwhelming. The film even uses jump scares during more quieter moments to remind us of the realities of war. During other moments of downtime, Desmond gets closer to another soldier named Smitty (Luke Bracey), a soldier who initially wanted nothing to do with Doss but after seeing him on the field and seeing his beliefs in action, he begins to earn his respect. Other soldiers and commanding officers saw this and followed suit.
The film could have gone without a few subplots like the romantic subplot with Dorothy since she added little to nothing to the film. Their relationship wasn’t the most believable because of how fast it occurred. Sure, it was to give us a reason to root for Desmond to get back home to her but it wasn’t necessary. Desmond’s father Tom was an interesting character with demons of his own but the film could have gone much further with it. Desmond himself did not get much of a backstory to establish or even explain his beliefs more clearly.
This didn’t matter as much as Garfield was amazing here with his best performance as Doss. He perfectly embodied Doss’ conviction and determination, holding on to his beliefs and overcoming all adversity. His likability made him compelling to watch in the early scenes and later on, where he stood out amongst the war going on around him. Weaving was great as Tom Doss showing his character’s torment and stealing scenes but he could have been given so much more. Palmer’s Schutte could have easily been a cliche character but her performance elevates her from it. Vaughn was fun as Sgt. Howell with some great drill sergeant lines early on with some doubts about Desmond but he came around and so did Worthington’s Captain Glover who was good as well.
Overall, this wasn’t just a great war film but also a film about staying true to yourself while overcoming adversity. It doesn’t hurt to have excellent cinematography and sound design and a career performance by Garfield. Welcome back Mel Gibson.