HACKSAW RIDGE Movie Review
By Victoria Alexander, Film Critic
Las Vegas Informer
Astonishing return of Mel Gibson.
In case you hold a grudge because a movie star insulted someone you do not know about circumstances you have no familiarity with, Lionsgate feels your pain. They understand your anguish and disgust over Mel Gibson’s drunken rant – surreptitiously and likely instigated by – his former girlfriend. You have forgiven Roman Polanski and Woody Allen but Gibson is still a pariah?
Mel Gibson’s name is not on the film’s poster. The film opened without Gibson making the media interview rounds. The ugly beard he is sporting telegraphs not that he is too busy to shave but that he doesn’t want to appear as a rich movie star with self-important airs. Ideally, it represents a former movie star who has willingly aged himself fifteen years.
After Gibson’s release from solitary confinement in Hollywood’s jail, he is out and HACKSAW RIDGE is his “come to Jesus” effort. As far as impact, creativity and importance, Mel Gibson is back in the game. With success comes forgiveness.
HACKSAW RIDGE is, as you have heard, incredibly violent. It’s about a horrendous battle that took place during World War II. The screenplay is by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. The cinematography by Simon Duggan is remarkable.
In preparation for the constant, long, bloody battle scenes, the first hour focuses on the character of real-life hero Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). Doss, his parents and his younger brother live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The family is Seventh-Day Adventists and when Doss, as a young kid, nearly kills his brother in a fight, he vows never fight or kill ever again.
Desmond’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is your typical cruel, abusive Blue Ridge Mountains father and wife-beater – but with a reason. A veteran of WWI, he is still experiencing PTSD over the death of his friends and fellow soldiers. He uses a belt strap on the boys and his fists on his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). When Desmond is big enough to take on his father’s brutality, he does. One evening he hears his father yelling and beating his mother. He grabs a gun and nearly kills his father, stopping the attack on his mother.
Desmond makes another oath. He will never touch a gun again.
So how can Desmond join his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) and most of the town’s young men by going to war?
Desmond meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a Lynchburg Hospital nurse, after saving a boy’s life. He keeps going back to the hospital and declares that he intends to marry Dorothy. Desmond takes an interest in medicine and starts educating himself on battlefield injuries.
Against his parents’ wishes, Desmond enlists in the army. When he gets to boot camp, he informs Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) that he is a conscientious objector. He intends to be a battlefield medic without a rifle.
Glover tells Desmond’s commanding officer, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), to make sure that Desmond quits. Once the other soldiers find out Desmond refuses to carry a weapon, they beat him up. He still will not quit.
After refusing mandatory rifle training, Desmond is brought before a military hearing on charges of declining to follow a direct order. He could be facing a court martial. After mentioning his constitutional rights, it is decided Desmond can remain in his battalion as a medic and, per his religion, he cannot work on the Sabbath.
Freed from the requisite expository necessities of showing who Desmond Doss was, the second half of HACKSAW RIDGE is the bloody battle to take over the Japanese stronghold of Okinawa. Already three battalions had been decimated by the Japanese. Hackshaw Ridge (Maeda Escarpment) is an approximately 350-foot high ridge that runs across most of the island of Okinawa. The soldiers had to climb a rope ladder with rifle and gear to get over the top.
The Battle of Okinawa was the last and biggest of the Pacific island battles of World War II. It lasted from April 1 to June 22, 1945 and involved the 287,000 troops of the U.S. Tenth Army. By the end of the 82-day campaign, Japan had lost more than 77,000 soldiers and the Allies had suffered more than 65,000 casualties—including 14,000 dead. Other U.S. losses in ground combat included 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded, and 239 missing in action.
Desmond’s heroism is astonishing and exciting to watch. If you hear that the battle scenes are over-done and over-the-top, consider that the 75 men Desmond saved were unable to walk and severely injured. He carried each man from the battlefield, tied up each man with a rope and carefully lowered them down the ridge. He did not save a soldier with a headache or a soldier who had grown tired of fighting. Desmond stayed with the injured when everyone who could left as night fell. No one came to relieve him or brought him food. He didn’t take a bathroom break.
Gibson deserves all the praise he has been receiving for HACKSAW RIDGE. The battle scenes are devastating, extremely graphic and unsettling. How did Gibson film this never-ending, continual chaos of killing, death, and explosions while keeping pace with all the soldiers working together as a unit. What kind of rehearsal was done? How was the second hour – which was all battle – choreographed?
I have two petty complaints: (1) Garfield’s hair. It was so long – for a World War II Army war movie – that I was always distracted by it. I came home and did about 2 hours of research on Army haircuts by era. I read all about the history of military hair styles.
Taken from the Internet: “There are 12 military haircuts that have been used throughout the 20th century and all of these haircuts share the same fight-oriented trait: to offer a low–maintenance hairstyle that never blocks one’s visual field and that doesn’t allow for the hair to get trapped inside the helmet or clipped in the shirt’s collar. Ergo, all military haircuts are short haircuts and none of them allow for the hair to exceed the two-inch hair length mark. Usually in the military, the higher the rank, the longer you’re allowed to wear your hair; furthermore, the more you spend out on duty and in the battlefield, the shorter your hair will be in order to avoid potentially-catastrophic scenarios.”
Private Doss has such a full head of hair that it stands high above the two-inch limit. I’ve always mentioned Garfield’s big head. It is not only distracting but, like overly tall actors and actresses, very unusual for films. His head seems to overwhelm his body. (I know that there are actors and actresses over 6’ but the medium of film seems to visually favor shorter physiques.)
And finally, the end shot of Desmond Doss is over-played and not at all necessary. That, of course, is the director’s conceit and, since a great film is always one with a strong point-of-view of the director, Gibson is entitled to it. Even if it was a visual misstep.
Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at firstname.lastname@example.org.