So once again we have survived.

Hacksaw Ridge

HACKSAW RIDGE is a twisted, uninhabitable mass of rock with a steep edge and riddled with secret caves, one of which is home to 2×4-carrying WWF legend “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. But there is no movie about that so until then we’ll have to make do with director Mel Gibson (APOCALYPTO)’s identically titled HACKSAW RIDGE, the best-picture-nominated movie based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN), the only WWII Medal of Honor recipient who was a conscientious objector. See, he wanted to do his part to fight Hitler, but he didn’t believe in killing or even touching a gun, so he went as a medic and was really fucking good at saving people’s lives. A reverse AMERICAN SNIPER.

I wonder if he traveled through time if he would kill Baby Hitler, or just try to give first aid to other babies fighting against Baby Hitler? It really makes you think.

The first half or so is before he goes to war. We see him as a little shit, constantly running and climbing and getting in violent scraps with his brother Hal, with no intervention from his drunk asshole dad (Hugo Weaving, BABE), a WWI veteran. Desmond could easily turn into the town bully, but maybe it’s his intense devotion to the family’s Ten Commandments poster that ensures he’s a big dork by the time he grows into Garfield. On one INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE style conveniently fateful day he discovers the two other loves of his life, because he 1) rushes to heroic action in administering a tourniquet and getting an injured person to a hospital where 2) he spots a beautiful nurse (Teresa Palmer, POINT BREAK remake) and decides he will marry her.

But not until his first furlough, because shortly after successfully wooing her he announces that he has to enlist.

We get all the usual tropes of the war movie: the gung ho older brother who signed up first, the parents who worry about his safety but he won’t be swayed because it’s his duty, the group of grunts with their quirks and home towns and nicknames, the getting singled out by the cruel drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaugh, PSYCHO), the grueling training without true understanding of how much worse the actual combat will be, etc.

But this familiarity is the spoonful of sugar to get down a critique of standard notions of masculinity. Doss looks like a kid wearing a grownup helmet, and he’s surrounded by nothing but broad-shouldered, square-jawed men who look like the painted covers of WWII pulp magazines. For example there’s Hollywood Zane (Luke Pegler, SEE NO EVIL), who sports a Clark Gable haircut and mustache with a bodybuilder physique; he’s introduced naked doing pull-ups. And then this slim, big-headed dork comes in and refuses to even touch a rifle during training. This brings him scorn and disbelief from Sergeant Howell and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington, AVATAR) as well as beatings from his fellow soldiers.

There’s a powerful moment when Howell finds him bloodied and seems to now feel sorry for him, giving him the ol’ “It’s nothing to be ashamed of” pep talk as he assumes he’ll be leaving. But to everyone’s surprise Doss does not quit or snitch on his tormentors.

It’s Smitty (Luke Bracey, POINT BREAK remake) who comes down on him hardest, picking a fight and taunting him about “turning the other cheek” without seeming to register just how fucking badass that is. “Yes, you hit me. Let me offer you seconds.” He’ll understand once they go into combat with the nearly impossible task of taking over a steep ridge where others have been massacred before them, climbing up and retreating six times in a row. They never forget how crazy it is for Doss to insist on running into a hellhole with no weapons just to help the injured. But they start to understand how brave it is.

This being a Mel Gibson directorial work, you can be sure it vividly illustrates that old adage that “war is hell.” They must’ve done alot of research into all the horrible things that can happen to a body in war. But you still never get used to the sudden PING!s as holes appear in helmets and spring geysers of blood, the piles of intestines, the bones protruding from legs, the masses of shredded meat hanging from stumps, the people flipping through the air on fire.

Those scenes are brutally effective, but we’ve seen that sort of thing done to perfection in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and other great WWII movies. What is completely unique about this one is that it’s a guy trying to rack up rescues, not body counts. He’s running through the maelstrom tying up bloody appendages, administering morphine injections, carrying people on his shoulders, ignoring pleas to leave people behind. In the climax of the movie the troops retreat but he stays behind finding survivor after survivor and lowering them down the cliff. He even tries to help some Japanese soldiers.

As JARHEAD pointed out, even the most anti-war films inevitably make war seem cool to some viewers. I think AMERICAN SNIPER is way more complex than most people give it credit for, but of course many will watch it and think it’s awesome how many “bad guys” our boy shot. HACKSAW RIDGE is not an anti-war film, but it’s an extreme depiction of the ugliness of violence juxtaposed against the glorification of a pacifist, a healer. Doss is a conscientious objector who has to fight for the legal right to serve, then survive harassment and bullying for his beliefs, and then faces a much more difficult task than the other soldiers, but achieves far beyond what anyone believes possible, after the others have already given up.

It’s a very satisfying underdog story, seeing the soldiers’ eyes go from hatred to worship. They start to go out of their way to honor his different religious beliefs. The soldier who gets the task of going back to find his Bible in the war zone acts like it’s the greatest honor of his life. And I guess I should’ve seen it coming but I found it very moving when Smitty volunteered to go with Doss on a mission and the two camp out together for a night and become buddies.

This is probly a really good one for strong Christians who are okay with gory war movies, but I don’t feel it’s religiously preachy. Since Doss’s convictions are all about being good to people, not moral judgment, they can easily be equated to other religions or secular codes of honor. But I was only half joking with my Baby Hitler comment before. There are some difficult questions there: if he’s against killing under any circumstances, how can he support a war, even one this just? I’m not sure how his principles are helping in this situation. Even so, it’s very inspiring to see him staying true to his beliefs against great adversity. It’s hard to imagine the bravery of just holding his head high through boot camp, let alone his extraordinary acts during combat.

I knew the Seventh Day Adventists, or at least some of them, were vegetarians, and really late in the movie this is mentioned. He’s probly been getting food he couldn’t eat all this time and not complaining to anyone! I’m not religious, but I stopped eating meat 25 years ago. I’ve never mentioned that here partly because people alot of people get weirdly up in arms when they know that about you. As soon as you say you’re a vegetarian they assume that you’re judging them for whatever they eat. Trust me, I am not judging you and I doubt Doss is either. But I wanted to bring it up this one time because I can’t think of another non-mocking vegetarianism reference in a movie. So I appreciate it.

There are some ways that the movie (written by Robert Schenkkan [The Pacific, also an actor in PUMP UP THE VOLUME] and Andrew Knight [THE WATER DIVINER]) is clunky, some awkward telling-when-they-should-be-showing moments. When Doss, speaking passionately about his duty to sacrifice as much as others, describes people from his home town committing suicide because they couldn’t enlist, I couldn’t help but think it would’ve been more interesting to delve into that in the first half than to show him getting a girlfriend. I don’t think it’s as unqualified an artistic success as certain people consider APOCALYPTO or BRAVEHEART to be, so I was surprised it was considered good enough to overcome Gibson’s persona-non-grata status in Hollywood. He can barely get a release for GET THE GRINGO or BLOOD FATHER but all the sudden he has best picture and even best director nominations! It’s weird.

But I kind of get it too, because the movie has really stuck in my mind since taking a ferry to see it a couple weeks ago (the closest theater playing it was on a small island). The central theme of sticking to your principles is powerful, and there are other ways that it’s surprisingly nuanced. One example: Doss’s father (a great performance by Weaving) is an abusive alcoholic who terrorizes his whole family, almost to the point of tragedy. But we also see his constant pain over all the friends he lost in the war, and that he’s capable of going the extra mile to help his son. It’s a very human portrait, a bad person with good or sympathetic qualities. Which I guess is a good thing to have in a movie by a director/actor whose work I love despite being suspicious of him because of disgusting things he’s said and done over the years.

If he’s a bad person, at least he put HACKSAW RIDGE into the world.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017 at 9:56 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Hacksaw Ridge”

  1. Great review!

    I’ve seen people say the first half is too sentimental – but for me it makes sense an idealistic person like Doss would have an stubbornly idealistic worldview. In his position you would need to think that really. We get the grit later and it helps us understand why he was fighting for a place that’d treated him pretty bad. It’s not as apple pie as the guardian, for example, was saying.

    Like vern points out they layer nuance onto something that seems simple – like the abuse, and the way poor people are limited in what they can aspire to be. Rare i think to see a portrait of the US like this that gives short shrift to the american dream…

    shouldn’t win best pic, but makes me want to see what mel does next!

  2. So “Vern” is short for “VEgetaRiaN”?

  3. Clint Eastwood is a vegetarian so don’t let anyone give you any crap about it.

  4. Self-indulgent trivia following – It was pretty cool seeing a lot of my local landmarks in this film. The Newington Armory where the boot camp scenes were shot is in the middle of Sydney Olympic Park, which I drive past every morning on the way to work. The Richmond Regent cinema is one of the few old-timey cinemas left in Sydney, used for the dating scenes early in the film. The coolest thing though was my sons girlfiend’s entire street in Riverstone, which contain all pre-WW2 homes, was used for the scenes at the Doss family home.

    I thought the film was pretty good. Not Mel’s best directortorial effort (that would be BRAVEHEART, followed by THE PASSION then APOCALYPTO), but it’s good that he’s back and putting his mad energy into being creative again. HR reminded me a bit of Woo’s WINDTALKERS, both heavy on moral issues and sentiment but powerfully effective in brutality.

    For a second I thought Mel had gone too far on the gore, when a soldier used a limbless torso as a shield to cut through the battlefield. It was surreal and disturbing, but ultimately effective for capturing the abattoir carnage of battle.

  5. Good for you, Vern. I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch, but I do try to choose non-meat options whenever possible, but that’s become a lot harder since I moved to the burbs and even the salads all have bacon in them. My main thing is that it pisses me off that corporations that abuse animals and pump the populace full of harmful shit get to make billions, so I try not to give those assholes my money. I believe in voting with my dollars, so I support organic and/or vegetarian companies whenever possible.

    TL;DR:

    Boogie Down Productions - Beef

    Edutainment ©1990 Jive/RCA Records

  6. As for this movie, I liked it. Mel is the only director I’ll let get away with that mawkish shit at the beginning, because I know he’s just trying to get me to let my guard down so he can sucker punch me in the second act. Normally, he does it with farts and/or amateur carpentry, but he chose Norman Rockwellian romance this time and it worked almost as well. It’s probably what tricked the Academy into thinking a movie where a guy uses a severed torso as a riot shield while he machine-guns an entire squad of enemy soldiers is Oscar bait. I’m sure LA LA LAND is great and all but you’re not gonna find some shit like that in there.

  7. I’ve always had a passing interests and dabbled in vegetarianism for the past few years but recent health issues forced me to go full-on vegan. So y’know, fun times!

    This movie is kind of what people, supposedly James Cameron himself, say about TITANIC: You have to sit through a whole bunch of bullshit to get to good stuff. Well I really like the whole of TITANIC but this one I felt the ‘prelude’ to the good shit was kind of hard to sit through at times. But like a good action picture (and sometimes horror), all that is moot when the climax starts up.

  8. I liked this movie, but I’m not sure I liked it in the way that it was intended. Once the film moves past the “aw, shucks” hokiness of the first half, the extreme violence of the war scenes are when the film, ironically, finally finds some life. Maybe I’ve just been desensitized by a decade of post-SAVING-PRIVATE-RYAN grisly war scenes, but I found the experience of watching these cartoonish war-film archetypes exploding into fountains of gore way more enjoyable than I guess I was supposed to. With all the carefully photographed blood spurts, shredded bodies as human shields and severed limbs flipping through the air, I get the feeling that Mad Mel is enjoying himself way too much. And he should, because he’s really good at it, but it makes for a film where all of Mel’s usual obsessions (heroism, religion, self-sacrifice, extreme violence) are jostling uncomfortably next to each other and pulling in a bunch of different directions. It’s definitely a film that only Mad Mel could have made.

  9. Dabble is a funny word, because it implies that you have meddled with unholy forces, like black magic or something.

  10. Been vegetarian for 21 years now, vegan for two or three of those. It’s a fucking luxury to be able to pick and choose what you do or don’t eat so you won’t be hearing me talk reckless about anyone else’s dietary choices or necessities anytime ever.

    Having said that —

    Missed this in the theatres so I’m waiting for the Blu-ray to drop (and my current dire financial situation to sort itself the fuck out) but I was kinda amazed at how many of my friends placed this one super high on their Best of… lists last year. One friend in particular, and movies like this are usually anathema to her, saw it three times in the theatres and said it was by far the best thing she’d seen in 2016. No idea how I’m going to feel about it when I eventually get to check it out but it seems as though a lot of people have had a really, really strongly positive reaction to this one.

  11. Oops!

  12. If this doesn’t work fuck it I was just tryna link to a Dead prez cut sorry everybody

  13. I liked this movie, even the somewhat hokey first part. I’ll admit that I have a certain romanticized view of mid-century, small town, Andy Griffith Americana. And even as an atheist, it was pretty easy to relate to Doss’s religiously inspired pacifism.

    The story itself is so incredible that I think it makes up for some of the mawkish stuff. And there were some scenes early on when the filmatism was a bit amateurish. The use of green screen when Doss and his brother were on top of that hill was really distracting. But by the end of the film, I was surprised by how the film emotionally snuck up on me.

  14. Vern, I hope you review SILENCE. It’s another sticking-to-your-religious principles through horrifying shit movie, also starring Garfield. I thought it was the best movie of 2016 and would love to get your take.

  15. I found I had issues with Doss, philosophically if you like. He was clearly a remarkable person, and the Hacksaw Ridge story is incredible and worth telling, but I found myself wondering whether he would have saved any fewer lives had he been carrying a pistol. He’s only ever the most technical of pacifists – I thought specifically of the scene where (mild SPOILER) he literally holds an enemy soldier still so someone else can shoot him. That’s just morally equivalent to Doss killing him in every way except Doss’s own view.

    That said, I enjoyed it. Good performances, especially from Hugo Weaving. It’s basically just a pretty effective ‘regular’ war movie that happens to have an extreme pacifist (of sorts) in the middle and some gore directed by Mel Gibson, and I think it’s easy to overestimate how good it is because of the subject matter, but yeah. It’s a good one.

    Actually the thing I was probably most disappointed with was Vince Vaughn as the drill sergeant. The character had a bunch of great drill sergeanty lines that I didn’t think he delivered very well.

  16. I usually hate it when people call out movies based on true events for altering or condensing or flat-out fictionalizing what really happened, but reading some facts after the movie I was struck by one interesting change. In the film (if I’m remembering correctly) young Desmond steps in to stop his drunk father from killing his mother. Actually it was a fight between his father and uncle: Desmond’s dad pulled a gun, and it was his mother stepping in that stopped him from shooting his own brother (she then gave the gun to Doss and told him to hide it). Apparently the incident made a strong impression on Desmond and put him on the path towards peaceful solutions to violence.

    I think that’s something we’re never going to get from a Mel Gibson movie: a positive female figure. Mel sees women in a very traditional way – they’re the victim whose death must be avenged or the lovestruck princess or the lass in danger of drowning in a well or an eyebrow-less Italian Satan. Even if the female lead is a strong single mom, she’ll end up falsely accusing Mel Gibson of molesting her son. I guess I don’t know why I’d expect anything different – I always want to give Mel the benefit of the doubt, despite issues in his personal life – but the narratives of his movies like this one actually lend themselves to it. Why does Doss, who we’re going to see a shitload of bravery from by the end of the movie, have to be the one to save the mom rather than be inspired by her? Anyway, small thing that I appreciate in some of the Mel-starring movies (like Erin Moriarty as his tough daughter trying to make up for her poor choices in BLOOD FATHER) that I wish we’d see in his directorial efforts.

  17. I have a feeling this was the link Mixalot wanted…

    Dead Prez - be healthy

    It's all love . . . I don't eat no meat, no dairy, no sweets only ripe vegetables, fresh fruit and whole wheat I'm from the old school, my household smell li...

  18. Vern, you should check out the documentary about Doss called THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR. I saw it a few months before HACKSAW RIDGE came out and so I was kinda underwhelmed by the film (although Hugo Weaving was great).

    The documentary goes into the more badass shit Doss did which apparently was too unbelievable for the movie I guess? Frankly I would have loved to see Andrew Garfield use a fucking rifle stock to splint his own broken arm after getting shot. The real story behind Doss’s buddies retrieving his Bible is way more emotionally satisfying and I was surprised it was such a non-moment in the film. They actually de-Hollywooded the thing too much for my tastes, while going way overboard in other areas.

    It was a decent film, but the documentary is much better in my opinion.

  19. I also found it odd that they showed footage of the actual Captain Glover at the end of the film talking about how Doss saved his life when the film never shows such a thing happening.

  20. I was thinking about that. I think Doss pushed him away from the grenade at the end.

  21. caruso_stalker217

    February 24th, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    It’s possible. If I recall the actual event went down more like the Vince Vaughn scene, though with less action movie heroics.

    I’m also surprised they didn’t include something else that actually happened when Doss found himself in a position to drop a grenade on some Japanese soldiers and had a personal moral struggle moment.

  22. I can see why they didn’t have him save the captain that way. That’s one of those details that sounds so phony and Hollywood (like how Doss got off the stretcher after getting grenades because he thought someone else needed it more and then getting shot and still not getting back on the damn stretcher) that you’d need a disclaimer running across the bottom of the screen, PAIN & GAIN style, remind everybody that, yes, this actually happened. It’s a step too far, even if it’s real. It’s like in writing workshop when the author of a piece would inevitably point out that the detail we all found the least believable was the one that really happened. We’d all remind that person that unless he was planning on sitting next to every individual reader and informing them of that backstory, it didn’t really matter. Fiction needs to be believable. Life doesn’t.

  23. Thank you, Subtlety. Not exactly sure where the breakdown in communication kept existing for me between “copy” and “paste” that day but I’m glad one of us was able to help soothe the savage beast.

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