I have an annoying habit. As an avouched cartoon-buff, I often find myself forging unintentional casts of notable people – actors, politicians and so on, premised entirely on their representation in Family Guy, the Simpsons, or American Dad. Being, then, more than familiar with Mel Gibson, solely in his aggrandised, South-Parkian inception, I tentatively relinquished a tenner, grabbed my popcorn and prepared to endure the latest directorial endeavour of a man I’d assigned to the dust-bin of cinema.
The lead, Andrew Garfield, in a biographical account of American conscientious objector Desmond Doss’s heroic contribution to the Pacific Theatre in the Second World War, is an actor I’d held in similar regard to Gibson – as the usurper of Toby Maguire, my favourite Spiderman. But, preconceptions aside, the British actor pulls it off, resoundingly. A slow opener, Hacksaw Ridge works to undercut high-octane battle sequences with a meaningfully-explored context. We are led through the chronology of a kid growing up in pre-war Virginia, under the yoke of an abusive father, marred by the legacy of the Great War. A paternal detachment that results in near-tragedy, as Doss severely injures his brother in an unmediated fight, we witness the birth of Desmond’s lifelong commitment to passivity; a powerful moment.
For a war movie, Hacksaw devotes much screen time to the blossoming of character. Doss, a Virginian of self-proclaimed ill-education, approaches the happenings of life with a frank naivety – an attribute most apparent in his nurturing of a love interest. As such, Garfield’s portrayal is often cringe-inducing, though this surely the intention of Mr. Gibson, and evokes an identifiable, Gump-esque character profile, characterised by a thick accent and an inalienable faith of action.
Not unlike Forest Gump, many of this film’s most provoking moments are a product of battles between this eternally optimistic, if not naïve, protagonist with realist, more-cynical profiles. Particularly, the interplay of Desmond and his damaged father, who’s intensities are presented exceptionally by Lord of the Rings alumnus Hugo Weaving, is powerful – contextualising the tenaciousness with which Doss adheres to his principles.
Those sombre moments that are so inescapable – yet essential – in movies confronting such brutal sensitivities as the Pacific Theatre, are approached with grace and artistry. There is an attempt overly the despondency of war with compensatory elements: personal victory, comradery and humour. Much of such is delineated in the addition of Vince Vaughn. Often type-cast as the amusing hard-head, Vaughn is here afforded room to strike a grittier balance: an instrument of death first, an amusing interjector second. Vaughn’s portrayal of pragmatic and frank Sergeant Howell is a welcome contribution – supplying a realism and often much needed reprieve from the movie’s more morbid subject matter.
Doss endures the barbs of boot camp – and the concerted effort of colleagues to have him dismissed, and ships out to Okinawa, where an immutable desire to contribute to the war effort as both a pacifist and medic is challenged further by scenes of despair, as allies return from the terror of Hacksaw Ridge. Here, the movie stretches to a prolonged and bloody climax. The audience is subjected to every push forward and fall-back – a lengthy succession of battle scenes that work well in foregrounding the protracted, incremental essence of warfare in the Asia-Pacific. Fans of the seminal Saving Private Ryan will be well-familiar and equally impressed with these sequences. CGI contributes little – thankfully, and the emersion of the audience is rarely detracted from. This movie really is a testament to good old-fashioned pyrotechnics.
As Doss comes to shirk off the doubts of his compadres – engaging in a legendary heroism, the film imparts its seminal message: the necessity of principle, the power of one man with faith. But, crucially, there is no attempt to subvert the ravages of a brutal Pacific conflict. More, Doss’s eventual victory is presented as a brief reprieve in otherwise hellish campaign – a thin column of humanity, piercing a dense haze of gunpowder and singed flesh.
Hacksaw Ridge has been accused of exporting a fundamental, sensitive moment in American history. And yes, the presence of many non-American actors is quite apparent. Yet, if such titles must reach across oceans and undercut historical sensitivities, in bringing home the terror and complexity of one of America’s most bloody conflicts – in a fashion that is as haunting as it is provoking, then really, what damage has been done?