The incredible true story of Desmond Doss, a US soldier who refused to carry a weapon into battle, Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful, moving story. The original element of a hero who isn’t keeping an eye on his kill count offers a refreshing twist.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is an ordinary person, yet like a lot of ordinary people of the era, he was forced to go for war. Although he feels the same pride and patriotism to serve for his country as his fellow men, he refuses to carry a gun or take a life, which, as his Commanding Officers reminds him, takes place in war.
Idealistic to a fault, he has to fight his fellow soldiers and superiors for the right to be a soldier who doesn’t carry a weapon, doing his duty as a medic, saving lives instead of taking them. In spite of the people and odds against him, Desmond is allowed to ‘fight’ this war his way. Deployed to Hacksaw Ridge in Japan, it doesn’t take long for his new found skills to be put into action.
Why does Desmond do what he does? Why does he face a life in military prison to stand by his principles of not touching a weapon, let alone using one? In a word, God. Raised by Christianly and the strict hand of his Father, Desmond takes the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to his own level. Not only does this mean murder but it means killing in war, or even the killing of animals. In fact Desmond does not advocate violence in any form. As with many people of faith, Desmond’s trust in his God is resilient and unshakable which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t in the context of this film.
There’s only a brief moment where Doss questions what he is doing, if his ethics are right and if God is with him. This doesn’t make him a two dimensional character, people’s faith can be so strong that nothing can shake it, but having this contrast would have provided for more dramatic, interesting questions of Desmond’s ethics. Just like those that care for him, his mother, Father and fiancé, we can find his resilience and stand point rather frustrating at times. If he were willing to jump through a few hoops he’d be able to do what he wanted with much less hassle. And like those who oppose him, you can see his ethical stand point as slightly arrogant.
Whatever you think of Desmond’s moral code, that he’s completely unwilling to compromise on, you cannot deny his incredible acts.
Although the first third of the film is enjoyable enough, as it builds Desmond’s character and introduces us to his world living remotely with his family and his romance with nurse Dorothy, the film really kicks off when we get to Hacksaw. For a war film, it’s quite late into the film that we first see combat. I felt like this worked brilliantly, it allowed the tension to build as the soldiers climbed up the ridge and slowly advance until all hell broke loose.
And it really really does break loose. It’s one of the best war spectacles that I’ve seen in a long time. It isn’t the biggest but I feel like it really captures the horrors of what happened in the dirty battlefields of WW II. It’s brutal, up close and very harrowing. It’s quite the spectacle and it manages to find a great balance between the bullets flying and Doss trying to save his wounded fellows.
It’s after the explosions stop however, when Desmond comes into his own. The last one atop Hacksaw once the retreat is called, he is determined to save as many lives as possible. Hundreds of dead and dying men have been left on Hacksaw, Desmond goes from one to another, avoiding Japanese soldiers all the while, attempting to bring as many of his friends home as he can.
The second third is definitely the strongest in the film, it’s got great sequences, fantastic action, edge of your seat tension and an inspirational story that everyone can get behind. It raises the film from a cliche war film to something more original.
The film struggles to maintain this high standard in the final third but by no means does it become a bad film. It becomes quite overly sentimental and glorified for my tastes but I understand that people like to see their heroes doing heroic things, even if it is a glorified image of war.
Special mention should be given to Hugo Weaving’s Tom Doss, Desmond’s Father. He has a really interesting backstory. He could have easily become a generic angry, drunk Father who’s son inspires to be better than. However we see that all of Tom’s anger comes from his PTSD from The Great War, which wasn’t as recognised as it is today, and even though he can do horrible things we feel sorry for him and his relationship with Desmond has a nice back a forth.
Whether or not you find Doss’s moral code right or wrong, it can’t be denied that he did something truly great and in an age where the word ‘hero’ is thrown around, it’s safe to say for his acts Desmond is earning of that title. The film does a very good job of bringing this little known story to life.