Mel Gibson does not blink in the face of violence. His film “The Passion of the Christ” was labeled “torture porn” by one friend and “a bloody mess” by another. “Braveheart” was an award-winning epic, but bloody battle sequences were a large part of that film. Gibson stepped away from filmmaking for a while due to a moronic episode with a female California Highway Patrol officer, his blood-alcohol level and a seriously poor choice of words. His last directing credit, “Apocalypto,” was ten years ago. Well, Gibson is back with the true story of a pacifist who will not touch a gun, yet volunteers to serve in World War II.
Desmond Doss is a Seventh-day Adventist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, compelled to serve his country and follow his faith at the same time. Doss is played impeccably by Andrew Garfield. His acting was less than serviceable as Spiderman, but here as a man of God and as a man with a sense of duty to his country, Garfield is subtle and convincing. The love of his life is a nurse named Dorothy. She is played with a heart of gold and sincere spirit by Teresa Palmer, the next in a long line of Australian actors showing up in American films. She has a gleaming smile and clear eyes and a fierce loyalty to her boyfriend/husband as things get difficult.
Difficult is a sense that plenty of the guys in his unit resent the fact that he will not pick up a gun, and the beatings begin long before Doss gets to the battlefield. There is plenty of drama as Doss goes through Hell just to get to serve. An emotional military trial almost sends him to Leavenworth Penitentiary until aid comes from his broken alcoholic father, a bitter World War I veteran.
The story moves to the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, where the carnage is everywhere and the unrelenting attack of Japanese causes heavy casualties on the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division, known as the Liberty Division. When all the other U.S.troops have fallen back into safety, Doss stays behind in no-man’s land, praying for guidance and rescuing wounded soldiers. He fights exhaustion and enemy fire to save men who were left for dead, lowering them to safety again and again.
About this point in the movie, it dawned on me that as an 18 year-old, my Dad served in the Battle of Okinawa. Like plenty of U.S. soldiers, he was wounded in the engagement. Some brave medic carried my father to safety back in 1945, so the film resonates with me. It may not connect that way with the rest of the film-going public, but it certainly will leave a lasting impression. The gore and violence don’t let up, neither does the intense cinematography and Gibson’s eye for detail.
Like several other well-made war films – “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Das Boot” come to mind – “Hacksaw Ridge” lays on the gore with rats, maggots, mutilated bodies galore. Gibson has made a film that stands up to those previous films. A story of a man brave enough to serve in his country under savage conditions, armed only with his faith. When asked how many lives he saved, Doss put the number somewhere around 50. Eye witnesses put the number closer to 100. Whatever the number, Doss’ selfless act of heroism earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.