War is a staple of cinema. Since the days of Méliès, Pathe and Edison there has been a desire for films to show what most people will have never seen. Before the invention of cinema, and for some time afterwards, there was no way to see what a battle really looked like. The only interpretations available to the public were in paintings and the written word. War battles gave silent filmmakers an easy shortcut to making something that is fantastical, out of this world, and intensely visual: the people who are dressed differently are the bad guys, the people who fall have been shot. Storytelling is at its core about binary oppositions, about positioning a subject that represents one ideal against a subject that represents the opposite (light side v dark side, nature v technology). This structure is neatly laid out in war, the armies even wear different colours to aid the process. War films in the early days, however, were a guessing game, less based in reality than what we know now. Once wars took place in a world where photo and filmography existed newsreels and photos from the front line allowed for a clear evidence of something that had thus far consisted mainly of eye witness testimony.
Hacksaw Ridge is a real war story about Desmond Doss, a medic who served in WWII at the battle of Okinawa. As a true to life story it has its foot placed firmly in the realm of reality. Andrew Garfield plays the medic, who was a conscientious objector who volunteered himself to support the war effort on the field as opposed to back home. The opposition of the film however, comes not from the opposing side of the war but from the American side, where Doss is refused the right to serve while remaining pacifist and not touching a gun. Here, the binary opposition comes from pacifism v pugilism.
The film is somewhat disjointed due to its clear separation into three acts, the home life section which plays like Forrest Gump’s romance with Jenny and sets the story in motion. The second act is a traditional army training tale that draws influence from Full Metal Jacket and plays out like The Secret War of Lisa Simpson, followed by Doss facing possible court-marshal for his pacifism. Finally, the film becomes an out and out war film a ’la Saving Private Ryan. The film is oddly structured, facing pacing issues by indulging itself too much in its first act and saving all its violence for the final act but all in all the final battle sequences are built up to well with sufficient characterisation driving our desire to see Desmond Doss succeed.
I did have problems with the ending of the film however, detailed here. The film has a positive message of staying true to what you believe in and honours the peacekeeper, yet at times seems to revel in violence and destruction in a way that is at odds with the moral baseline of the film. There are also issues with the film being somewhat too emotionally manipulative, containing a rushed romantic plot that is filled to the brim with clichéd lines of dialogue and many moments where the film stops to state how you should be feeling at the time. The film is brilliantly directed and the visuals do their job so well that words are not always needed yet are always used. In addition, our main character is somewhat too idealised, with no discernible flaws aside from his pacifism. Yet that can be forgiven when a film is made to honour a real-life hero, but it also does appear that the main aim of the film is to win awards.
Andrew Garfield has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Desmond Doss and it’s not hard to see why, he imbues the character with a sweet naivety that radiates from his goofy, overactive smile. He remains naturalistic and believable as the only American soldier that isn’t brimming with testosterone. Other performances are straight forward and unflashy and serve to highlight how clearly Doss is in an unfamiliar environment.
The film is an achievement in production design, creating an intensely believable and gritty battleground that has a great sense of space and danger. Plaudits must go to the sound design team, that manages to create a magnificent, breathing 3D world in the final act of the film. Bullets hit as hard as possible, explosions won’t let up and the danger the soldiers face is elevated because of the intense sound within.
Hacksaw Ridge is a film that will play to large audiences, there is not much to use to take away from it on a surface level. It is brilliantly crafted, slickly designed and impressively layered, every facet of the film exudes effort. Where it falls apart is in its generic story beats, however they are executed well enough to excuse themselves.
I, personally, have issues with the unnecessary over-dramatization that is applied but I believe most people will not. If the occasional historical inaccuracy can be forgiven then this is a great film suitable for everyone with only odd pacing and a weak romance subplot to hold it back.