Piece by Piece: A Deconstruction of Hacksaw Ridge

In Piece by Piece we will be focusing on films in a much more detailed way, taking a look at the flaws and strengths of specific films. First up is Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge

Based on the real life story of Desmond T Doss, a medic in the second World War who signed up despite his refusal to use a rifle. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his services at the battle of Okinawa. Andrew Garfield takes lead in this war time biopic directed by controversial figure Mel Gibson, who appears to be on the road to recovery of his reputation. Hacksaw Ridge has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

One of the first things that struck me upon leaving the cinema after seeing Hacksaw Ridge was how the film was clearly segmented into three disparate acts much more obviously than your usual film. So I am going to tackle each of these in order to give an overview before posing the issues I have with the film.

This article will be spoiler heavy.


The film sets itself up in traditional biopic style, showing us Doss’ childhood and putting into place the lessons that young Desmond learned that made him a hero in later life. While the film is efficient in doing this, and is clearly a fan of the character they are portraying it severely lacks subtlety. Exposition in the film is detailed but still somehow feels rushed. In the opening Desmond is threatened with a belt by his father after a violent altercation involving a brick, one scene later Desmond uses a brick to prop up a car that has crushed a man’s leg and applies a tourniquet using his belt. The film lacks subtlety from the beginning and continues in this vain for the rest of the film. The opening, pre-war scenes set in Virginia are all very melodramatic and colourful.garfield

Doss lives in a perfect Americana ripped straight from a Steinbeck novel, and Garfield plays the role like a toned-down Forrest Gump, all smiles and mild-mannered sincerity. He hikes to the top of gorgeous mountains with his sweetheart and helps his church and community. The whole opening is long winded and indulgent, it gets through the messages it wishes to in the first few minutes but carries on for half an hour more. The conclusion of this act is Doss deciding to become an army medic, something which he trains for by reading a book on anatomy, which the film dedicates little time to.


Once Doss volunteers for the war he is thrown into a very familiar scene for all film fans, the introduction to B company could be ripped right from Aliens or Starship Troopers. Followed by a Full Metal Jacket style dressing down sequence by Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). It is the most humorous sequence of the film and provides an effective method of exposition, introducing us to soldiers through funny insults helps their identification later in the film. This is then predictably followed by a training montage of an obstacle course which we have all seen a hundred times before, it is in this sequence that the film begins to fall into the trap of a condition I like to call Protagonitis, wherein the main character is the best for no clear reason. Doss finishes first in the obstacle course on his first day, establishing him as the most physically fit member of the company. Yet the strength of Doss is in his persistence and drive rather than physical fitness, he is even referred to as a corn stalk by Sergeant Howell. By establishing him as a man of peak physical fitness it devalues the achievements of later in the film.pacifism

The main dramatic force of the film then takes hold, where Doss refuses to touch a rifle even in training and his company and superiors begin to turn on him. There is not much to say about this portion of the film as it is effective and moving, as Doss fights against all reason to preserve his principles. His fellow soldiers attack him in his bunk, he is threatened with court-marshal and attempts are made to have him diagnosed as unfit for service. Through all these trials Doss stays strong to his beliefs and refuses to bear arms.


In the final third of the film we are introduced to the fabled war we’ve been so prepared for, and it is here that the film is at its most memorable. B Company must climb above the ridge and take control of it from the Japanese, when they get to the top they are faced with a shocking number of combatants. The Japanese soldiers have only been talked about in hushed tones up to this point and they are introduced through a brutal battle scene which focuses on the death and firepower on display. Bodies are flung about like ragdolls and people are burned alive, limbs fall away in each shot and within seconds each soldier is covered in blood and dirt. The battlefield consists of shadowy mounds of dirt, debris and corpses and the choreography of the fighting and the immense sense of space displayed is on par with Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The battle is long and arduous and serves as a satisfactory display of the scale of push back that B Company is facing.battleground

Whilst the battle takes up a lot of time and features what is most likely the majority of the film’s budget it serves purely as a set up for the story of Doss’ bravery. He stays up on top of the ridge after being ordered to retreat, collects as many wounded as he can and winches them down to safety by hand as Japanese soldiers patrol the battleground executing survivors, all while unarmed. It is an amazing story of willpower that is worthy of all the build-up it has received and is a fitting conclusion to what is a moving and powerful film.

Dramatic Exaggeration and the True-Life Story

There is a problem that I have which will not leave me, and is indicative of my biggest issue with Hacksaw Ridge, and that is displayed in the images below:


The images show a photograph at the time of the real contested ridge and the dramatized version put on to film. It is understandably a part of filmmaking to make everything bigger and better, but it is questionable in a true to life story. There is a huge difference between lowering the bodies of 75 men down a 50ft cliff and a 200ft cliff, and by exaggerating the size of the outcrop Desmond Doss crosses the line from strength of character to superhuman. It could be argued that the film does a disservice to the true heroism at the centre of the film by muddying the story with fabrications.

It is symbolic of the film suffering from Protagonitis, it reveres its hero in such a way as to make him appear almost unrealistic, and by doing this films make other, reliable moments of the film appear unreliable.

In the second act Doss is refused furlough and imprisoned by the military on what is supposed to be his wedding day. Supposedly Desmond’s friends and family had all gathered in the church waiting for the groom despite him not being home yet. Dorothy is wearing white and standing at the front of the church when she realises her fiancé isn’t turning up. Assumedly they had begun all the proceedings in advance. It is exactly this type of constructed dramatic nonsense that adds nothing to the story and is a failing of the person who adapted it. The only purpose it serves is to sow doubt into the minds of the viewer, when this clearly fake sequence occurs it makes you question the validity of the rest of the claims that the film makes.

  • Did his superiors really try to dismiss him for refusing to bear arms?
  • Did his fellow soldiers really threaten and degrade him for this?
  • Did he really treat wounded enemy soldiers?

These issues are all brought in to question when the viewer is faced with the unbelievable and there is nothing more frustrating than the unnecessarily unbelievable. The story in itself is awe inspiring and a testament to a real-life hero, then why do the filmmakers add an extra 150ft to the ridge’s height, and make him miss his wedding day when he was in fact married before he left West Virginia, why must his father go over his head to get him pardoned when in fact he did not effect the case at all in real life.

The answer to the questions listed above is yes, by the way.

It is kind of insulting to the power of the real story to tweak it in such a way, the actions speak for themselves, the story is amazing all by itself. It is a shame that the film is as manipulative as it is, because the skill on display is incredible, the sound design is some of the best work I’ve heard in years and the realism of the sets and props are visceral and realised to an amazing degree.

The question which I want to ask is whether it is necessary to exaggerate in films based on true events for dramatic tension, should directors and screenwriters work with what they are given only or is this practice commonplace for a reason? I believe it tarnishes what is otherwise a brilliantly made film.


Morals and the War Movie

Hacksaw Ridge is a film about how different people approach acts of war, Desmond Doss’ religion means that he is greatly opposed to killing. He acknowledges that it is a necessary part of war, but a necessary part of war that he needn’t be privy to, he can serve in his own way. It is a strong message that seems to defy reason in favour of morals. People tell Desmond in the film to just pick up a gun, train in using it but never use it in battle, people argue that he should at least have the option to save his own life in an emergency, and others claim that a wartime is a special circumstance where daily responsibilities are put aside and the moral spectrum is shifted a few inches to the right.

Yet Desmond does not allow exterior circumstances to change his behaviours, he sees it as a compromise of his belief, in The Conscientious Objector Doss states “I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble… because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”

In the film, Desmond Doss stands tall as a representation of a man who will not engage in a moral slippery slope, it is admirable and inspiring and one should assume is the message of the film overall. However, this is called into question by the dramatic ending of the film which is a rousing montage set to inspirational music, of American soldiers murdering droves of Japanese soldiers, of them burning alive and their leader performing Seppuku. It revels completely in the violence and gore of the situation without an irony, a strange choice for a film about saving people’s lives while faced with death and violence at every turn. The final triumphant battle scene is a celebration of the brutalism of war instead of a meditation on the power of saving lives.

The scene leaves a sour taste in the mouth. If it were not followed up by a credit sequence of real life interviews with Desmond Doss and others involved it would compromise the moral lesson of the film entirely. It calls into question the intention of the film, which seems to be arguing for war as a necessity yet exploits it for entertainment as much as it can.

Hacksaw Ridge is, on the surface, the best war movie in years

Gibson’s dramatic license needs to be revoked

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.

Silence is a quiet meditation on Christianity and torturous barbarism

Scorsese has skewered the American Dream better than anyone else, now he tries his hand at the opposite

Martin Scorsese has gained enough points throughout his illustrious career to be a box office draw all by himself, but with the release of a 170-minute-long film displaying the trials of Jesuit missionaries I think he may have found the limit that his name has. People expect more of the same and with the release of Silence Scorsese has surely not given people what they expect. It was for this reason that four people left the cinema during the screening of Silence that I attended. Although it is hardly likely that a lack of box office will reduce the legendary director’s clout in the industry, especially when the film is a stunning example of cinematography and sound design.

Silence announces itself to its audience, it opens with a black screen and ambient noises of cicadas increases until it is deafening before cutting out completely as the title reveals itself. It’s a powerful opening to what proceeds to be a powerful film. The film follows the Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) as they travel to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They travel to Japan where Catholicism has been outlawed and priests and catholic practitioners are being executed and tortured in increasingly cruel ways. The film’s premise has similarities to Apocalypse Now and it mimics the film’s mood effectively, with knowledge of Copolla’s masterpiece creating an additional sense of dread surrounding the mentor, Ferreira’s fate.

Silence constantly shows that it is a film that has the potential to follow the Scorsese mould of brutal violence but does not indulge in it. People are seen being burned alive wrapped up in wicker like sushi, stacked upon each other like firewood. It is terrible and unforgiving but the scenes of violence merely service the true message of the film and they are used sparingly and effectively. Scorsese has the ability to tell another violent story, but it is not his prerogative. He wants to open up a conversation about other things now. Like the release of Hugo, this is a passion project for him and it shines through in a levelhandedness and a genuine moral ambiguity. The aggressive back and forth dialogue so associated with his films is replaced with voices of concern.

In all of Scorsese’s most successful films there is a narrative to be the best, to hop into a pond at the start of the film and end up as the biggest fish. It is true of Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator and more. This leads to his films having clear paths of progression; suits become more fitting, wives become prettier and characters become experts in their respective fields. It’s a reason why Scorsese speaks to so many people, it is aspirational filmmaking with a coat of gloss.

What occurs in Silence I would argue is the same type of progression, Rodrigues faces more and more testing trials, there is a clear path of regression. He goes from a marble church in Portugal to a wooden shack in a rainy Japanese mountain and only goes down from there. Yet Rodrigues’ hero is not a Casino mogul or a Wall St banker, he aspires to be like that most idolised of heroes, Jesus Christ. Instead of making money and spending money his path to imitating the success of his idol is through martyrdom. He endures tortures that test his ability to keep his faith and the tortures keep escalating. In a sense this is the polar-opposite of a traditional Scorsese flick while still retaining the narrative structure.

Andrew Garfield is put under a lot of pressure with his performance, for the majority being the only English speaker on screen. He does himself proud while performing with a difficult Portuguese accent and a wealth of dialogue. Whilst his accent does slip in places it does not take away from the film and he should be commended for the range he can apply to his character’s despair. Driver is a more divisive character who show reservations and doubts but plays it well, whereas Liam Neeson simply refuses to attempt to change his voice for the role. Which, I admit, made me laugh out loud. It is a brave choice to commit actors to accented roles but to contrast this with Neeson talking in his droll Northern Irish tones after two hours of Portuguese and Japanese is baffling.

The film has issues with being somewhat too indulgent in its moral quandaries, most notably with its ending, which drags on for much longer than needed to state something which doesn’t need to be said. For a film that values the power of Silence in filmmaking it sure screams its conclusion in your face. Its message of Religion is not always the most cinematic but it constantly finds a way to be interesting.


This is Scorsese on a philosophical level, on the surface it is a no thrills affair that could leave the average viewer bored if they go in expecting Godfellas. There is a wealth of drama hidden beneath the surface and the multiple methods of torture and brutality should haunt viewers.

It is an impassioned movie for a select audience who should be fascinated by its portrayal and it should be rewarded for not taking the easy route of constantly criticising the specifics of religion. For those not interested in religious discussion it still possesses an intense emotional central arc which provokes thought on a personal, as well as parochial level.