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.
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.
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.
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.