By Esosa Omo-Usoh
The first hour of Hacksaw Ridge takes us into the rural Virginia childhood of its protagonist, Desmond Doss, a simple boy who grows up into a simple man in even simpler surroundings but destined for a not-so-simple glory.
Growing up, he got into one too many boyish scraps with his brother one of which almost ended in a tragedy. A domestic scrap between his abusive war veteran father and his deeply religious mother ended with him confronting his father with a gun. This incident ultimately imprinted in him the pacifist stance that would eventually define his adult life.
A chance encounter with a pretty nurse in a hospital unfurls a new chapter in his simple rural life. Smitten with love, Doss literally becomes the titular Billy in Wynonna Judd’s slow tear-jerker hit song “She is his only need”. He woos and wins her heart with the honest simplicity of a country boy in love.
Just when it was beginning to feel like Hacksaw Ridge was a slow boring movie about a simple country boy and a pretty nurse falling in love, war literally brings it to an end and violently shoots the movie towards another starkly different direction.
A pacifist Doss, filled in equal measures with his deeply-held religious convictions as a Seventh Day Adventist and patriotism to serve his country at war time, enlists himself in the army much to the chagrin of his alcoholic father who was still smarting from his battle traumas from WWI and the survivor’s guilt left in its wake.
Doss’s enlistment in the army sees him going to an army boot camp reminiscent of the kind in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket complete with its own version of the R. Lee Ermey-ish hard-ass slave driver drill sergeant played by Vince Vaughn.
When our pacifist conscientious objector reveals his intention not to carry a weapon in discharging his duties as an army medic, neither the rank and file of the army is impressed. So, they proceed to make his life in boot camp a living hell in order to encourage him to delist himself.
However, Doss may be beanpole thin and his drill sergeant may have advised “make sure you keep this man away from strong winds”, but his stubborn resolve to stay enlisted was made of much stronger stuff than a German panzer.
The army literally pulled all the stops to get Doss out including a court martial but he remained resolute. They eventually give up and send him and his unit to the Japanese Island of Okinawa to capture the dreaded Hacksaw Ridge. Enroute the ridge, they encounter the returning decimated remains of the 96th infantry division they had been sent to relieve. This puts their mission in scary perspective for them and sets the tone for the next half of the movie.
The battle of Okinawa to capture Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese unleashes, arguably, the most relentless and viscerally brutal battle scene in cinema since the D-day landing scene in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In recent times, perhaps, only Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor comes close to comparison in the sheer viscerality of the brutal battle scene.
In his first directorial effort in 10 years, Mel Gibson brings to bare in the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge his favourite elements of shock and awe ultra-violence deployed to much success in his prior directorial works like Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.
The sheer brutality and mindless blood and gore of the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge make you question the intelligence of the evolution of our specie. How can a specie that has evolved to the apogee of advancements mankind has attained devolve to the crudest means of dispute resolution evidenced by battle scene carnages in wars?
As if almost in answer to this rhetorical question in your head, you observe the shocking emotional unintelligence of the audience in the movie theatre laughing hilariously at the carnage on the screen, and in that moment; that devolution is explained.
It is within the milieu of the carnage that the viewer is expected to situate the dialectics of Doss’s pacifist moral code. Speaking of which; said moral code, much like the depiction of God in the old and the new testaments of the Bible, takes on an almost self-contradictory Jerkyll and Hyde underpinning.
A pacifist conscientious objector who stubbornly insists on enlisting in the army does not make the self-contradictory bent of his moral code less jarring by refusing to bear arms whilst discharging his duties as a soldier.
Doss may have expressed an aversion to handling guns but when the jackboot hit the killing fields of Hacksaw Ridge, one scene had him improvise a makeshift gurney with a rifle and a blanket to rescue his injured drill sergeant who then unleashed a volley of bullets on an advancing team of Japanese soldiers whilst Doss was frantically dragging him to safety.
Perhaps, to soften the carnage of the battle scenes, Director, Mel Gibson, made an effusive paint brush strokes with slow-motion effects suggestive of an almost spiritual redemption in the scenes where a battle-weary hero Doss is rescued lying on a stretcher suspended in mid-air and a baptismal shower that literally washed the blood off of him.
As Doss, Andrew Garfield gave a believable and endearing performance of a simple man undeterred from abiding by a moral code that would task even the most principled of men and unafraid to face physical challenges that would test the bravery of even the strongest of men.
As Doss’s alcoholic and abusive war veteran father, Hugo Weaving, took on a role that marked a remarkable departure from the iconic roles that have won him acclaim as Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy and as the Elfen King, Elrond in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He gave a believable performance as a father too damaged by war to rescue both himself and his family from the further abuse fuelled by his alcoholism, but still filled with enough love and pride in his son to go to lengths to stop his court martial for standing up for the principles of his faith.
As drill sergeant Howell, Vince Vaughn gave a mention-worthy performance that will no doubt draw parallels with R. Lee Ermey’s in in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Again, Vaughn has proved himself as one of the most talented and underrated actors of his generation. He can take on talent-stretching roles in comedy and drama with inimitable and seamless fluidity. His comedic timing in comedy is always brilliant as is his pensive intensity in drama.
Billed as a true story, Hacksaw Ridge is the story of a simple man of faith with a complex moral code that weaves an even more complex web of emotions around the viewer as it unfolds. It is not extraordinary in its storytelling but it leaves you with extraordinary emotions when it is done telling its story.