Occasionally rousing but mostly unexceptional, Mel Gibson’s battlefield drama is a confused tour of war movie clichés.
When Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, it revolutionised the modern war film. It was by no means the best that the genre had to offer, but the first to convincingly capture the shattering sights and sounds of the battlefield. Spielberg launched a generation of imitators, from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down to David Ayer’s Fury. Following in the same tradition, Mel Gibson has returned to the director’s chair with Hacksaw Ridge, a bloody and visceral tale of courage in the face of incomprehensible horror. Ultimately it’s a messy, if ambitious, film which stumbles upon moments of greatness in an otherwise by-the-numbers tale of the Pacific war.
Hacksaw Ridge focuses on the remarkable true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a profoundly religious young man who enlists in the US Army during the Second World War but refuses to carry a weapon into battle. We follow his journey from small-town Virginia to the battlefields of Okinawa, where his bravery as a combat medic made him the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.
From its opening frames to the biblical final shot, Hacksaw Ridge is laughably heavy-handed, which is not always a terrible thing. The central cast of characters, including Garfield’s Doss, are all fairly one-note, but just about well-drawn enough to be worth investing in. Dialogue is consistently on the nose and the soundtrack is always sure to remind the viewer how they should be feeling. It’s compelling enough and never quite insults the viewer’s intelligence, but don’t expect to be dealing with complex moral dilemmas.
Structurally, the film is split very clearly into two halves, spending time to introduce Doss’s home life before he ships off to the Pacific. This first portion of the film follows a series of familiar clichés, all of which call to mind other, better films. There’s a portrayal of a naïve young romance which would feel at home in The Notebook, so suffocating is the layer of schmaltz. Then comes a brutal boot-camp training sequence, borrowing heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket but accompanied by an extra side of cheese. Following this, the film even collapses into a predictable court-room drama for an inexplicable ten minutes. These early vignettes aren’t poorly done, but disappointingly simplistic; it feels perfunctory and a little bit useless, as if Gibson is itching to get the boring stuff over with before the violence starts.
And blimey, does it start. More or less from the moment the film shifts to Okinawa is the audience thrown into the maelstrom of battle. The carnage and bloodshed of war are represented here in unrelenting detail. Desperate young men are riddled with bullets and blown to pieces with abandon, while the camera repeatedly switches to slow motion as squads of Japanese soldiers are engulfed in flames. At times, these combat sequences feel like they would be more at home in a horror film, and it’s to Gibson’s credit that he creates such an overbearing sense of confusion and dread. His obsession with graphic violence, exemplified in his previous work from Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ, remains as present as ever, but it’s just nauseating enough to avoid feeling pornographic. At its best, Hacksaw Ridge features some of the most impressive reproductions of war ever put to film, which is why it’s such a shame when it falls into incredulous moments of action movie cliché. A superfluous duel with a Japanese sniper is just one forgettable encounter which feels tonally incongruous with the rest of the film, and it diminishes the otherwise immersive effect.
Despite its eccentric protagonist, then, Hacksaw Ridge is relentlessly conventional. Gibson clearly has a story to tell, and he does so without complication or restraint. Punctuated by spells of excellence and a convincing central performance (Garfield’s Oscar nomination is well deserved), Hacksaw Ridge is a worthy entry in the war movie annals, but as a whole it fails to move far beyond mediocrity.