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Hacksaw Ridge

Opening Date
19 Jan 2017
M18 Violence and Gore
139 mins
English with Chinese subtitles
Drama, History, War
Mel Gibson
Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.
By Freddy  17 Jan 2017
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ will likely be remembered as one of Mel Gibson’s masterpieces, with its great success in portraying the atrocities of war while still maintaining a strong emotional core.
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Honestly, I am not a big fan of war films. Nevertheless, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is one of the finest 2016 films I have watched.

This is a film with distinct two acts. The first act is set in the US as we watch Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) grow up, fall in love with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), and decides to enlist in the war as a combat medic. We also see his time in military training and the challenges he faced as he refuse to bear arms. The second act is set in Japan as his unit is sent to the Battle of Okinawa. The film does a fine job maintaining a good pace given its shifts in tones and a rather lengthy 139-minute duration.

As with many films based on a true story, certain parts become predictable. The film’s tagline states ‘One of the greatest heroes in America never fired a bullet’. A quick Google search would tell you that the film is based on a true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. This tells us a few things. Firstly, we know that Doss will go to war despite all the challenges he faced in the first act. Secondly, we know he would save a lot of lives and survive.

Nonetheless, as with other biographical films, what matters is going into how the characters become who they are. Desmond Doss is a character I would criticize for being unrealistically stubborn if he were a fictional character, but reality is often stranger than fiction. Garfield does a good enough job to portray Doss’s conviction and why he insisted on sticking to his terms.

The first act is rosy, peaceful, often cheesy. But it sets up and develops the characters, as we learn more about him and his fellow soldiers. These are the people that we would root for during the second act, as we know that not all of them might survive.

The second act is a full-blown war film. Never in my life have I felt so immersed in a war. Gibson is unafraid to depict the brutality of war with gore, blood, and missing limbs. His experience with ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Passion of the Christ’ shows. Soldiers died within seconds of entering the battlefield and that is the truth of war. The second act sometimes feels like a horror thriller, complete with occasional jump scares, which might feel out of place at times. Looking at war as a horror film is intriguing, though.

I enjoy the fact that the second act feels like a gut punch. I find the contrast between the light-hearted first act and the gritty, brutal second act to be a good way to put us in the shoes of the soldiers. Their training did not prepare them for this, just as the first act does not prepare us for what the second act brings. The second act is clearly the superior part of the film, but it is given more weight due to the emotional investment we have developed for the characters in the first act. Gibson ensures that the war is violent and barbaric but at the same time deeply moving.

Garfield acts his role well, giving heart, charm, and determination to a stubborn, sometimes unreasonable Desmond Doss. As film hinges heavily on him, other actors have much less to work with. Performances that stood out for me are Hugo Weaving as Doss’s father, Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell, who both serve as father figures to Desmond in their own ways. Luke Bracey and Luke Pegler as Smitty Riker and Milt “Hollywood” Zane respectively, manage to become memorable characters with enough development in the time they are given. Teresa Palmer and Rachel Griffiths as Desmond’s mother do not have a lot to work with but are serviceable.

The cinematography serves the film well, transitioning well between the bright period drama in the first act to the sombre, frantic battle in the second act. The camera work in the second act feels very immersive, carefully following the soldiers’ steps and strategy. The focused direction ensures that the audience does not feel lost in the frenzy. There are memorable shots towards the end as Desmond Doss is lowered from the ridge and when he is cleaned with water afterwards. Those scenes feel almost biblical.

The film unexpectedly ends with a short documentary with actual footage and photographs of the people after the war. We also see interview scenes with Desmond Doss before he passed away, telling stories about the war that were recreated earlier in the film. These scenes give more gravity to the ‘based on a true story’ nature of the film, despite being peppered with some historical inaccuracies.

‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is not without its weaknesses, with its corny jokes, cheesy moments, and frustrations at Doss’s bullheadedness in the first act. Nevertheless, the contrast with its second act works well that these shortfalls are easily forgivable. ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ will likely be remembered as one of Mel Gibson’s masterpieces, with its great success in portraying the atrocities of war while still maintaining a strong emotional core. While I have not seen a lot, it is the finest war film I have ever watched.
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