Although over twenty years have elapsed since he directed the Oscar-winning, Best Picture “Braveheart” in 1995, Mel Gibson hasn’t lost his touch as a topnotch director. The pugnacious, bloodthirsty, fact-based, World War II spectacle “Hacksaw Ridge” (**** OUT OF ****) ranks as the first memorable battlefront epic of the 21st century. Hollywood hasn’t marched out a significant WW 2 film for inspection since 1998 when Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” landed on the silver screen. Mind you, after the Allied soldiers stormed the Normandy beaches in France, the Spielberg saga degenerated into a sodden sandbag of a movie. I grew up in the 1960s when Hollywood produced patriotic movies and television shows about World War II by the dozens. As far as I am concerned, “The Longest Day” (1962) still tops “Saving Private Ryan.” While it didn’t wallow in the savagery of “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Longest Day” constituted a far more meaningful movie because it covered all sides of the combat. Comparatively, “Hacksaw Ridge” takes place in the Pacific rather than Europe and depicts the bloody battle of Okinawa, where U.S. troops encountered suicidal Japanese soldiers entrenched in caves that eventually became their tombs. Feisty filmgoers may complain that Gibson didn’t detail the entire story. For example, those flame-thrower wielding G.I.s not only incinerated Japanese troops, but also roasted the natives who had been forced to fight alongside with the Japanese. Some island women committed suicide out of fear of getting raped, while others resorted to spears to defend themselves against the invading troops. The ferocious, R-rated blood, gore, and aggression–visceral in every respect as it should be—that Gibson has staged serves to remind moviegoers that this 82-day battle constituted the bloodiest military campaign in the Pacific. While “Hacksaw Ridge” shows us that “war is hell,” this wholesale carnage celebrates the heroism of a unique WW 2 hero. Former “Amazing Spider-man” actor Andrew Garfield does a slam-bang job of playing real-life American Army Medic Private First Class Desmond T. Doss who became the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. The irony of “Hacksaw Ridge” is that it commemorates the exploits of a Seventh-Day Adventist to save lives instead of destroy them.
Now, you’d think that a movie about a conscientious objector would be very dull, but “Hacksaw Ridge” is far from dreary. Robert Schenkkan, who wrote four episodes of the World War II mini-series “The Pacific, and “The Efficiency Expert” scribe Andrew Knight follow our protagonist, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield of “The Amazing Spiderman”) from boot camp to his baptism under fire at Okinawa. They also deal with his reckless youth when he almost killed his younger brother and later disarmed his drunken father after the latter had abused his mother. The bulk of the action concerns the trials and tribulations that occurred after he enlisted. Desmond informed his Army superiors that he had no use for guns, and he refused to drill with, much less discharge a rifle on the firing range. Desmond suffered the wrath of not only his military superiors but also soldiers that he trained with, and both went to extraordinary lengths to oust him from the Army. Indeed, the Army tried to court-marshal him and his barracks buddies battered and ridiculed him because they figured that he was a yellow-livered coward. Smitty Ryker (Luke Bracey of “Point Break”) was one of the barracks ringleaders who did everything possible to make life unbearable for Desmond. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington of “Avatar”) and Drill Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn of “The Wedding Crashers”) were just as despicable, too. Nevertheless, neither Desmond’s fellow soldiers nor his superiors had any luck in running him off. He sticks out the worse of everything and goes into action as a medic. When the troops get to Okinawa, they experience combat at its most tragic. The Japanese never know when to stop and they live for the opportunity to kill Americans, even trotting out to ostensibly surrender but then pulling out guns and grenades to kill, kill, kill. Just about every appendage of the human body is blasted off or blown off. Desmond watches grimly as rats gnaw on the decomposing bodies of Americans and Japanese soldiers. Nothing about combat in “Hacksaw Ridge” is glamorous. Everybody is shocked and surprised when Desmond ascends a cliffhanger escarpment, draped with a heavy-duty cargo net, and rescues one-at-a-time, 75 wounded soldiers during the night who made his life a miserable hell in boot camp. Suddenly, they reconsider this gawky looking lad and worship him like a saint.
In an interview with “Deadline Hollywood,” Mel Gibson explained what impressed him about Desmond Doss. “The guy didn’t carry a weapon, never fired a bullet, was a conscientious objector who thought it was wrong to kill under any circumstances. But he had the guts to go into the worst place you can imagine and stick to his convictions, armed with nothing else but sheer faith. Walk in and just do the impossible, which is courage under fire unparalleled because he didn’t do it in a split second or decision or moment. He did it again and again and again.” Indeed, Gibson and his scenarists faced a gargantuan task in adapting Desmond Doss’s life. Usually, Hollywood embroiders facts to heighten the melodrama. Had the filmmakers adhered to actual events, “Hacksaw Ridge” would have seemed just ‘too good to be true.’ Lack of space prohibits me from going into detail about Doss’s life and the values that shaped him. Most of those details seem wholly incredible. Squeamish spectators may have difficulty sitting through the last half of “Hacksaw Ridge” when body parts start flying. Meanwhile, bloodthirsty moviegoers may find themselves champing at the bit as Gibson fills the first half of with Desmond’s sudsy romance with his future wife, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer of “Lights Out”), particularly when he sneaks his first kiss and she slaps him. Altogether, “Hacksaw Ridge” qualifies as unforgettable from fade-in to fade-out.