When Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge garnered a bunch of Oscar nominations including Best Picture, it seemed as though Hollywood had forgiven the once-scorned director after a decade-long sabbatical. Gibson had previously turned down the project twice; it's quite possible he looked at this an ideal opportunity for critical redemption, turning a veteran's story into much more than a standard soldier bio mixed in with the director's trademark battlefield brutalities and religious ruminations. Still, Hacksaw Ridge won over audiences with a “true story” which stuck pretty close to the facts regarding a quiet, humble man from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia who would become one of the great heroes of World War II.
Early in the film we see Desmond meet and court nurse Dorothy Schutte, who would inspire him to become a medic while serving with the focus on saving lives rather than taking them. What's so unique about Doss' story was his refusal to carry a weapon into combat; as a result, his fellow soldiers branded him as a coward while he was merely remaining committed to his beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist. Despite constant intimidation and bullying from not only his fellow solders but also his drill sergeant (an amazing Vince Vaughn in a rare dramatic role), Private Doss stays true to convictions and manages to get through a court-martial over his Conscientious Objector status. In May 1945, Doss is shipped off along with the 77th Infantry Division to fight in the Battle of Okinawa. Despite his division suffering as many heavy losses as the previous ones sent to take an escarpment known as Hacksaw Ridge, Doss miraculously saves the lives of 75 men—including several Japanese—resulting in Doss being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
According to the Veterans Affairs, there are just over 500,000 American veterans of World War II who are still alive and most, if not all, will be gone within the next decade. My grandfather Steven took 5 bullets on D-Day and, like Doss, I grew up in Virginia, though far enough away from his hometown of Lynchburg that he was unknown to me up until now. Many critics have cited Hacksaw as the finest war film since Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, though I would go so far in that it's the finest since All Quiet on the Western Front way back in 1930. Gibson has proven once again how much of a master he is behind the camera and Hacksaw Ridge comes off as his most potent and evocative work, overflowing with such verisimilitude you can literally feel Gibson's undying devotion in delivering the story as truthfully as possible. Gibson also found the perfect actor to portray Doss, as Andrew Garfield incredibly (and accurately) conveys Doss' pacifism with a generous amount of genuine emotion. By the time of the film's ferocious battle scenes, we completely forget who is playing Doss, especially when he keeps asking God multiple times, “Please help me get one more.”
What's even more astonishing is the fact that Hacksaw Ridge was filmed entirely on location in Australia, and I can safely say that I'm not the only Virginian who was fooled into thinking the first act was actually filmed there. Much of the supporting cast was Australian, including Hugo Weaving & Rachel Griffiths, both wonderful as Desmond's parents, as well as the beautiful Teresa Palmer as Doss' loving wife. Also hailing from down under are terrific turns by Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey as Doss' captain and fellow soldier Smitty, respectively, the latter of whom gives Doss a hard time during training. While Hacksaw Ridge only picked up 2 Oscars, it also managed to win 9 awards (out of a total 12 nominations) from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). As someone who's been a real fan of Australian cinema, I couldn't be more thankful for them helping Gibson and the producers in filming Hacksaw Ridge and every single award was well deserved.
- BLU-RAY SPECS & EXTRAS -
Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment once again delivers with their Blu-ray of Hacksaw Ridge, which includes DVD and digital copies. Presented in 2.39:1 and 1080p widescreen, Simon Duggan's cinematography is both gorgeous and gruesome, considering the amount of carnage on display. The lush beauty of the Virginia scenes are more than enough to prepare one for the violent Okinawa battles, all of which are captured with superlative clarity. Aside from the editing, the film's sound also won an Academy Award and believe me when I say every single bullet and exploding bomb comes through in the Dolby Atmos track. Additional Dolby tracks are available in TrueHD 7.1, 5.1 Spanish, and 2.0 English, along with subtitles in both languages. Special features on the Blu-ray include a 70-minute documentary "The Soul of War", which focuses on the making of the film. Gibson was interviewed twice, one time with a beard and the other time without, probably due to acting in the thriller Blood Father during the first interview; regardless, Gibson comes off as both sincere and professional, talking about to his approach to the picture and the battle scenes in particular. Interviews are provided by the majority of the cast and crew, but the most interesting comes from Doss' son Desmond Jr., who thought Garfield & Palmer were remarkable as his own parents, emotionally compromising him to the point of tears. "The Soul of War" doc is only available on the Blu-ray, as the DVD only has Gibson's Veterans Day greeting, four minutes of deleted scenes, and the theatrical trailer.
With the recent release and equal acceptance of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in 70MM, hopefully we will see more WW2 stories make it to the screen in the next few years to celebrate our heroes before they are all gone forever. In a time where we we are treated to a new superhero/comic book movie on almost monthly basis, it's truly refreshing to see these stories of real heroes being memorialized onscreen with heart and conviction on the part of the filmmakers. Hacksaw Ridge is one of 2016's best, a true story which had to be told onscreen and Mel Gibson miraculously overcomes his tainted reputation with a movie every bit as powerful and inspiring as its protagonist. If you wish to learn more about Doss, I highly recommend you check out the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector, the book companion Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge by Booten Herndon and a 1959 episode of “This is Your Life,” which provides a rare glimpse of Doss, his family and colleagues after the War.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR -
Stone Gasman has been addicted to cinema ever since he was a child, becoming hooked on Chaplin, Hitchcock and Wilder by the time he was 10 years old. The film which changed his life was The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 winner for Best Picture and eight additional Oscars, which ultimately inspired him to join the US Navy. He is now a disabled veteran residing in New York City.