Whenever I watch a World War II movie, I spend the entire time asking myself whether or not I should be watching Band of Brothers instead. Hacksaw Ridge is a movie split in two, and has two answers — “yes, definitely” and “No. Well, yeah, probably.”
Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor after dragging 75 wounded men to safety* while under artillery fire during the Battle of Okinawa. The first half is tough to get through, covering Doss’ insistence on joining the military and the boring courtroom drama that ensued, him meeting his boring wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a primer on his boring upbringing and all the boring abuse that he took during basic training. The back half, covering his heroics on the ridge, is pretty kick-ass.
The main problem with the first half of Hacksaw Ridge is it’s difficult to get invested in emotionally because it demands the viewer sympathizes with Doss’ extremely confused morality. Devastated by the attack on Pearl Harbor*, Doss is adamant that he be allowed to join the military, and adamant that the military allow him to live out his religious beliefs.
Doss has gone on an intense emotional journey to reach this point in his life, but the audience is asked to take that journey for granted. The film spends next to no time explaining his point of view or impressing on the viewer how important these beliefs are to him. We barely get to see the two formative events that drive his personal aversion to killing. We don’t get to see what gives him so much faith. We don’t even get to see him learning about the Pearl Harbor attack. Much like Birth of a Nation last month, this is a movie about an intensely religious person, but not a religious movie.
So when viewers are asked to sympathize with Doss’ convictions without any emotional reason to do so, it’s tough not to sympathize instead with the Army officers who are trying to deal with this guy who won’t work Saturdays and won’t even touch a firearm. Instead of being inspired by Doss’ refusal to accept the discharges he’s offered, I’m instead left wondering why he’s being such a wishy-washy prick.
When Hacksaw Ridge finally gets to Okinawa, it revs into a high-octane World War II movie. It’s got all the blood and guts and explosions and missing limbs you could possibly want. Okinawa, and Hacksaw Ridge in particular, was one of the most savage battles in the entire war, and Hacksaw Ridge does it justice.
The extended battle sequence is a breath of fresh air after the dreary first half, and the film maintains its intensity when Doss refuses to retreat and spends the night carrying fallen comrades back to the cliff face.
There are a lot of different directions this movie could have gone to make it better. Doing a better job of emotionally grounding the viewer in Doss’ perspective is one, or maybe emphasizing the split by having viewers sympathize with Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) in the first half and betraying them when Doss becomes a hero. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers plot-point-to-plot-point affair, so there’s really no end to the ways it could have been improved.
One of the things that really sticks out to me, though, is the way it’s gross but clearly sanitized at the same time. During the basing training leg, the movie makes fun of one character, Milt “Hollywood” Zane (Luke Pegler) for being caught and forced to train in the nude, but takes great care in not actually show him naked. In the Okinawa sequence, director Mel Gibson relishes in showing us the carrion ecosystem of the battle. The movie is trying to shock with these shots, but they don’t feel real. There are never any mid-decomposition corpses, they’re all covered with several broods worth of maggots or an entire litter of dog-sized rodents — gross and affecting, but highly cinematic. The goal is partially to make the world feel lived-in, but it seems staged.
Set around a World War II true story and featuring meaty roles for its actors, Hacksaw Ridge is clear-cut Oscarbate. The Academy will probably take a shine to the movie, particularly Garfield’s hysterical overacting, and the narrative of Gibson, Hollywood’s favorite psychopath, coming out swinging with his first movie in 10 years, will probably carry it far.
See it if you want to know what they’ll be talking about, I guess. But if you instead watched the first episode of Band of Brothers and then the battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan, you’ll have essentially seen a better version of the same movie.
Leopold Knopp is a journalism student at the University of North Texas. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.