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Cinema Signal: A war story based on that of a true and indisputable hero. MOBILE version |
. "Hacksaw Ridge"

I believe it's fair to say that when you're making a movie about a fairly exhausted subject, say WWII, you'd best have a unique storyline. "Hacksaw Ridge" is just such a discovery by Director Mel Gibson who brings to us this little-known, once-in-a-lifetime true story that should make everyone swear off making assumptions about others. Which is, of course, easier said than done.

Lanky Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-day Adventist of deep conviction, is no less angry about Pearl Harbor than any man in Lynchburg, VA. He watches his brother leave for the battlefield. Believing that the war is just and must be fought, he wishes he could do his part. What's holding him back is his conviction to never kill, a vow formed when, in a blind rage, he pulled a rifle out of his alcohol-fueled father's (Hugo Weaving) hands and turned it on him for threatening to shoot his mother.

Later, an opportunity to save a man's life in a car accident brings Desmond to the hospital where he discovers nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), and it's love at first sight. In the course of their courtship, he's exposed to the practice of medicine and keeping folks alive. A light goes off. He conceives of how he can aid in the war effort after all. He'll sign up as a medic.

Without the promised medical training, the 145 lb., 5'8" would-be medic finds himself at Fort Jackson, SC, in one of the units being trained in warfare. When be refuses to touch a rifle, the squad blows up in anger. Explaining his beliefs and the enlistment promise that he would be trained as a medic, his mates hear only that he doesn't want to fight and brand him a coward. He's insulted and attacked.

[SPOILER ALERT] ahead. Those who haven't yet seen this movie and intend to may want to jump past the following seven paragraphs.

A court marshall aimed at discharging him fails when the judge, command Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), and squad Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) learn that the constitution protects Conscientious Objectors in service.

After finally receiving training as the first pacifist combat medic, his ultimate destiny awaits him during the Battle of Okinawa where a sheer cliff that's come to be known as Hacksaw Ridge must be climbed in order to attack the Japanese who have the advantage of superior numbers and the vast underground tunnels to remain hidden. As a result, they are sending dead US soliers back in droves. The men of Desmond's squad are the replacements.

The carnage in battle is starkly and intensely detailed by Gibson, accounting for a good part of the film's 139 minutes. We stay with Doss as he fulfills his mission on day one by tending to the numerous wounded men with hope and kindness, helping several off the cliff to safety below. The carnage increases the following day with an all out attack by the Japanese and seems never to stop. The toll is gruesome and by the end of the day's work, the name "Doss" is on every barely alive soldier's lips, pleading for help.

Which keeps our medic on the Ridge throughout the night, finding soldiers and squad mates still alive, avoiding discovery at the risk of his life from nighttime patrols of the Japanese. Performing an impossible task, a valorous deed. After relieving each man's pain with a jolt of morphine, he carries the soldier to the ridge line and, with rope and using his body and a tree to sustain the weight, lowers them down the escarpment to safety.

When the line goes slack, he retrieves it with a prayer to god to help him get one more. Repeat. Through the night. An incredible feat but well documented and described by no less than the real Desmond Doss. Seventy Five men in all before he descended himself down, to the silent disbelief of the warriors below and earning the Congressional Medal of Honor with shots of morphine and a will of cast iron.

President Harry Truman made the award in 1945, the year the war ended. It was three and a half years after Doss's feat on Hacksaw Ridge.

In an interview, the real Doss describes having been approached on making a film of the event many times but rejecting offers that didn't convince him that the story would be told honestly and without the exaggerations typical of the genre. And, then Mel Gibson, ten years after his last film as director (the great "Apocalypto") came along.

The biopic was written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Cinematography of the physical and artistic demands of the show earns New Zealander Simon Duggin ("The Great Gatsby") a medal of another sort.

Reviews of this film for industry outlets that I've had a chance to read make much of the scandal surrounding Gibson and that this pic is a comeback of sorts for the actor/director. That acknowledgement of personal backgound is all I've got to say on the subject. There are places to go for the details if you want to know more.

As to Gibson's directorial artistry, this film reminds us of his taste for violence, for the relentless spilling of blood, for the choreography of mass
Desmond Doss
death to a degree that virtually intercedes the narrative. The story of "Hacksaw Ridge" gave him every opportunity to follow in the cinematic footsteps of his own "The Passion of the Christ" and award-winning "Braveheart." Taken together, it's a legacy of masterful filmmaking that comes with a glorification of military violence.

Another of Gibson's directorial strong points is in casting, though I came away with qualms about two roles. While Andrew Garfield is a physical match to the subject, and there's no denying that he puts everything he's got into his role, making him convincing, his charisma is low voltage. Vince Vaughn seemed to be casting-against-type and less convincing. I saw him fight his relaxed, comedic nature while drilling his troops with the script's harsh discipline of a barracks sergeant.

Great work nods go to classy Teresa Palmer and intense Hugo Weaving, in particular.

Finally, the image of a man carrying the 200+ pounds of dead weight of so many fellow soldiers under threat of impending death is the one I carry away from this film and monumental credit goes to the man who did it and the actor who simulated it.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Andrew Garfield as unarmed U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss
Trying to take the Ridge.

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