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Film Review / Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Probably one of my favourite films of all time now, Hacksaw Ridge charts the story of Desmond Doss, a WWII combat medic who refused to carry any weapon as was his right as a Conscientious Objector.

I had never heard of Doss before this film, and actually didn't even know for sure it was based on a real man until the very end - I watched the film because Andrew Garfield and Hugo Weaving were in it. But he absolutely deserves to go down in history as one of the bravest and most morally immovable men ever to have lived. The film, though, does take some factual liberties, and so this review is not going to refer to things adapted for the screenplay that were not in reality correct, only what made it to screen.

Desmond's father (Weaving) is a drunk veteran, ashamed and regretful of the friends and brothers he lost in the Great War. He's angry and terrified that he might lose his sons if they enlist to fight the Japanese, but Desmond's Brother Hal takes that leap first, with Desmond unable to live with himself if he doesn't follow suit. But, despising weapons of all kinds, he signs up to be a medic, to give him the chance to save lives instead of take them. The problem is, explaining his faith and moral code to his commanding officers and his brothers-in-arms is nigh on impossible, and at almost every step of the way in training they take every opportunity to get him out, not limited to beating the crap out of him. Extraordinarily, and graciously, Desmond declines to leave, and so the last ditch effort of the officers is to blackmail him into a court martial.

Part standard biopic and part utterly visceral tragic overload Hacksaw Ridge allows audiences to first experience Desmond's private reasoning for denying the use of weapons and shunning killing and appreciate the difficulty of entering an arena such as war without actually becoming implicit in it. Andrew Garfield is pretty much always compelling and he has a knack for showing the quiet vulnerability of kind of nerdy characters, while still being able to show a playful and sexy side. He gives all this in portraying Desmond, whether it's flirting with his future wife, stepping in to protect his mum from his dad, smirking at his commanding officer's jokes, or earnestly defending his rights at a court martial. There are so many moments that really allow his talent to shine, and it certainly doesn't wane when the shit hits the fan, and the troops ascend onto Hacksaw Ridge (part of the Battle of Okinawa).

Both Desmond and his comrades - as well as the audience - are plunged into a shocking and mind-numbing attack from the Japanese, which has some of the vilest and most intense destruction of bodies I have ever seen when it comes to the physical effect on these men. This was actually the moment where my brain had to take a step back and question whether this was actually a true story or not, as the thought of imagining up something so brutal seemed very distasteful and gratuitous. But no, Hacksaw Ridge is famed for being a despicably intense arena of war, and so the brutalism is justified. During this attack most of the American soldiers power through and suffer huge losses. In the immense dust and smoke and upheaval of the situation it's utterly impossible to keep track of what's happening.

So Desmond, armed with nothing but his medical pack, attends to his fallen comrades one by one as they're hit in the attacks. And when he thinks it might be over he vows "just one more", and when he's got that one, just one more. And another. Until he has single-handedly rescued what is commonly agreed to be around 75 fallen men and lowered them off the ridge to safety.

Desmond Doss was led heavily by his beliefs, yet he also held such integrity in his moral code that defied sense to most people, and he was willing to suffer the impending imprisonment after a court martial to stand by it, even when his wife begs him to just comply, just a little, just once. The real power in this film is not the fact he saves nearly a hundred lives (though obviously that is immense), it's the absolute impossibility for anyone who tried to get Doss to break his morality to succeed, and every time another person might say this is it, Doss held firm. The scenes that occur after Doss's incredible actions on Hacksaw Ridge are some of the absolute most heartbreaking and uplifting in the whole film, where Doss has changed the minds of his entire platoon, his commanding officers and even a Japanese soldier to whom he gave medical attention.

Hacksaw Ridge just blew me away, emotionally and mentally, and it's been a fair while since a film has impacted me like this. In a way it's bad, because a second viewing is never impactful in the same way, but it's also good, because now it's seared into my memory. Utterly recommended.


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