A look at Hacksaw Ridge (MA)…
WE haven’t seen an offering from Aussie Mel Gibson in his role as a director for just on a decade.
Last time he helmed a movie it was 2006’s amazing and moving Apocalypto involving central American native Mayans and set in the early 16th century.
Now Gibson has a World War 2 drama, arranged in three distinct parts, telling us the real-life story of decorated U.S. combat medic Desmond Doss.
Doss (Andrew Garfield) is not only a pacifist he’s a Seventh Day Adventist for whom Saturday is the Sabbath. We find out about his religious affiliation later in the story.
Gibson sets the scene and the first part of the Doss tale in 1930s Virginia where the young man lives with his siblings and their parents Tom and Bertha (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths).
Even though Tom is a drunkard and wife beater, clearly damaged by his World War 1 experiences, he has stuck up a religious poster on a family wall.
Not only does the embellished illustration feature the Lord’s Prayer it also lists the Ten Commandments.
The one which states ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ strikes a special chord with Desmond and it’s one which stays with him for life.
By the early Forties he’s met charming nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) at a blood bank clinic and they get engaged, but even so he enlists with the horrors of Pearl Harbour still fresh in everyone’s minds.
So we switch to Gibson’s Part 2 – Doss in a basic training course at Fort Jackson in mid-1942 under the baleful glare of drill Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn).
Doss completes all the training in great style, finishing in the first two or three in all the field training drills. But he doesn’t fulfil the arms segment of the course because his religious beliefs won’t allow him to touch a rifle.
So Doss appears before his company commander Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). While initially reluctant to stand down his more than handy recruit Glover sends him to a camp psychologist (Richard Roxburgh).
Next step for Doss, though, is a court martial as the psychologist’s recommendations are ignored. Here’s where Gibson and script writer Andrew Knight depart from the real-life story because parent Tom all of a sudden appears in his World War 1 kit clutching a letter from his former commanding officer, now a three-star U.S. Army general.
The chairman of the military tribunal reads the letter from the general and dismisses the case on the recommendation of his superior officer.
He sends Doss back to Fort Jackson.
That part involving Doss’ father and the general’s hand-
written note are fictional and not part of Doss’ real-life story, yet it makes for interesting and compelling viewing.
And it’s actually in the court scenes where we first hear Doss confirmed as a Seventh Day Adventist and not just some nutty conscientious objector.
Anyway with training completed and survival skills honed Doss and his unit land on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
It’s a strategic target within easy flying time to Tokyo so the Japanese military are just as determined to hold Okinawa as the Americans are to overrun it.
The orange-filled bomb and hand grenade explosions Gibson and cinematographer Simon Duggan use in the battle scenes fill the screen with endless fiery blossoms.
They’re everywhere once the American troops scale Hacksaw Ridge.
It’s up on top where the unarmed Doss excels. He takes off his medic’s Red Cross insignia as apparently Japanese snipers target the first-aid workers to sap enemy morale.
Working day and night to get injured soldiers to the cliff face, and then lowering them down the ridge using a rope knot combination learning at basic training, Doss saves dozens and dozens of wounded US soldiers.
It’s a nightmarish inferno where rats and maggots chew on the intestines and flesh of dead and dying soldiers.
Sometimes we lose sight of Doss among all the carnage and bodies.
But we never lose sight of the man’s courage. Poised on the edge of the Hacksaw Ridge drop after he’s lowered yet another wounded man Doss says to himself: “Just one more”.
And back he crawls to the hell-hole to locate another seriously injured unit mate.
Of course Captain Glover and Sergeant Howell are just two of the many wounded men Doss recovers.
Resourceful Howell uses his sub-machine gun to fire at the advancing Japanese soldiers as he’s dragged on a ground sheet by Doss to the Ridge drop.
Howell has lost the use of his legs.
No one knows exactly how many soldiers Doss rescued. Modestly the medic reckons the figure was about 50.
Glover emphatically states “100” so the US military settles on the median figure of 75 when Doss received his post-war Medal of Honour from President Harry Truman.
And tellingly as his unit is about to re-launch another assault up Hacksaw Ridge Glover and his awestruck comrades won’t move an inch until Doss completes his prayers.
It’s a Saturday and everyone waits for their revered medic to complete his devotions on his holy Sabbath.
He also has to stash his battered Bible – recovered by a fellow soldier after Doss had dropped it during one of his many evacuations – before Glover issues the ‘move out’ order on Doss’ say-so.
Interestingly Gibson used quite a few Aussie actors in the film. Apart from Worthington, Weaving, Griffiths, Teresa Palmer and Roxburgh, Gibson cast Matt Nable and Robert Morgan as US colonels.
Nable plays Lt-Col Cooney on the beach-landing site in Okinawa while Morgan (he was the bald ‘crook’ in this year’s Jack Irish tele-series on ABC-TV) is a full colonel back in the US training camp.