When should a Director draw the line between realism and romanticism? Asher Breuer-Weil suggests that the boundary should be placed somewhere along a ridge that neither glorifies nor glosses over the terrors of war. A Hacksaw Ridge to be exact...
If you were to surmise contemporary Hollywood’s pitfalls in one singular film, perhaps Hacksaw Ridge would be the pick of the bunch. There is no denying the power of the story – Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a humble, forthright Christian, enters the most gruesome of WW2 battlefields weapon-less, protected only by his values – and yet emerges a hero. The film is shot beautifully, visibly contrasting Doss’s early tranquillity of life with the chaos of his military one. It is equally acted with tremendous class; Garfield is wholly convincing as the conscientious objector, out of place within the heavily masculine dominated army, whilst other notable performances come from Vince Vaughan as the comic Sergeant Howell, and Hugo Weaving as the withered, drunken military father of Doss. But despite all these elements working in synchronized harmony, I’m left with no feeling that it’s the great film it claims to being.
As with most epic Hollywood dramas that have emerged recently: force trumps subtlety. Mel Gibson, the aged director, goes to such lengths to champion Doss’s cause that he fails to include any other elements of interest. Throughout the film Doss refuses to touch a weapon, because of his religion-induced pacifism, and thus causes a stir in basic training. On the verge of being court-martialled, he remarkably comes through the trial unscathed, and completes his training as a war-medic. When he and his unit finally arrive at the strategically-important ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (in Japan – the story is based on a real-life battle, and Doss’ story is a true one) they are met with incredible resistance from the Japanese.
Gibson’s portrayal of war is horrific – we see close-ups of limbs torn-up by shrapnel, intestines oozing out of bodies like giant earth worms, and heads scattered across the floor playing host to hordes of maggots. The camerawork during these scenes is the best technical aspect of the whole film. The event seems more theatrical than cinematic – the smoke blurs the scale of the battlefield, obscuring the more easily achieved grand sense of destruction. Rather, it focuses close on individuals as they are torn apart by gunfire or beheaded by a bayonet, giving a more personal view on the chaos.
Even with this thoughtful touch however, the scenes are still unavoidably overindulgent. The gore is overpowering, the length of the scenes causes them to lose any sense of dramatic tension, whilst the heroism of the Americans is given ridiculous precedence in contrast to an effective ant-like portrayal of the Japanese people. They are nothing more than irritating swarms that emerge from the underground, only to be squashed by the might of the US forces.
Gibson sets up an extremely interesting premise that he completely fails to develop. Doss is so remarkable for his rejection of violence in such dangerous times, and yet we see him smiling as the Americans flamethrower their way through scores of Japanese soldiers. When he stays behind in enemy territory to rescue the wounded, he never truly seems to be in danger since every near-miss is escaped quickly and with ease. These little flaws undermine what could’ve been a truly exceptional film. If only Gibson realised that the quality is in the story itself, in the subtleties of character struggles, relations and motivations; the special effects must come secondary to these.
This is where Hollywood seems to always fall over itself – the stories are there, yet the skill in tackling them is not. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is being so highly acclaimed because it’s primary concerns lie in reality rather than grandeur, honesty as opposed to bravado. If Hacksaw Ridge followed suit, only then could it be ranked amongst the league of war greats like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.