Hacksaw Ridge begins by showing its namesake in mid battle. Shown in slow motion, with sombre music and screams of soldiers in the distance, explosions and flamethrowers everywhere. Soldiers do back flips and other acrobatics as the explosions go off, some of them on fire. It all seems a bit over the top and unrealistic. Luckily, the version of this battle that we see in the latter part of the movie at actual speed is the complete opposite and this unnecessary beginning to the movie is pretty much the only bad thing I have to say about it.
After that opening we head back 16 years. Our soon to be hero Desmond Doss is a young boy, climbing mountains and getting into scraps with his brother in Virginia. His father fought in World War I and suffered great losses, turning him to drink and affecting him hugely. At times he’s violent to his wife, but not to their boys and throughout the movie we’re shown a few family events which give us some insight into Desmonds beliefs and attitude towards violence and the taking of lives.
Moving on 15 years, Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) finds himself at a hospital after helping out a local mechanic who has been involved in an accident. He is in awe of the medical staff and the work they are doing to help others. His eyes are drawn to a beautiful young nurse (Teresa Palmer) who is taking blood donations and he offers himself to give blood so that he can talk to her. He’s completely bowled over by her, and returns the next day to talk some more and to ask her out. They begin dating and after his brother enlists in the army, Desmond strongly feels that he should too.
After enlisting into the army Desmond heads off to boot camp but it’s not long before they discover his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and that he signed up to be a medic, hoping to save lives not take them. He will not touch a rifle either, and won’t work Saturdays! This alienates him from everyone else, even his higher ranking officers, and he has to endure beatings, bullying and abuse. Vince Vaughan manages to steal many of the scenes during this time, providing some genuinely funny moments as the stereotypical, aggressive drill instructor barking orders and ridiculous questions at everyone. Despite all of the abuse, Desmond sticks to his beliefs, even though on one occasion it means he ends up in jail, causing him to miss his own wedding. Eventually, he is allowed to enter battle without a rifle.
The battle in question, is at Hacksaw Ridge, set on the coast of Okinawa and heavily defended by the Japanese. Waves of Americans have already tried to scale it and take command, only to be pushed back and Desmond and the rest of the guys from boot camp are up next. Out in the water the US navy fires a barrage of shells at the ridge, giving the Americans a chance to scale it and manoeuvre into position under cover of gun smoke. And then battle commences.
The combat sequences are relentless, brutal and intense – like extended versions of Saving Private Ryan’s opener. There are heavy, bloody casualties on both sides and we are only spared a few short moments throughout in order to catch our breath. Eventually the Americans retreat back down the ridge to regroup and plan their next attack and it’s at this point where Doss’ acts of raw courage provide much of the movies focus. He stays behind on the ridge, avoiding Japanese soldiers on the lookout for American survivors to kill, and providing medical attention for those soldiers that everyone else had given up on and left for dead. He drags and carries them to the ridge, lowering them down the ridge on a rope where they can receive medical care, each time praying to god ‘please let me get one more’. And when word gets back to base of a hero, saving lives up on the ridge, it humbles all of those who abused and mocked him when they discover who that hero is.
This is a story that deserved to be told and director Mel Gibson has done an outstanding job. At the end of the movie, we actually get to see footage of Desmond at the end of the war, along with interviews with him before he died in 2006. To hear him speak about how much of the movie was true, even down to the fact that he actually said ‘please god, let me get one more’ after each rescue, puts a whole new perspective on things. Not to mention the interview with the captain who was so hard on him during boot camp, sobbing over how he had treated somebody who ended up becoming such a hero. Truly inspiring story, and a great movie.