Monday, December 12, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge was written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, and directed by Mel Gibson. Yep, that Mel Gibson.

Knight previously wrote for various Australian TV movies and series that you've never heard of. Schenkkan is primarily an actor who occasionally dabbles in screenwriting, and previously wrote The Quiet American and All The Way.

Gibson is of course a batsh*t insane actor who's starred in dozens of films, as well as directing a few. He previously directed The Man Without A Face, Braveheart, The Passion Of The Christ and Apocalypto (which he also co-wrote). Say what you want about his views and his personal life, but the man knows how to direct a good movie.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the incredible true story of Desmond Doss, a U.S. soldier and Conscientious Objector who single-handedly rescued seventy five wounded soldiers during the Battle Of Okinawa.

It's also one of the best (if not THE best) films I've seen this year, which I admit is damning it with faint praise. It's a well-written and inspiring tale, made all the more amazing by the fact that it's all (well, mostly all) true. 

It's filled with memorable performances, especially by Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss. Heck, somehow Gibson manages to coax a decent performance out of human mannequin Sam Worthington!

Hacksaw Ridge is what I like to call a Dad Movie. The kind of film that can still get your dad out of the house and into the cineplex. A no-nonsense, old-fashioned, straightforward movie that your dad or grandpa can appreciate. Not that there's anything wrong with that! As far as I'm concerned there's plenty of room in the cineplex for every genre. The more variety the better, I say!


The Plot:
The film begins in 1945, during the Battle Of Okinawa in WWII. Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) is carried away on a stretcher, as his fellow soldiers tell him he'll be OK.

Sixteen years earlier we see young Desmond and his brother Hal playing outside. Desmond wallops Hal in the head with a brick, and is immediately horrified by his actions. His father Tom (played by Hugo Weaving) starts to whip Desmond with his belt, but his wife Bertha stops him, saying it won't teach the boy anything. The Doss' are Seventh Day Adventists, and as such the Ten Commandments play a HUGE role in their lives. Young Desmond stares at a Ten Commandments poster on the wall for hours, repeatedly mouthing the phrase, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Hal recovers from his head-bashing.

Fifteen years later, Desmond witnesses an auto accident, and wraps his belt around the wounded driver's leg. He rides to the hospital with the man, and meets-cute nurse Dorothy Schutte. Desmond donates blood to impress her. They eventually begin dating.

Tom and Bertha are upset when Hal joins the army to fight in WWII, since the taking of another life is strictly against their religion. Tom has extra incentive to forbid his son from fighting he himself fought in WWI, and the experience scarred him for life, causing him to become an alcoholic. Hal says he going anyway, because it's the right thing to do.

Later on Desmond joins up as well, saying he wants to become a medic to help the wounded. Dorothy is sad to see him go, and asks him to ask her if she'll marry him (huh?). He does so, and she accepts.

Tom visits the graves of his fellow soldiers, and fears his sons will share the same fate.

Desmond is shipped out to begin his basic training. Sergeant Howell (played by Vince Vaughn), puts the new recruits through their paces on an obstacle course. Desmond does reasonably well until he's told to handle a rifle. He refuses to even touch one, saying he joined to become a medic. He also informs the Sargeant that as a Seventh Day Adventist, his Sabbath is on Saturday, so could he be exempted from training on that day please? Thanks.

Needless to say, this does not go over well with Captain Glover (played by Sam Worthington), who's in charge of the base. Glover tries to have Desmond discharged, but his Conscientious Objector status prevents it. Howell then talks the other soldiers into turning on Desmond. They make his life a living hell, going so far as to drag him out of bed in the middle of the night and beat him. Amazingly, Desmond refuses to rat out his attackers and continues his training.

The Army then finds a loophole in Desmond's situation, and incarcerates him for insubordination. During his trial, Tom puts on his old WWI uniform and tries to testify on his son's behalf, saying Desmond's refusal to carry a weapon is protected by the Constitution. Desmond is eventually cleared of the charges, and is told he's free to charge into battle with absolutely no weapon whatsoever. Um... hooray, I think?

Desmond and Dorothy marry, and the next day he ships out with his squad to the Battle Of Okinawa. Their task is to retake a disputed patch of land at the top of a cliff, known as Hacksaw Ridge (we have a title!). The American soldiers scale the cliff and creep along the top of the plateau. The Japanese open fire, and a bloody (and I do mean bloody) cinematic battle ensues. Desmond runs head first into the fray, fearlessly tending the wounded as bullets fly past him.

That night the fighting dies down. Desmond sits in a foxhole with Smitty, one of his fellow soldiers who beat him. Smitty says he was wrong about Desmond, and apologizes for being such an asshole. Desmond opens up to Smitty, telling him that as a child, his father tried to shoot his mother in a drunken rage. Desmond took the gun from his father and pointed it at him, ready to pull the trigger until his mother stopped him. He threw down the gun and vowed never to touch one again.

The next morning, the Japanese strike back with a vengeance, and the Americans are forced to retreat back down the cliff. Desmond stays on top of the Ridge, running from soldier to soldier, patching them up each one. He sees Smitty, but he's been mortally wounded and dies. Desmond finds a rope and amazingly, he begins lowering them down the side of the cliff, one at a time. The Japanese come out of their bunker and begin shooting every survivor they find. Desmond somehow avoids these death squads, saving as many of the wounded as he can. He finds an injured Sargeant Howell, lowers him down the cliff, and then scales down it himself.

Back at their camp, the soldiers are stunned when they find out Desmond single handedly saved some fifty soldiers. Captain Glover apologizes to Desmond for doubting him. Glover says the next attack is on Saturday, which of course is Desmond's Sabbath. He says they'll delay the attack for Desmond's sake if he insists. Desmond prays about it, and agrees to join the battle.

The squad scales the cliff, and runs into a group of Japanese soldiers who surrender. Unfortunately it's a trick, and they toss a volley of grenades at the Americans. Desmond kicks several away and begins treating the wounded again. He's shot several times, and is placed on a stretcher and carried away.

The movie ends with footage of the real-life Desmond Doss, the only Conscientious Objector to receive the Medal Of Honor. In all, he single handedly rescued seventy five men during the Battle Of Okinawa. He and Dorothy were married until her death in 1991. Desmond died in 2006, at the age of eighty seven.

• Sometimes it's tough to review a really good movie. There's usually little or nothing to complain about, and you can only say "It's great!" so many times before the readers become bored and move on. 
Such is the curse of the excellent film review.

I'm sure there are plenty of anachronisms in the film, but I didn't spot any. The movie engaged me early on, and for once I just sat back and enjoyed myself instead of looking for flaws. I wish that could happen every time I go to the movies!

• The film begins in 1945, then flashes back to Desmond's childhood, as a captain reads, "Sixteen Years Earlier." A few minutes later we flash forward to right before Desmond joins the army, as a caption reads, "Fifteen Years Later."

Many people believe the mismatched captions are a mistake, and Mel Gibson must be bad at math. Nope! They're actually both right.

The movie starts in 1945, when Desmond is already a soldier. It flashes back sixteen years to when he was a kid, and then jumps forward fifteen years to 1944, when he first joined the army. He then trained for a year before being sent to war. So the captions are right, and Mel Gibson knows his math after all.

• Hugo Weaving plays Desmond Doss' father, Tom.

I think this may be the first time I've ever seen Weaving play a normal human being and not an evil computer virus, elf, supervillain or Transformer.

• One small warning— once the Battle Of Okinawa begins, Hacksaw Ridge becomes a VERY violent and bloody war movie. Some will say the violence is gratuitous, others will claim it's just showing the horrors of war. Whichever side's right, if you've got an aversion to gore, this may not be the film for you.

• Speaking of gore as far as I can remember, this is the first film I've ever seen in which a soldier uses a limbless body as a shield while charging headlong into battle.

• If you're a regular reader of my blog (as millions are), you know that I'm not a big fan of biopics. That's because the filmmakers invariably rewrite history for dramatic purposes and even invent incidents out of whole cloth to punch up the story. As such, most biopics contain far more fiction than fact.

Hacksaw Ridge does this as well, but not quite to the extent of other films. Yes, the writers did change a few details and exaggerate some others, but by and large the basic story of Desmond Doss' heroism is there onscreen.

Here's a list of events that were changed, compared to how they played out in reality:

In The Movie: Desmond Doss had one sibling— a brother named Hal.
In Reality: Desmond had a brother Hal and a sister named Audrey.

In The Movie: At one point, a drunken Tom Doss threatens his wife Bertha with a gun.
In Reality: Tom threatened his brother in law, not his wife.

In The Movie: Desmond's father Tom is a violent alcoholic who often beats his wife and sons.
In Reality: Tom Doss occasionally drank, but was not an alcoholic, nor was he abusive to his family.

In The Movie: Desmond meets nurse Dorothy Shutte at a nearby hospital, and donates blood in order to meet her.
In Reality: Desmond met Dorothy at church. Also, Dorothy didn't become a nurse until well after WWII.

In The Movie: It's implied that Desmond Doss joined the army.
In Reality: Desmond was actually drafted.

In The Movie: Desmond marries Dorothy before he's shipped off to Okinawa.
In Reality: Desmond married Dorothy before he ever left for basic training.

In The Movie: Desmond's fellow soldiers bully and beat him for refusing to touch a gun.
In Reality: His fellow soldiers teased him for his beliefs, but there's no evidence there was ever any physical violence.

In The Movie: Tom Doss writes a letter that stops Desmond from being court-martialed. 
In Reality: Tom contacted the Chairman of the War Service Commission, who made some calls and straightened out the situation.

• Oddly enough, many of the details the film does get right are so amazing and unbelievable that they sound like they were made up. 

Here's a list of events in the film that are actually true:

Captain Glover really did try to get Desmond transferred out of his division.

American medics really were targets for the Japanese, and routinely removed any identifying symbols and patches.

Desmond really did stay at the top of the ridge, treating as many wounded soldiers as he could. According to the real Desmond Doss, "I had these men up there and I shouldn't leave 'em. They were my buddies, some of the men had families, and they trust me. I didn't feel like I should value my life above my buddy's, so I decided to stay with them and take care of as many of them as I could. I didn't know how I was gonna do it."

Desmond really did drag wounded soldiers to the edge of the cliff, and made a sling that allowed him to lower each man one by one to safety below. Said the real Doss, "So I just kept prayin', 'Lord, please help me get more and more, one more,' until there was none left, and I'm the last one down."

The real Desmond Doss denies treating any enemy soldiers during the Battle Of Okinawa. However, several of Desmond's fellow soldiers swore they found an American bandage on an injured Japanese.

Amazingly, Desmond Doss spent twelve hours on the ridge, rescuing around seventy five wounded soldiers. He denied this however, saying the number was more like fifty. Either way, it's still an impressive feat.

The final assault on Hacksaw Ridge really was scheduled for a Saturday, which was Desmond's Sabbath. He eventually agreed to participate— against the rules of his religion—  but only if he could pray first. His company really did delay the attack until he'd finished praying and reading his Bible.

Desmond really was wounded during the Battle. An enemy grenade exploded next to him, leaving seventeen pieces of shrapnel imbedded in his legs. He then laid on the ground for five hours until he was taken away on a stretcher. As he was being carried away, he saw a wounded soldier nearby, rolled off his stretcher and crawled over to patch up the man (!). He then gave up his stretcher to this soldier, and while he was waiting for medics to return for him, he was hit by a sniper's bullet, which shattered his left arm. He patched himself up, then crawled three hundred yards— under enemy fire— to an aid station. Director Mel Gibson chose to leave this incident out of the movie, fearing the audience wouldn't believe it (!!).

Desmond really did lose his Bible after being wounded, and his men actually searched for it, found it and returned it to him.

After the events of the Battle Of Okinawa, Captain Glover's opinion of Desmond really did change completely. Glover stated, "He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing."

Hacksaw Ridge is a well-made, true story about a real American hero. Even if you're not a fan of war films, you'll find something to like in this tale of a man who stuck to his principles in the face of overwhelming odds. I give it an A-.

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