Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson’s triumphant return

A visceral war drama, where the war just doesn’t take place on the battle-scarred wastelands of Okinawa but also in the life of its main protagonist. Based on the life story of the Medal of Honour recipient, Desmond Thomas Doss, the movie explores the conflict between a man’s beliefs and his desire to serve his country as a combat medic in one of the bloodiest conflicts that humanity has ever seen.
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Directed by Mel Gibson, who makes a comeback to the director’s chair after a long hiatus, after his DUI arrest in July 2006 which basically wrecked any chance that his movie Apocalypto had at the Oscars. It is a triumphant return as the movie bagged six nominations including the Best Movie, Best Director, and the Oscar nomination for not so favorite Spiderman, Andrew Garfield.

The beauty of the film lies in not portraying the conflict as a panacea for any problem whatsoever. The conflict experienced by Desmond with his father during his growing years, conflict with his superiors and colleagues during his training as an army medic and the conflict in the battlefield are never celebrated. It just brings out the stark reality that in a world beset with constant conflicts, a guy carrying nothing else other than the Bible and the word of the lord on his lips manages to save the life of 75 wounded comrades in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater.
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President Harry Truman presenting Desmond Doss with the Medal of Honor

In his signature style, Mel Gibson doesn’t flinch from portraying violence and gore. The plot centers on Desmond Doss and how his upbringing shapes his belief. Desmond is brought up by his mother as a Seventh Day Adventist who instills the values of non-violence and the Sabbath in him. Growing up in the shadow of his abusive father who is a war veteran himself, Desmond brings to the fore the horrors of war through his personal experience during the World War I where he loses three of his best friends.

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As his wife states, war changes him into a different man – a drunk, embittered by the experience of war, prone to self-pity with streaks of violence. He idly watches his sons fight in which one of the fights almost turn fatal for his older son – it is also one of the two seminal moments in the young Desmond’s life which appals him at his own capacity for violence and brings him to the conclusion that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has no exception.

Desmond – gawky yet charming, whose quick thinking is depicted in the manner he saves the life of a complete stranger and charms his future wife, Dorothy, a nurse played by Teresa Palmer. The advent of the World War brings his patriotism to the fore. Not willing to see the war from the periphery of the idyllic village even though he was absolved from enlisting due to his employment in a shipyard, he enlists. In going to the war, he does what the millions of the young men of his age were doing – responding to the call of the country. Yet he stands out, by not tearing the world apart but trying to mend it by becoming a medic and ‘to do no harm’.

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His superior moral compass, his zeal to do no harm throws him into a constant war with his superiors and his colleagues – he is beaten, humiliated, painted as a lunatic and almost court-martialed. And yet without compromising with his beliefs, he turns out to be a hero – the one without a gun who bounces back from every setback with his humor intact, the one who serves his country well and convinces his worst detractors.

The tone of the movie is mostly upbeat, with a tinge of dark humor in parts.

Yet when compared with the previous works of Gibson, the movie fails to be legendary – its focus remains on Desmond throughout and fails to flesh out other characters.

Like his earlier movies, the war is unapologetically violent, visceral and shorn of any gloss – burning soldiers, severed limbs, spilled out guts shows the ugly side of war and devoid of any heroism, at least in the traditional sense.

As a war movie, Hacksaw Ridge falls short of the brilliance of The Thin Red Line or the character portrayal of Saving Private Ryan. With the World War II providing a rich template, Nolan’s Dunkirk is another highly anticipated movie in the same genre.

Hacksaw Ridge is worth a watch but it falls short of becoming a memorable epic.

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