Directed by Mel Gibson Screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan
Starring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey; 131mins. USA 2106.
The true story of Desmond Doss, raised in a poor family with a father scarred by the First World War. As an adult he enlisted in the conflict out of patriotism, but out of his faith refuses to use weapons on the battlefield, determined to do his part as an health officer. Ostracised first by the Army and then mobbed by his own fellow soldiers (afraid of being unable to count on him on the battlefield) Desmond will show his bravery in Okinawa, where he’ll save the lives of 75 of his comrades during the bloody battle of Hacksaw Ridge.
Ten years after Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s long-awaited return behind the camera is a story of blood and faith. It takes its title from the battle of Okinawa, which was, like many others against Japan, among the cruelest in the whole war. In the film the violence of war is opposed to the power of a man’s conscience, which proves much stronger since it is rooted in a Beyond capable of giving meaning to both death and life.
The movie falls clearly into two parts. The first part shows, in a way, the formative influences that help to explain Doss’ “extremism” in refusing to touch a weapon even after enlisting in the army. Coming from a poor family scarred by the instability of the father, he was not earned without effort by the young man, who himself had to battle with an instinctual tendency towards aggression. In the army, his non-violence is a scandal, to the point of making his superior try to discharge him, fearing Doss might weaken the esprit de corps required to fight.
His comrades and their training are standard for the war story canon, with the unusual addition of a legal twist: the protagonist will have to defend his right to go to war as a medical officer, to assist his companions at the best of his ability.
Andrew Garfield plays effectively and with conviction a character who, beneath the frailty of his physical appearance, hides a granite determination; and this is not just stubbornness, but comes from faith and the desire to fulfill a calling. Around him are many talented performers who, at least in some cases, raise their character above the genre archetype.
It is in the second part of the movie, however, that the directorial energy of Gibson finds scope to showcase his own talent and his heart. He shows war without relief, but at the same time brings life to the almost mystical character of the protagonist, making him capable of achieving a desperate feat.
So, between blood and viscera splattered by bombs and fire, amidst the darkness of pain and the desperation of ground gained and lost, Doss’s inspiring gaze and courage finally conquer his comrades: maybe they can’t share his faith, but they are irresistibly drawn to the possibility of looking up and finding consolation and hope.
Gibson earnestly tells a story of atypical heroism with all the means that cinema has to offer, and does so to the best of his capabilities. The result is a kind of classic movie, direct and powerful thanks to its linearity, a homage to great cinema and a challenge to the cynicism of our time.
Problematic elements: numerous scenes of war violence and blood.
Luisa Cotta Ramosino is an Italian television writer and creative producer; she is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri del cinema and Scegliere un film, an annual collection of film reviews.