If you are reading this you probably already know as much as you need to about Hacksaw Ridge. For those who don’t, directed by controversial filmmaker Mel Gibson: Andrew Garfield gives an excellent, Oscar nominated performance as Desmond Doss. An American Medic who served during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII but refused to carry a gun making him the first man in American military history to receive the Medal of Honour without firing a shot.
Question: is Hacksaw Ridge a good two hour twenty minute movie hiding a ninety-five minute masterpiece? Answer, probably. Mel Gibson has proved with Braveheart and in particular Apocalypto that he is a master of big, bold and violent action. But he has never been able to get away with the quieter moments without being sentimental, preachy and heavy-handed. That is why Hacksaw Ridge was an opportunity to showcase what he does best.
Understandable comparisons have been made with Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket. Saving Private Ryan is simply a matter of the brutal visceral war scenes. While Hacksaw ridge’s portrayal of the Battle of Okinawa is more bloody and violent than Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the Normandy Invasion it is actually less shocking. Partly because Saving Private Ryan opens with the assault on Omaha Beach whereas, Hacksaw ridge builds up to its battle, but mainly because it was new, when it first came out we had never seen anything so visceral and brutal. In the years that have followed we have seen Black Hawk Down, Enemy at the Gates, Lone Survivor, American Sniper, as well as real conflicts and atrocities on TV news. Full Metal Jacket is more complicated, there are two elements of comparison. Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell is very much in the vein of R. Lee Ermey’s Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. But then, the character has become an archetype, think Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman), Career Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown in Starship Troopers) or even Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway (Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge) When Vaughn walks in shouting and giving the recruits nicknames it looked like he would give a pastiche of Ermey, fortunately he doesn’t and is actually very good. The second more significant comparison is the structure of the film. Like Full Metal Jacket, Hacksaw Ridge is split into two distinct halves, the first in America, the second in country. The difference, both halves of Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie are equally as good. The war scenes in Hacksaw Ridge stand up to any other war film, but the quieter moments of the first half don’t.
I have heard the first hour of Hacksaw Ridge described as a Hallmark Channel movie, this is unkind, it is better than that, but it is overlong, preachy and heavy-handed. How could this have been improved? The war scenes account for over an hour of the movie. There are moments of quiet within this that a clear break points. It would have been very easy to jump right into the action and intersperse it with flashbacks to Doss in training and at home before enlisting. This would come in at around 95 minutes. A tighter more concise film done well would have both been a better watch, and would have given a greater impact. It would also make the gaps in battle more interesting than they are.
The problem, this shorter bolder film may have been better but it would have lacked the epic status that war films need to gain favour with Oscar voters. We may have seen a better film but would we have seen a film with six Oscar nominations?