It’s inevitable that since ‘Saving Private Ryan’, every war film since is going to be compared to it. It was the war film for all generations, and one that wasn’t afraid to show the grizzly horror of war and hard truths behind the glory of the flag flying and “oo-rah!” Americana Army. War films now aren’t afraid to show blood, death and broken men on the battlefield. ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ avoids a familiar European setting and takes us to the Pacific for the Battle of Okinawa. Where ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was the ‘Band Of Brothers’ debut, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is ‘The Pacific’ – both totally different to compare but both solid in delivering what they set out to do.
Director Mel Gibson can direct action sequences – that much is clear. He did it in ‘Braveheart’ pretty well, but here he goes off the chart with his intense battlefield directing. Nothing looks rehearsed. It comes across as brutally real, haphazard and desperate – much like the way many soldiers had to fight when faced with an enemy as cunning and dangerous as the Japanese. Gibson may split people with his personal life off-screen, but there’s no denying on-screen, or behind the camera, the man has a talent, and he brings together a superb group of actors and tells us a story in a setting we probably aren’t familiar with. He is relentless in what he shows and how he makes us feel, never making it easy to catch a breath or relax once the first bullet is fired until the final explosion settles.
As for our leads, well I was wonderfully surprised how much they excelled in their roles. If Andrew Garfield lost out on Spider-Man to bring him here, I’m glad the web-slinger has gone, because he’s a great actor when given the right material. In fact, same said for all the cast. Vince Vaughn is the best I’ve seen him here (and I hate the guy in comedy) and Sam Worthington gives us a real grounded performance when not facing CGI aliens or tacky Terminators. Gibson gives our cast real situations, real actors to work with and nothing but a humane story to invest in. I applaud all the cast, who all bring a bit of pathos to their characters, and easily wipe out what you may think of their performances before in other films.
Garfield takes a journey from a doe-eyed youth falling for pretty nurse Dorothy, played very sweetly by Teresa Palmer who is, as one of the infantry comment, a “real broad”, to become a hero on the battlefield. But nothing ever comes out of character for Desmond. Garfield plays him the same throughout, and only when we are given the chance to see him act on his morals and his desire to help do we see the real man we couldn’t before, much like his superiors. It’s this down-to-earth performance that is laced with soft humour, fear, hope and determination that makes Garfield a strong contender for the Academy Award. He pushes himself emotionally and physically here, along with the others, and they all give us men we come to like and invest in, making it tough to watch some of the fates endured in the battle.
And while the first hour is Gibson taking things slow, you have to stick with it. A good hour or so is nothing but drama. Drama focused on Desmond’s key moments that shape him to become the combat medic we know of. Drama focused on his relationships with fragile family and aspiring love, and relationships with his serving infantry and how religion proves to be just as much a battle in the regiment than it does on the ground.
But it’s the first hour that is crucial to make you feel comfortable and understanding of everything and everyone before Gibson blows the whistle and the horror of Hacksaw Ridge commences in a flurry of bullets, blood and bombs. It’s relentless from the first hour in to the final credits. You wanted a war film now? You got one. You don’t get a chance to breath or relax, and it’s palm-sweatingly brilliant. While ‘Saving Private Ryan’ took us on a journey across Europe in various battle zones, all we have here is a partially destroyed cliff-face in Japan and a battlefield full of uneven terrain, dug-outs and underground tunnels. It’s the stuff of nightmares, and we are right there with our men who are thrown into chaos as they try to advance facing an unknown enemy.
It’s just as brutal and traumatising as Omaha Beach, and the Japanese prove to be a force more ruthless than the Germans with their tactics shown here. Cast and crew come together for a gripping, shocking and action-packed battle that assaults the senses – what you see and hear is memorable and sticks with you way after the credits.
I for one am glad Gibson took a risk to tell the story of a man many would know nothing about in a war also many would know little about. It’s factual and entertaining, delivered by talent behind and in front of the camera who deserve the awards they are nominated for.
And the green flare moment…damn you Gibson. Totally made me feel unsettled from that point on.