Once in a while, there comes a film that transcends its cinematic obligations to become a comment on the quality of human existence. “Hacksaw Ridge” is one such rarity. It communicates the power to change human perceptions on living, to change the way we look at human lives. This is the true life story of an incredibly brave and inspiring young American soldier Desmond Doss, who refused to pick up a gun during World War 2. No matter how much he was cajoled, bullied, threatened, heckled and taunted for what was initially seen as cowardice, Desmond wouldn’t shoot an enemy during battle. It was against his creed and religion to shoot another human being.
No violence. No gun. As simple as that. Director Mel Gibson shoots this amazing inspirational tale with minimalist flourish and drama. Desmond Doss could easily have ended up looking like a sanctimonious fool. In the capable, strong yet sensitive hands of Gibson and the film’s writers, Doss becomes a sublime symbol of Ahimsa, a modern day Gandhi who can stand up for what he feels to be right without the fear of being shamed. Early scenes showing Doss’s ragging in the army camp are done with a mix of wistful malice and regretful humour regarding the false sense of machismo associated with guns. The soldierly life is visualized with a keen sense of heroic pride. This soon dissolves into prolonged unbearably graphic sequences of men at war.
It is here that we see the sheer futility, horror and barbarism on the battleground, played out at an octave of shrill protest without for a minute precluding our guilt or distancing us from the violence. Gibson’s cinematographer Simon Duggan, a magician of mayhem, shoots the war scenes with agonising intimacy, as though the audiences’ rapidly receding sense of decency is fastened to the bayonets. Every bullet fired hits us where it hurts the most. As the bullets fly and Rupert Gregson-Williams’s mystifying apocalyptic music surges forward in waves of protest, the film acquires all the greatness of a David Lean war epic without the mood of heroism that is attached to Lean’s cinema, or for that matter, in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”.
The soldiers’ suffering is intense and relentless while the battle scenes last. They effectively create a stark contrast with the life of peace and non-violence that Doss embraces. I hear Mel Gibson was reluctant to direct this true life saga of a young man who battled societal definitions of heroism to conquer the acrimony on the battleground. In hindsight, Gibson seems the only director who could denude soldierly valour of all romance and glory so effortlessly. Of course, casting Andrew Garfield (better known as Spiderman) is a stroke of providence and genius. Garfield brings to Doss’s part both righteousness and heart. He is angelic without being sugary, stubborn without seeming self-righteous. It’s a miraculously innocent but intense performance shorn of vanity and flamboyance.
The supporting cast, specially Vince Vaugn as Doss’s superior in the army, is first-rate. Come to think of it every player, bit or big, seems to instinctively know he or she is partaking of a project far larger than the immediate on-camera moment. “Hacksaw Ridge” is a film whose statement on non-violence will be quoted in textbooks and on talk shows years from now when nukes have probably destroyed half of mankind. To every warmonger in India and Pakistan who wants to battle it out, a sincere request — go watch this film. And stay till the end credits when we meet the real Desmond Doss who tells us show he washed the muck and blood off a wounded fellow soldier’s blinded eyes. “The smile on his face when he could see was all the gratitude I needed,” says Doss. Thank you for reminding us of that smile of appreciation when something miraculous is given. Something like this film.