Heroism on Hacksaw Ridge

The life story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss is magnificently related through the yet-to-be-released Hacksaw Ridge! On September the 9th, I had the privilege of attending a pre-release industry screening, courtesy of BAFTA New York and the Park Avenue Scandinavia House. Star Andrew Garfield was present for a Question & Answer session following the presentation.

Doss, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia, was 22 when the United States entered the Second World War. A Seventh-day Adventist, he was opposed to the idea of killing, but nonetheless felt compelled to serve his country. Doss promptly sought to become an Army Combat Medic, so that he might be able to save life, rather than take it.

However, Doss’ status as a conscientious objector led to widespread discrimination from his fellow soldiers and superior officers. Eventually, though, all of his comrades realized what a hero their brother-in-arms was. Doss’ former commanding officer, Jack Glover, was one of his most outspoken advocates after the war’s end.

I favorably compare Hacksaw Ridge to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Likewise, this picture does a wonderful job of finding balance between excitement and character/story development. The film’s former half focuses on establishing Desmond Doss’ personality and the events that shaped him from boy into man. The most notable event is that when, during a basic child’s scrap, Desmond almost killed his brother Harold; from then onward, he vowed to never again raise a hand in anger.

Desmond rarely spoke publicly of his beliefs or wartime experience, being careful not to paint himself as anything other than a soldier doing his duty.

A particularly charming plot element of Hacksaw Ridge is the relationship between Doss and his first love, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). She was a nurse at Lynchburg Hospital, where Desmond went to prepare for entering the service. Not a moment feels less than genuine in the portrayal of the love between the two. Mr. Garfield’s and Ms. Palmer’s performances are top notch as the pure-of-heart Desmond and Dorothy.

Co-star Hugo Weaving similarly brings magnificent pathos to Desmond’s physically-abusive, alcoholic father, William. A veteran of the First World War, William seems perpetually torn between his anger at the loss of his comrades and the ongoing family responsibilities he can barely handle. Still, the audience is left with the image of Desmond’s father as being (despite his flaws) a decidedly loving parent who cannot bear to think of his son being killed in battle. Mr. Weaving and Mr. Garfield are truly, heart-wrenchingly father and son here.

Praise can honestly be given for each and every element of Hacksaw Ridge‘s production. Mel Gibson has possibly outdone his directional work on Braveheart, expertly bringing to life the taut, clever screenplay by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan and Braveheart writer Randall Wallace. Along with a cast and crew of exceptionals, a decidedly moving and entertaining story is told. The sound design, sets, costumes, editing and cinematography do so well to present two unique worlds: the simple, wholesome life of rural Lynchburg and the chaotic battlefields of Okinawa. It’s no wonder that the film received a ten-minute standing ovation following its Venice Film Festival premiere.

Perhaps the most welcome part of my Hacksaw Ridge experience came during the Q&A, moderated by Playbill Editor-in-Chief Mark Peikert. The last person to raise their hand, I asked Mr. Garfield “Is there a particular thought or feeling you hope audiences will have after seeing the film?” He responded that there was not, further joking that it was a good thing he was not part of the film’s marketing team, as he would have no clue how to handle such a publicity-oriented question. I joined the audience and Mr. Garfield in good-natured laughter at his self-deprecation before he continued with a more serious response. Mr. Garfield hopes, ultimately, that Hacksaw Ridge will inspire audiences to live as Desmond Doss did: being true to oneself in everything one does. I was delighted at this answer, as I certainly felt so inspired!

Hacksaw Ridge is released in theaters nationwide on November 4th, only one month away. Don’t miss what may turn out to be the most inspiring and exciting film of 2016!

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