Hacksaw Ridge: A Lack of Subtly in Storytelling

Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films that does a lot of things right, but gets a bunch of little things wrong. I left the theatre feeling conflicted, not about the film’s message or themes, but its presentation of its message and themes.

Because Hacksaw Ridge is not subtle. It is about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, despite being a conscientious objector, enlisted in World War II, refused to carry a weapon, and became a decorated soldier. The film spends about half its runtime on Doss’s process of getting through the army as a conscientious objector. Hacksaw Ridge wants to tell a story about absolute faith and it thinks the key to achieving this is to hammer the conscientious objector story until the nail is so deep it will never come out.

I’ll return to Hacksaw Ridge when it comes out on DVD and spend some time with it to figure out all my problems, but for now I’d like to quickly look at the lack of storytelling subtly in Hacksaw Ridge.

Please note, this article will contain Hacksaw Ridge spoilers. Moreover, because this article deals with some nuances of its storytelling, it won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the film.

A Note About Accuracy

Apparently the real Desmond Doss had always turned down offers to turn his war experiences into a movie because he was concerned about accuracy. Doss agreed to the film in 2001 and the film has been in various stages of development since then.

Despite this foundation and desire for accuracy, there are a number of inaccuracies in the film. I fully understand and accept the need to alter reality to make a better story, so it’s better to look at which false details the filmmakers decided to include as an indicator for which stories or themes they were trying to amplify. Briefly, here are some inaccuracies that are relevant to this article:

  • Doss never wrestled a gun from his drunken Father
  • Doss was probably never beaten by his fellow trainees
  • Doss did not miss his wedding because of cancelled furlough, he was married before he left for training.
  • Doss did not attend military court. And instead of his Father showing up at court, his Father made a call to the chairman of the church’s War Service Commission

Again, it’s fine for a movie to distort, alter, or reinvent details from real life to better tell a story, but those events should ideally make the film better and not oversell the film’s message.

 

Not Trusting the Audience

While I couldn’t find any evidence of Doss hitting his brother with a brick when he was a child, the scene afterwards where young Doss is staring at the framed Ten Commandments is somewhat true to life events. Doss is quoted as saying,

“My dad bought this Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer illustrated on a nice frame, and I had looked at that picture of the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ There’s a picture that had Cain and he killed his brother Abel, and I wonder how in the world could a brother do such a thing?”

Personally I think it’s fine if this brick incident never occurred in real life, because the scene works well. But consider what the movie would have been like if this brick incident was the sole reason for Doss not wanting to touch guns or kill enemy soldiers. And instead of continuing the scene to where Doss’s mother comes in and tells him his brother is going to be OK, what if the scene left his brother’s condition unknown? All we really need to see from the scene is how horrified young Doss is by his actions and how scared he is that he killed his brother. Then, instead of having the scene where Doss is in the foxhole with his frenemy Smitty (Luke Bracey) and reveals the story about taking his gun from his drunken father, flashback to the rest of the brick scene where we learn his brother was seriously injured and almost died. Then show young Doss staring at Ten Commandments poster again.

The problem with the scene where Doss takes the gun from his father is that somewhere along the development line, someone decided that Doss hurting his brother with a brick wasn’t enough for the audience to logically leap to Doss refusing to hold a gun. So they invented the scene with the drunken father to make it more explicit to the audience. Unfortunately, the gun scene with his Father doesn’t work as well because there’s no emotional build up to it like there was with the two young brothers — the scene is inert. By leaving the condition of his brother unknown, the audience could be tethered to the emotion of that scene until Doss’s heart-to-heart in the foxhole. Instead, the film gives us two scenes to justify Doss’s reasoning instead of one really strong one. By making Doss’s reasons more obvious, they make it weaker.

 

Overstating

Hacksaw Ridge wants to make sure the audience understands how much Doss’s heroics in combat changed the opinions of his fellow soldiers. The film has two different characters say this in two separate scenes. The first sequence works well. Doss is in a foxhole with his frenemy Smitty. Smitty tells Doss he grew up an angry orphan and learned to judge people quickly, then admits he judged Doss completely wrong. This scene works because we have seen how poorly Smitty treated Doss and how much it hurt Doss. Then, while humanizing Smitty, we get to see Smitty admit he was wrong.

Later on, when Doss is saving Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), Howell repeats the line again and tells Doss that he judged him incorrectly. The filmmakers reiterate the line from a different character in case the audience didn’t catch it the first time. But this repetition makes the words mean less.

Howell’s line is also unnecessary; when we see the entire company waiting for Doss to finish his prayer and help get Doss retrieve his Bible, we feel the emotional weight of those actions. Howell repeating Smitty’s lines just diminishes the meaning those words initially carry, to the point that they don’t mean anything at all.

 

Too Much Conscientious Objector Plot

I think Hacksaw Ridge wants to make it painfully clear how far Desmond Doss is willing to go for his convictions. The court-martial story never happened in real life (though Doss was threatened with it) and I believe it exists in the movie to show that Doss is willing to be imprisoned and risk dishonorable discharge rather than contradict his beliefs.

But does Doss missing his wedding and being taken to military prison have a stronger emotional weight than the scene where he gets beaten up? When Doss misses his wedding, his bride-to-be isn’t even sad, she’s so sure about Doss’s love for her that she instinctively knows something is wrong. It seems more like the scene is an opportunity for Doss to stand on a soapbox and talk about his convictions.

A scene that would better illustrate how deeply Doss cares about helping people is something occurred in real life. Like when Doss was wounded in the leg and carried off the field on a gurney, he actually forced the other soldiers to pick up someone more injured. Then Doss took cover to wait for their return and ended up getting shot again, and crawling 300 yards to safety.

Don’t tell us how strongly Doss believes in helping people — show us. Stacking up scenes and speeches that justify Doss’s beliefs doesn’t build our connection to the story up, it tears it down. We don’t need a hundred reasons for Doss’s beliefs, just an emotional centre. After all, our belief in heroes comes from our hearts, not from their statues.

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