My ex-wife went through a period during our marriage where she was obsessed with movies about World War II. She always has and still does love war movies, but for a period of several months we must have watched every single movie about World War II that existed, and there are a lot. There were the greats such as Patton and Saving Private Ryan, and the terrible like Pearl Harbor. Essentially, there are two types of World War II movies – Holocaust movies and combat movies; I’m only going to be discussing the latter. Combat movies about World War II focus on the battles fought in Europe and the Pacific Ocean and all have the same distinguishing characteristics: a grand scope, strong themes of heroism and sacrifice, and the acknowledgement that, despite all its valor, war is hell. A good World War II movie lets the viewer see the sacrifices made by the brave men and women of that generation and the great cost that was paid to secure peace in that time. Hacksaw Ridge is no different; there is a grand scope, great themes of heroism and courage, and respect for the people that fought and died during those years. It is a fantastic movie, well-made, and with a brilliant performance from Andrew Garfield. Hacksaw Ridge is everything a good World War II movie should be – but what is new about it? On its own, Hacksaw Ridge is definitely “Best Picture” material, for the same reasons that other World War II films were worthy. In the larger scope of World War II movies, however, what exactly does Hacksaw Ridge really have anything new to say?
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector to the war that enlisted in the Army to be a combat medic. During the Battle of Okinawa (at the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge), Doss saved the lives of 75 people as he worked day and night to help the wounded evacuate. It’s the remarkable tale of a remarkable person- told with absolute respect. If there is one new thing that Hacksaw Ridge offers, it is introducing people to the story of Desmond Doss and his achievements. Of course that information has always been available in countless articles and histories, but a passionate film of those events is an effective way to encourage viewers to learn about history.
Then again, just about every World War II movie is based on a true story… what’s new about Hacksaw Ridge? While its source material may be the story of a real hero many may not have heard about – Hacksaw Ridge is pretty much just every other World War II movie already out there. One could point to any scene in this movie and have a “Simpsons did it first” kind of moment as they point out all the commonalities Hacksaw Ridge shares with antecedent films.
Like any film about World War II, we have the demonization of the Nazis and Imperial Japan – there is even a character who states “You can’t object on religious grounds because we are fighting the actual Devil.” We have a young generation, highly motivated with ideas of service to their country and patriotism eagerly enlisting. Similar to Pearl Harbor, our young hero falls in love with a Nurse, and that romance is a large part of the film (thankfully, that is the ONLY similarity it has to PH). There are all the scenes at basic training (with a nice performance from Vince Vaughn as their sergeant), which transitions directly into combat. Similar to Saving Private Ryan, this movie does not shy away from the brutality of war; severed limbs, guts everywhere, heads exploding, etc. Like SPR, the gore is absolutely necessary to show the real human cost of the battle. The themes of heroism, present in any war film, deal strongly with Desmond’s actions during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge which, while treated with the dignity it deserves, still has the same tropes of the swelling music and emotional keynotes. At the film’s conclusion we, of course, see Arlington Cemetery (don’t we always?) and have the real life people discuss the events we just saw dramatized.
Hacksaw Ridge, while a great piece of emotionally charged cinema and delivering great themes about heroism and sacrifice, is still just a World War II movie – it follows all the tropes precisely. The same themes of heroism and patriotism are present in the good ones and bad ones, Hacksaw Ridge just happens to be one of the good ones. I don’t feel it necessarily deserves the prize for Best Picture, because this is something we’ve seen plenty of times before. Andrew Garfield, however, deserves some real consideration for Best Actor—his performance was nothing short of breathtaking.