Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The horrors of war are on full display in director Mel Gibson’s HACKSAW RIDGE. More importantly, the bravery and brotherhood of these men who so courageously fought for our freedoms is front and center of this emotional biopic. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, the visceral film tells the true life tale of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who volunteered to go into WWII without ever picking up a weapon. It’s a story filled with unrelenting heroism on the battle field by him and his company men.
That said, in between the seriousness of the battle, there were times of levity – particularly when the men are first getting settled in the barracks. Vince Vaughn plays the soldier’s tough-as-nails drill sergeant, Sgt. Howell.
At the film’s recent press conference, he told me he didn’t have to do much to make the “getting to know” the troops scene funny as it was already written that way.
The script was beautiful and what these guys wrote was magnificent. There’s very little that’s changed in the writing of that scene. We had such great lines.
He credited his director for helping bring out the visual gags.
Mel is such a good actor and so fun, I learned even in dramatic pieces to find the levity and not be so ‘try hard.’ He added a lot of visual ideas that brought another layer to it. A lot of the great decisions and turns were idea that he had; ‘Walk by this guy and something catches your eye. You’d assume it would be the naked guy, but it’s not.’
Vaughn really took his role to heart, researching the emotional chord his Sergeant struck with his men.
Being that it’s battle time, it’s even more important that you’re trying to prepare people for life and death situations. You have to put them through a very vigorous test – both physically, emotionally and mentally – because their life and the people around them will depend on how they respond in those moments and there’s no perfect training. Of course on the other side of that, there’s a love and a bond and a friendship of having survived it. Drill sergeants are the best. You become a parent – these are your children. You feel responsible for their lives. You take that very seriously so underneath it there’s a deep love, but an urgency to keep them alive as well.
Part of what got the actors to function as team was their boot camp training. Luke Bracey, who plays Doss’ main antagonist/ only guy you’d ever want to be in a foxhole with Smitty Ryker, stated,
We had about a week where we almost crammed from nine o’clock in the morning ‘til five o’clock in the afternoon with the great John Ailes from Australian Special Forces. It wasn’t necessarily doing everything at boot camp, but knowing what we needed to know and really drilling that in – like holding arms and stuff like that.
It helps when every single person – every bloke involved in that unit – is all on the same team. Everyone knew the height and kind of story that we were telling. Everyone was very committed – that makes it easy to learn stuff and become closer even in that week we had to do it. Everyone did their homework and showed up to class ready to learn. We’re all excited about doing it to the best of our ability.
Andrew Garfield concurred,
One of the reasons why the film works on an emotional level is because of the bond that all of the young actors in the barracks created. You could feel the devotion to each other led by Vince, as he said, that throughout the mockery, there was this thread of love underneath every single piss take moment. He was doing it because he loved us and you could feel it through Vince’s spirit and how he created Sgt. Howell. I think that was just contagious through all the young actors in the barracks.
It’s because of their tight bond that one scene in particular turns Garfield into a weepy mess.
One of the most moving scenes that makes me cry uncontrollably every time I see it is, after the first assault, you have those five or six guys, including Mel’s son Milo, in this foxhole and they’re naming names. And Ghoul chokes on the name he names. When I even think about it, I lose my mind because it’s young boys who love each other who have no idea of what they were about to face. It’s a real testament to their ability as actors – the devotion to each other and creating true bonds of love. Otherwise, we don’t care and they made us care a lot.
HACKSAW RIDGE opens on November 4.
Header Photo: Smitty (Luke Bracey, left) and Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, right) in HACKSAW RIDGE. Courtesy of Lionsgate.