Hacksaw Ridge (and five of the most unusual war films)
It isn't often that a war film comes along in which the hero is a pacifist, but then most war stories don't involve characters like Desmond T. Doss. Born just after the end of WWI in the Virginia town of Lynchburg, Doss holds the distinction of being the first conscientious objector in the history of the U.S. military to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest and most distinguished military accolade America has to offer.
Doss was handed the medal in recognition of his actions during the Battle of Okinawa, a bloody struggle for control of a Japanese island that saw him rescue no fewer than 75 wounded soldiers from the battlefield. And Doss did all of this while refusing to carry a gun.
It's this story that forms the basis for Hacksaw Ridge, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday. Released in cinemas just in time for awards season last year, the film won two Oscars (Best Editing and Best Sound Mixing) and was nominated for another four, including a Best Director nod for Mel Gibson, who ends a decade-long absence from the director's char to helm his first feature film since 2006's Apocalypto.
Andrew Garfield stars as Doss, a young Christian and product of a seventh-day adventist upbringing who finds himself drafted into the U.S. Army at the outbreak of WWII. Placed under the command of Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), Doss soon finds himself an outcast and target for hostility from his fellow trainee soldiers, due to his refusal to train on Saturdays (the 'sabbath in seventh-day adventist religion) or handle a rifle at all.
Howell and his commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) both attempt to discharge Doss on psychological grounds, but Doss refuses and soon finds himself on the receiving end of a beating at the hands of the rest of his company. But Doss remains steadfast in his convictions, refusing to name his attackers and insisting that, despite his aversion to killing, he can serve his countrymen on the battlefield as a medic.
His assertions are put to the test soon enough when he is enlisted in 77th Infantry Division and posted to the Pacific, where they are tasked with taking part in the operation to seize Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan, where Doss gradually gains the trust and respect through his heroic efforts in rescuing fallen soldiers from the battlefield in the face of a huge Japanese counterattack.
Broadly speaking, Gibson handles the story well and on the odd occasion where his depiction of Doss threatens to become a little too martyr-like, credit must go to Andrew Garfield for reigning him in and keeping the character grounded and relatable. Given that the real-life Doss refused for more than 60 years to have his story told on the big screen before Terry Benedict persuaded him otherwise for his 2004 film The Conscientious Objector, you get the sense that Doss would have been pleased with Garfield's portrayal and, all in all, this is an admirable take on one of the more unusual war stories you're likely to see.
You can find a trailer for the film below, beneath that we've picked five films with an even more unusual take on wartime storytelling, from the sublime to the ridiculous...
A Field in England
Anyone who has been following the career of British director Ben Wheatley will know that he is a man with a taste for the unusual, and his fourth film is no different in that regard. Set during the English Civil War in the 17th century which pitted Oliver Cromwell's armies against the royalists, the story here focusses not on the intensity of battle but a small, ragtag band of would-be deserters lured out of the battlefield by a mysterious alchemist with the promise of unearthing buried treasure. What follows is a hallucinogenic tale where nobody can be sure who to trust or what to believe – not even the evidence of their own eyes. With a cast that includes Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt and Michael Smiley, this is one of the most original war films you're ever likely to see, and certainly one of the strangest.
Although supremely silly, this film from the mind of Finnish director Timo Vuorensola manages to parody two movie cliches at once - the formulaic WWII epic and the alien invasion type of film that Roland Emmerich has built a career on. Its premise goes like this: at the end of WWII, an elite Nazi army unit escaped to a secret base on the dark side of the moon, where they have been waiting 70 years for the perfect moment to return and conquer the Earth – which happens to be 2018. Don't expect anything too serious here, but the film is worth a watch if you've enjoyed films like Rare Exports or Big Game.
The Men Who Stare At Goats
Loosely based on Jon Ronson's 2004 non-fiction book of the same name, which examines various attempts by the U.S. military to harness the power of 'new age' thinking and psychic phenomena for potential use in combat, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a fictionalised account of an elite unit trained in the art of psychic manipulation. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is dispatched to Kuwait during the Iraq war, but stumbles on the story of the New Earth Army unit when he meets one of its former operatives, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who regales him with a series of stories about his and the unit's escapades, involving goats, the theme tune to Barney & Friends, and a whole lot of LSD. Also starring Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, this as weird as wartime gets.
Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, this bizarre comedy starts innocently enough with a group of actors on location in the Vietnamese jungle, filming the adaptation of a wartime memoir by an army veteran. However, the director, faced with an unruly cast an an increasingly impatient studio, is forced to take drastic action and drops the actors into the middle of the jungle with the intention of filming them 'guerilla style' without their knowledge, unaware that he has landed them in the middle of an active war zone controlled by the country's most notorious heroin dealers. Alongside Stiller is an excellent cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Matthew McConnaughey, Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan and Bill Hader. This isn't the most realistic film in war setting you'll ever see, but it's certainly one of the oddest and it's wickedly funny.
Our final pick is this masterpiece of satire from Stanley Kubrick, starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. Essentially a black comedy that skewers the ideas of nuclear armament and Cold War paranoia, the story follows an over-zealous general's actions in escalating a conflict into full-blown nuclear war, and the resulting efforts by a cast of inept military and political figures to contain the situation before the planet is destroyed. Sellers it at his absolute best here and if there's a funnier film about nuclear war than this, we've yet to see it.