This is really two different films.
The first part is a sweet love story set in 1940's America.
The guy, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), is a strict Seventh-Day
Adventist, who practices his Saturday Sabbath, reads his Bible and goes to
church, and is also a vegan when it wasn't yet trendy to do so, and a
conscientious objector, when it definitely was not a popular social
position. Especially in
small-town America in the 1940's.
But as we all know, there was a war on.
The Japanese had invaded Pearl Harbor, which plunged the United
States into World War II. Draft-age
boys signed up almost automatically, because the ones who didn't were
considered cowards. Desmond
Doss even knew two young men who were 4-F, physically disqualified to
serve, but later committed suicide because they couldn't live with being
the ones who stayed home while everyone other man went off to war.
(No, women weren't considered eligible in those days, either.)
So Desmond Doss decides to enlist, even though he has no intention
of killing anyone. It seems
he'd had a harrowing experience growing up.
His father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), had served in World War I, and
was even twice decorated, but came home with PTSD, which in those days was
universally undiagnosed and largely ignored.
Tom Doss became a raging drunk who beat his wife and his kids, and
Desmond was so distraught about the harm his father was doing to his
mother that one night, when his father pointed a gun at his mother,
Desmond took the gun away and pointed it at his Dad.
And at that moment, when he felt inside the urge to kill, he
promised God he would never touch a gun again.
And he tried to bring that pacifism with him to training camp.
It didn't work out very well. The
Army was all ready to court-martial him over his refusal, but apparently
he was eventually allowed to be a medic, which he felt was a way of trying
to save lives amidst all the killing.
The other guys figured that when the shooting started he was going
to want to a rifle, but they were wrong about him.
And they were wrong about mistaking his religious convictions for
The second part of the movie is the war story, about fighting on a
plateau over a cliff in Okinowa where the Japanese were dug in, and the
Americans were determined to remove them, because Okinowa was the island
they had to take before invading Japan itself.
Though it's not clear why it took this unit until May of 1945 to
arrive at the fighting, once Director Mel Gibson gets us on the
battlefield, it's a straight telling of the horrors of warfare, guys
getting shot up and blown up and losing limbs and their guts being spilled
on the ground. It's bloody,
it's gruesome, it's horrific, and it's difficult to watch.
And yet it's the necessary context for the incrdible heroism of
Desmond Doss, the medic who saved 75 lives on Hacksaw Ridge that day and
all that night, as he carried wounded soldiers away from the field of
battle, somehow without getting wounded himself until he'd gone out again
to rescue “just one more.”
Yes, it's based on a true story, about the only Conscientious
Objector ever to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for battlefield
heroics. The interview clip
with the real Desmond Doss is heartwarming (he died in 2006).
Director Gibson chooses to tell the romance tale tenderly, as
Desmond's wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) is a lovely young nurse just
waiting for him to come home, as so many fiancees were in those days
(including my own Mother, waiting for my Dad to come home from the
While the conflict at the first of the film has religious overtones
(even beginning with an overdub of Isaiah 40: 28-31, with a foreshadowing
of the bloody battle), the warfare of the second part is just unmitigated
slaughter. It's not a popcorn
movie. But it's a fitting
tribute, on this Memorial Day, to those who have served in our military,
and been willing to pay the ultimate price for our freedom.