Hacksaw Ridge

 

            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 cowardice.

            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 European front). 

            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.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What's the difference between objecting to a particular war and objecting to all violence?

2)                  Is it possible to be a conscientious objector and still successfully complete basic training in the Army?

3)                  Should pacifists be allowed non-combat roles, or does that concession put others at unnceccary risk?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association