“Hacksaw Ridge” is both a step back and a step forward in our national conversation about patriotism and World War II. The biographical war film is about the devilishly handsome Desmond Doss who as a combat medic, served during World War II despite refusing to use a gun. Doss became the first conscientious objector (although he dubbed himself a conscientious cooperator) to receive a Medal of Honor.
The movie comes with an incredible pedigree. Directed by Mel Gibson who won a Best Director Oscar for the 1995 “Braveheart,” “Hacksaw Ridge” was written by Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”) and Robert Schenkkan (Tony Award winner for “All the Way” and Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Kentucky Cycle”). Gibson brings on the gore. You can’t smell the blood and guts, but you can see it in various forms: spattered, congealed, rotting lunch for rats. Gibson doesn’t bother to ease us in; we’re thrown into the battle and see a man, Andrew Garfield as Doss, with a shredded leg being carried from the battlefield on a stretcher before we jump back in time to two young boys growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia during the Great Depression.
The boys, Desmond (Darcy Bryce) and his older brother Hal (Roman Guerriero), run up a rocky terrain. An adult passerby warns them to stay away from the ledge and calls them crazy. When the boys finally get home, they get into a fight which their father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), declines to break up. He’ll spank the boy who ends up the winner, but there are not winners in this match. Desmond almost kills his brother.
Tom once went bravely off to World War I with his buddies, but was the only one to return. He’s shown drinking in the cemetery talking to gravestones. The term shell shock was already around, but not post traumatic stress disorder. Tom medicates this misunderstood problem with alcohol.
Years later, Desmond saves a man from bleeding out by using his belt as a tourniquet. Following the injured man to the hospital, he volunteers to give blood, not just out of the goodness of his heart, but because he’s smitten by the nurse, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). This is a Hollywood engineered meet-cute; according to Hollywood versus History, the couple met through church–both being Seventh Day Adventists. Dorothy didn’t become a nurse until after the war when she needed to support their family because Desmond could not work full-time due to his war injuries.
When the World War II breaks out, Hal enlists and Desmond soon follows, but unlike Hal, he’s unwilling to hold a gun. Under the command of Sergeant Howell, he does well on the physical tests despite his slender build, but he becomes an outcast when he refuses to hold a rifle due to his beliefs. Eventually he is courtmartialed, just on the day he was supposed to marry Dorothy (also a Hollywood invention). He misses the wedding, but his father is able to pull a few strings to get his case dismissed.
Assigned to the 77th Infantry Division, Doss ends up on Okinawa. The unit is ordered up the Maeda Escarpment, a cliff that is straight up and with only a bit of cover before the so-called Hacksaw Ridge where troops are shot down by the enemy so fiercely, they end up hacked up with limbs almost sawed off by the massive number of gun shots.
This is where, Doss becomes a hero, saving his fellow soldiers without a gun, lowering them down one-by-one as his hands become stripped of flesh. He survives unwounded true to his God and only gets injured when he breaks the sabbath.
The Japanese Army is shown with little sympathy here. They are again the suicidal horde instead of desperate men, hiding in caves. We don’t know them as men with hopes, dreams and families as we did in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 “Letters from Iwo Jima.” Instead we are given a more stereotypical treatment with some of the battle scenes intercut with the commander’s ritual suicide.
Yet “Hacksaw Ridge” demonstrates that there’s a place for conscientious objectors and heroism or patriotism should not be simplistically equated with the men who are willing to take a gun and shot the designated enemy.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of how our definition of patriotism should change and be less war-based. Being a war veteran doesn’t make one more of an authority on patriotism or give one a higher moral ground issues this country faces. It doesn’t justify the right of Christians over Muslims over Jews although all have been part of the US culture since the start and Muslims have also fought in all US wars since the revolution. Courage is many things and sometimes courage is just saying no.