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Hacksaw Ridge

When he was a young man in West Virginia, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) made a vow to God that he would never touch a gun or intentionally hurt another human being. In “Hacksaw Ridge” there are two incidents that inspire that vow – one, when he is a young boy and hits his brother with a rock.  For a few terrible moments, he thinks he’s killed him.  Then, when he is a teenager, he takes a gun away from his drunken, abusive, self-loathing father (Hugo Weaving,) and almost uses it against him. Which of these is the moment he makes his vow?  In my life, it’s usually not one event, but a collected series of events, that lead me to make life-changing decisions.  Maybe it was the same for Doss.

He’s a Christian (specifically, a Seventh Day Adventist) and a man of strong conviction. But it’s easy to be a pacifist during peacetime. Our convictions and beliefs aren’t worth much until they are truly tested. And when World War II begins, Doss can’t just stay home while his brother – and all of his friends — head off to die in service of their country. So he enlists as a medic, determined to keep his pacifist vow, even in a soldier’s uniform.

This isn’t a popular decision among his superior officers, or his bunkmates, at boot camp. They’re not sure they can trust him to have their backs when the going gets rough. They think he’s crazy, and tried to get him booted as a Section 8.  But he’s not crazy; he’s just not the kind of person who will let circumstances dictate his convictions. In a way, enduring the abuse poured upon him at boot camp prepares him for the battlefield far better than learning to handle a rifle would.

Doss never waivers in his faith or conviction, from start to finish.  He never tries to convince anyone else that he is right and they are wrong. He just keeps on doing what he thinks is right, following his own convictions, staying true to himself. He makes hard decisions, he pushes himself to the limit, and he earns the respect of his fellow soldiers because of it.

“Hacksaw Ridge” splits evenly into two halves – the homefront, where Doss meets and marries his sweetheart (Teresa Palmer) and we get to know him as a sweet, simple country boy without an ounce of guile or deceit in him.  And then the second half, which takes place in Okinawa, and is all blood, smoke, and bodies. It’s a stark transition, even when we see it coming. The soldiers try and try again to take the titular ridge, and keep getting pushed back, because the Japanese are fighting from underground tunnels, and thus able to resupply their lines time and time again.

The point Gibson works so hard to make is that you do not have to be violent in order to be courageous or a hero, even in wartime.  A warrior is defined by his courage, not his kills, and sticking to your convictions takes as much courage, if not more, as intentionally putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Doss does both; in the very intense, breathtaking climax of the film, he saves one life after another, in a situation where everyone else has retreated and thinks there is no hope for the wounded. “Lord, help me save just one more,” he prays, over and over, delivering soldier after soldier from death to life. It’s a powerful, deeply moving scene.

 

“Hacksaw Ridge” is based on a true story.  Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor (he’s not the only one, though; two conscientious objectors receive the Medal in the Vietnam War; I’d love to see their stories brought to the big screen, as well.  We need more stories like these.) One of the things I liked best about it was getting to see the actual Desmond Doss, in his nineties now, speak about his experiences, as the credits rolled. Courage and conviction, as displayed in the movies, can often feel out of the reach of us normal human beings.  It’s great to see a film about a real hero, and to hear his real voice.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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