Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This is the second film to tell the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Medal of Honor-awarded WW 2 army medic who almost never got to serve because of a court martial trial. The first film about the hero was in 2004 when documentary filmmaker Terry Benedict’s the Conscientious Objector won a major award at the Heartland Film Festival. And now we have Mel Gibson’s film, taking its title from geography rather than the role or status of its hero—on Okinawa Hacksaw Ridge was the name of the top of a 350-foot cliff atop which Japanese troops fanatically defended themselves. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson’s past misdeeds, do NOT let them keep you from seeing this film that affirms the right of a US citizen to refuse to bear arms and which also celebrates his faith, love, and courage.
Divided into two major parts, the film reminds me of a reverse version of Sergeant York in which Gary Cooper portrayed the pacifist civilian who received the Medal of Honor when he turned into a super soldier, killing and capturing many German soldiers during WW 1. Oh, yes, also both were regarded as “hillbillies”—he was from Tennessee, and Doss from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Doss’s refusal to even touch a gun goes back to two incidents. The first was a boyhood fight with his brother during which he picked up a brick and struck Harold in the head. The brother is slowly regaining consciousness as Des stands in front of the family’s framed lithograph of The Lord’s Prayer, around which in smaller squares are the Ten Commandments. The boy focuses upon the Sixth Commandment, illustrated by Cain killing his brother Abel. The second incident takes place during a struggle with his father. The teenage Des intervenes in a fight between his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving) and his long-suffering mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Tom has been damaged mentally and emotionally by the horror of seeing his two best friends die in WW 1, so he has taken out his feelings on his family. Also, we have seen him visiting the graves of his comrades. The son manages to snatch his father’s gun. Pointing it at the older man’s head, he struggles against his pent-up rage, finally casting the weapon aside and vowing never again to touch a gun. In a more peaceful scene we see the teenager repairing a window of his Seventh-day Adventist church while the women’s choir practices.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) appears at the dinner table wearing an Army uniform. Upset, Tom describes the horror of his war experience and demands that Harold leave the table. He declares that he does not want to see either of his sons die so needlessly. A little later, Des pulls out a man injured when his jacked-up car falls on him, severing an artery in his leg. The quick-thinking Des uses his belt to stop the flow of blood, and then rushes him to the hospital in nearby Lynchburg. There, while waiting, he meets the young nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). He is smitten, and the story morphs into a tender love story, the modest young man able to overcome his shyness, thanks to his stated intention to marry her.
Tom is not happy when Des tells him that he is joining up to serve as a medic, but he does not reject his son. Dorothy reluctantly goes along with Des’s argument that he cannot stay safely behind while his brother and others are risking their lives for their country. However, at the training camp Des lands in trouble when he refuses to pick up his rifle for practice firing.
His drill instructor is one of those tough characters that such movies as Platoon we have come to expect. Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) insults one and all of the recruits, sneering at the lanky Dos and declaring that he has seen more muscle on a cornstalk, thus giving the lad his nickname. Remanded to Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) when he refuses to pick up his rifle, Des tries to explain that a mistake has been made, that he has signed on as a medic, not a combat soldier. The Captain says that the Army does not make mistakes and orders him to obey or else. When Des still refuses, the officer tells Howell to make life a hell for him, thus hoping to drive the boy out of the service. All his comrades, believing him a coward, join the campaign to break Des, especially Smitty (Luke Bracey). Deliberately hitting Des on one cheek, Smitty waits for a response in kind, but Des holds back. One night a group of them beat him so severely that his face is bruised and bloody, but the next morning he refuses to divulge the names of his attackers.
Matters come to a head when Colonel Stelzer (Richard Roxburgh) orders Des to stand trial at a court martial for insubordination. His arrest spoils his plans for marrying Dorothy. Forbidden to let her or his parents know what is befalling him, it seems to those waiting for him in church to join her that he has backed out of his commitment. It is during this trying period that Tom Doss, donning his WW 1 uniform and medals for bravery, redeems himself in a moment as dramatically rewarding as that in any courtroom tale.
And so, we at last get to Okinawa where Des is serving along with his not so friendly comrades. Their first glimpse of soldiers returning from combat is not reassuring. Many are bandaged, their faces filthy, and their eyes staring lifelessly as if seeing something beyond belief and endurance. At least they can see—truckload after truckload carry bloodied bodies of dead soldiers, many of them minus legs or arms. The men pause while the 16-inch guns of the warships pound the top of the ridge. After climbing up the rope netting to the top, they are soon in the thick of battle themselves. Within seconds many of them are cut down or blasted away, discovering that their enemy had survived the seemingly devastating bombardment thanks to their thick-walled bunkers and deep underground tunnel system.
The extensive combat scene is as realistic as those in saving Private Ryan, with blood spurting when a bullet hits its mark. Men scream as their legs or heads are blasted away. Japanese soldiers run in panic when the American armed with a flame thrower sets their bodies on fire. At times, when the two sides mix it up face to face, there is bayoneting, choking, and bashing with rifle butts. There is no John Wayne-like glorification of war here! Soon rats are gnawing away at corpses sprawled in ditches and foxholes. Des and the other medics keep their heads down, but taking little heed of their own safety, they drag and carry the wounded back to the edge of the cliff, applying tourniquets to the stumps of limbs and administering morphine along the way.
The Japanese counter-attack is so furious that the Americans have to retreat back down the rope netting. Des stays behind, refusing to abandoning those who need him. All through the night he drags wounded G.I.s to the edge, ties a double bow knot around the victims and lowers them one-by-one down to the medics below. They are astonished when the first one arrives, but soon have ambulances awaiting new arrivals. Come daylight, and Des has to continually keep the Japanese soldiers who venture out to kill the wounded from killing him. In one sequence, he dodges his pursuers deep within an underground series of tunnels and chambers, during which he comes upon a badly injured Japanese soldier whom he bandages and injects with morphine. Caught in the open with a G.I., he urges the man to trust him, and covers him with dirt except for one of his eyeballs. He climbs atop him and pulls a corpse over his own body. The Japanese patrol passes them by. The next night the almost exhausted medic prays, “God, please help me get one more.” And so, he keeps going back and lowering more of the wounded down the side. Finally, with the enemy soldiers drawing close, he himself is wounded and taken down on a stretcher, the camera angle of the shot making it seem like a heavenly Ascension. (One of several indications that Gibson is no subtle filmmaker.) All in all, Des had rescued 75 comrades, ironically including his two officers, something even more striking than Sergeant York’s capture of over a hundred German soldiers, considering the circumstances of their almost miraculous feats. His arrival at the ward where the men he had rescued is deeply moving, especially when the once scornful Smitty acknowledges his bravery.
The film works thanks to Andrew Garfield, who is the epitome of the modest country boy whose simple faith is deeply held. The small Bible that Dorothy presses into his hand as the train is leaving the station becomes his most prized possession. He reads it at various times while off duty, and during his brief solitary confinement in his cell, it is his mainstay. The commandments about not killing and loving are not just words for Sunday, but literally have shaped his life. I should have written Saturday rather than Sunday, Des being a Seventh Day Adventist—and this too gets him in trouble because back in training camp he had refused to work on his Sabbath. Des is no doctrinaire pacifist, so he has no answers for those who argue with him about what would happen if everyone refused to fight against an enemy. Gandhi thought and wrote a great deal about this, but Des just sincerely believes that the Bible demands that he not take up arms. He has no alternative to war. He just knows that killing is not for him. And yet at the same time, he does want to serve his country.
This is one of those films in which we see little of the enemy, unlike Letters From Iwo Jima. Most of the time the Japanese are faceless fanatics charging into the Americans’ hail of bullets, or running trying to escape the flames consuming their bodies. We do see the fearful face of the wounded warrior in the bunker whose wounds Des tends to, and there are several interspersed shots of the commander who, knowing that the battle is lost, prepares to commit Hari Kari, as his bushido code demands for one’s failure. As he plunges the dagger into his stomach he remains calm, accepting his terrible fate in front of his subordinates. In another scene a group seem to be surrendering, but this is a suicidal trap to lure the Americans closer so they can toss their concealed grenades at them. The film depicts all the opponents as Japanese soldiers, not showing that many were native Okinawans forced into battle. They even forced middle school students into fighting or running errands during the battle.
Mel Gibson still seems obsessed with violence, but this time he holds up an alternative, the loving life-saving acts of Des standing in stark contrast to the shootings and stabbings of the hate-filled combatants. Some cynics might think Gibson is seeking to draw two audiences, those who love R -rated gory blood fests, whether of the war or horror genres, and those, largely from evangelical churches, who made his tortured Jesus film such a great box office success. I don’t know. Maybe I am being suckered by this canny filmmaker, but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. I prefer to see the film as one of the best true stories of a person of faith holding to his core beliefs and serving to make this world a better place. I think those of the 75 whom he rescued at the risk of his own life.
Note: I just discovered among the hundred or so of my yet to be viewed DVDs a copy of the above-mentioned documentary The Conscientious Objector. No time to watch it now, but when I do and can compare the two films, I’ll post a review on the site, so look for it soon.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP. If you found this review helpful, please consider supporting this site by purchasing an issue or taking out a year’s subscription.