It’s the most unlikely of circumstances: a conscientious objector receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. Most C.O.s express their objections by refusing induction into the armed forces.
Mel Gibson has directed Hacksaw Ridge (his first film since 2010’s Apocalypto), the story of PFC Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who refused to fight in World War II yet wanted to serve his country as a medic.
This Veterans Day seemed to me the perfect moment to see Gibson’s tribute to Doss’s bravery during the Battle of Okinawa, because my late father was part of that battle, and also because I’m a member of the draft board where I live. Draft boards these days are pretty much like Monty Python’s Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things: we discuss what we’ll do if and when the United States reinstitutes a draft – an unlikely eventuality. We consider conscientious-objector scenarios: who might qualify, who would not.
Two other C.O.s have been Medal of Honor recipients. (Don’t say “winner,” because, by Christ!, it’s not a competition.) They were: Thomas W. Bennett and Joseph Guy LaPointe Jr. (also Army medics). They were killed months apart in 1969 in separate firefights in Vietnam, as they tried to save wounded soldiers. Both were Baptist, a denomination not essentially pacifist.
Seventh-Day Adventism grew out of the 19th-century Millerite movement that had predicted the Second Coming would happen around 1843, and a focus on Christ’s imminent return (Advent) remains part of their theology. When I was in high school, we had no Adventist football players, because their Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) was sacred. Some of us admired their commitment to faith and clean living; some didn’t.
Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield as Doss (he also stars in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence about Jesuits in 17th-century Japan). Mr. Garfield has an everyman’s face and reminds me of James Stewart, except without Jimmy’s peculiar voice.
The film begins with the horrible violence on Hacksaw Ridge, in the midst of the Battle of Okinawa in June, 1945: flames, screams, burning bodies. A voice speaks the words of Isaiah 40: 28-41:
. . .young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord. . .
will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
That’s pretty much the story of Desmond Doss right there.
We jump back sixteen years to his Virginia home, where Doss and his brother, Hal, scale foreshadowing cliffs and deal with a home life that includes a loving mother and a drunken father, still reeling from scars and losses suffered in World War I – scenes reminiscent of Howard Hawks Sergeant York.
The boys’ roughhousing gets out of hand one day and Desmond strikes Hal with a brick, and it’s this Cain-and-Abel moment that pushes him to pacifism. As one would expect from Mel Gibson, it’s a powerful reminder of our capacity for original sin. Perhaps a tad too powerful.
From there we jump forward to 1944 and – eventually – to Desmond’s own enlistment. First though, we see more of the man, bright but simple, and falling in love with a nurse, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). We see Desmond through her eyes and grow in the conviction that this is a genuinely good guy.
Desmond tells his father of his prayerful decision to go to war but not to fight. His father tells him sourly that in combat, “You won’t be givin’ no thanks to God.”
Later on, a soldier says: “In peace sons bury their fathers; in war fathers bury their sons.”
But the elder Doss is wrong: Desmond never stops praying, and his Bible, given to him by Dorothy, is always close to his heart. He needs the strength that comes from Scripture in basic training, where – by some SNAFU – he has been assigned not to a medical unit but a rifle company. The other soldiers mistake his pacifism for cowardice.
Doss tries to explain he’s not a conscientious objector at all but a conscientious cooperator: he wants to serve to save lives. Eventually, his brothers-in-arms accept him, even Smitty (Luke Bracey), his principal antagonist.
Mr. Gibson does a lot with a little: during filming, he had one tank, one jeep, and a few trucks to serve as a convoy that passes by Doss’s unit upon their arrival in Okinawa. It’s a classic war movie scene: new troops witnessing retreating combat vets, battered and bloodied. There really weren’t a lot of actors or vehicles, but Gibson makes the grim line passing seem to go on forever.
The rest of Hacksaw is brutal and most definitely not for the faint of heart: more flames, screams, burning bodies. It’s shocking and sickening. We get it that men die horribly in battle, but really, Mel – so many and in such detail?
And Gibson is no Clint Eastwood, who cared enough about the humanity of the Japanese to make two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. For Mel Gibson, the Japanese are evil, pure and simple, basically like minions of Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The code of bushido that leads a “dishonored” Japanese officer to commit seppuku is starkly contrasted with the self-sacrifice of the Christian, Doss, who stays behind after a retreat, risking his life to save others, whispering over and over the prayer: “Lord, help me get one more . . .”
As you may already know from the movie ads, Desmond Doss saved seventy-five – in ways both ingenious and courageous. (Today’s TCT Notable is Doss’s Medal of Honor citation. It’s almost unbelievable.)
In addition to Garfield, Bracey, and Ms. Palmer, the superb cast (mostly Australian – the movie was shot Down Under) includes Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughan, two stars willing to work for less to work with Mel. With Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s mom and dad.
Hacksaw Ridge is rated R for extreme violence. Be warned.