Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

“While everyone is taking life, I will be saving it”

The advancement of technology in the movie industry the last 20 years enables audiences to hear and see difficult and threatening scenes that could provoke all kinds of emotions from deep anger to deep sorrow, to elation to incredible sadness and horror.

This has had no greater effect than it has on the genre of war movies. Since “Saving Private Ryan” in the 1990s war has taken on a realism, in real time up on the screen never before thought possible. You, the audience can sit there and watch with complete safety the absolute bloody nature of men killing each other in the name of governments or any other higher power.

Okinawa one of the many bloody battles in World War II, infamous for its loss of life and a brutality that the soldiers who fought could only explain through their horrified faces waking up screaming in the middle of the night. Thanks to the genius of Mel Gibson, in his Oscar nominated film “Hacksaw Ridge” we are given a front row seat to that which our fathers and grandfathers lived through during that awful but necessary war.

The expression that war is all blood and guts is not just an expression. Not according to the up close and personal battle scenes of “Hacksaw Ridge.” The Japanese knew if they lost Okinawa that the only place left to defend would have been their home Islands. Therefore, they fought the hardest there because they knew they were losing everything.

This is the backdrop to the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who saved over 75 wounded soldiers’ lives behind enemy lines during one of the worst phases of that battle. An extraordinarily courageous feat that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only conscientious objector in American history to earn that highest of military awards.

Known as “the escarpment” a ridge of cliffs surrounding most of Okinawa Doss volunteered with two other men to put up cargo nets in order to ascend the cliff. It was a dangerous undertaking as the Japanese had most of those cliffs heavily defended.

The first hour of the film sets up Doss’s life and how he came to be a pacifist, he virtuously and stubbornly stood up for his own beliefs, his realization that he almost killed his brother in a violent act as a boy and how it changed him (not sure if that really happened.) His pacifism is pure. It’s brought out that he doesn’t eat any kind of animal meat either. Doss was an original, and he stood his ground for his convictions even in 1940s America when we went to war to kill an enemy bent on destroying us.

It was just accepted truth that young men would go off and kill for their country, because that’s what was needed at the time. Conscientious objection was something that cowards took up, not people of faith. Consequently, the army’s attempts to drum him out of the service even to the point of court martial failed and he was sent to be a medic. He would not carry a weapon. The courage that followed him through his lifetime, that made him the man that he was, he took out onto the battlefield and singlehandedly behind enemy lines with no support, being all alone he started to bring out the wounded in the face of the enemy.

In one scene he actually hides from Japanese soldiers by running down into one of their very own tunnels which we now know they had perfected as an operational advantage against the American enemy. While evading Japanese at every turn inside that close quartered area it is remarkable that they didn’t catch him there. It would have meant certain death.

He helps an enemy soldier in the tunnels during a moment of poignancy. The soldier too weak to fight back and probably dying, Private Doss comforts him with a gauze pad to cover his bleeding wound. There is some evidence that Doss actually treated wounded enemy soldiers but I can’t prove it. Gibson included some of that wanting to show Doss’s pure humanity and belief that all life was sacred.

His quintessential line in the film is, “While everyone is taking life I will be saving it.” I have no idea if that was written in a memoir somewhere or something that he really said. It might have been manufactured by the excellent writing team who created the story, Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkhan. But, it was an archetypical moment explaining Private Doss’s motives for the entire film.

The story has strong religious overtones as this was how Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist, was able to do what he did. Gibson used his Christianity to give him the courage to save lives in the face of death and destruction all around him. His strength to keep going back and get another wounded soldier until he was absolutely physically and emotionally unable to do it anymore, was owed to his faith in God.

One has to ask, if he wasn’t as religious as he was, would he have been able to do what he did? Gibson’s assumption is “no” that kind of courage can only be mustered with a belief in something larger than yourself. And, if that is true, then all atheists reading this have to ask themselves from what would they draw to be able to save seventy five human lives under those kinds of conditions.

Of course, I don’t think anyone, let alone Mel Gibson would suggest that we emulate Doss’s beliefs. We can’t have a world of pacifists and expect to survive, not in the world of the 1940s and definitely not in the world today. But, the rest of us certainly can admire when someone like Doss comes across the national landscape and sets his own watermark for what are the most important issues in life and how we might benefit from those principles.

This movie is not for the faint of heart. It does purposely show the violence in a realistic fashion as described in the beginning of this review. Gibson holds nothing back in his direction. And, as an added bonus Doss and the soldiers he served with who were characters in the film are shown in video during their lifetimes discussing those events. It adds to the “true story” aspect of this remarkable life of one man who gave everything he had in war except to kill anyone.

About the Author
Larry Hart has been writing and commenting on Jewish issues since 1985. His body is in the U.S., but his heart is in Israel.