Review of Hacksaw Ridge

Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard,
that the everlasting God, the Lord,
the Creator of the ends of the earth,
fainteth not, neither is weary?
There is no searching of his understanding.
He giveth power to the faint;
and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
and the young men shall utterly fall:
but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!

William Tecumseh Sherman, address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy (June 19, 1879)

 

My bride and I went to see Hacksaw Ridge last Saturday, Mel Gibson’s tribute to conscientious objector Desmond Doss who earned a Medal of Honor for heroism on Okinawa, and I was bowled over by it.  It wrenched more emotion from me than any film I have ever seen, except for Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  My review is below the fold.  The usual caveat as to spoilers is in effect.

As is true with any film on a historical subject, Mel Gibson took artistic license with certain of the facts.  Go here to read about where the film departs from the historical record.  I want to emphasize that in regard to the heroism that Doss displays in the film, Gibson toned it down somewhat for fear that audiences simply wouldn’t believe it.

Desmond Doss, who passed away at age 87 in 2006 had turned down offers to make movies about his life on numerous occasions, fearing that the films would not be accurate.  Gregory Crosby, grandson of Bing Crosby, wrote a screenplay for a proposed film and secured the agreement of Doss to the proposed film in 2001.  The project was then stuck in developmental delay.  Mel Gibson was approached to direct and turned it down twice until finally agreeing to do it in December of 2014.  The wait for the film was worth it.

The film is divided thematically into three parts.  In the first part of the film we seen Doss growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Andrew Garfield portrays Doss as a simple, good man, religious and ever ready to help his fellow man.  In short Doss is a nice guy, which is remarkable because he comes from a troubled family.  Rachel Griffiths is the actress who has the role of Bertha Doss, depicted as a long suffering religious woman.  Hugo Weaving has the difficult role of Tom Doss, the father of Desmond Doss.  A World War I Army veteran, Doss was shattered by the War, losing all of his friends in the War and becoming a bitter, violent alcoholic.  In the hands of a lesser actor, Tom Doss would have been a one note villain, but Weaving takes care to show the pathos of Doss, and the love he has for his family, and the difficulty he has allowing the love to show beyond the alcoholism and the violence.  It is revealed later in the film that Doss adopts his pacifism, because of an incident in which he takes a pistol away from his father who had been threatening his mother with it, coming close to shooting his father who is begging him to do it and put him out of his misery.

The above might give one the impression that the section of the film dealing with the family of Doss is grim.  The reverse is the truth.  It is mostly lighthearted, especially when he begins courting his wife to be Dorothy Schutte, portrayed with charm, and a flawless American accent, by Australian actress Teresa Palmer.  It is heartening to see in a film the beginnings of a great love match, that would last until the death of Dorothy Doss in 1991.  His bride to be gives him a pocket Bible to take with him, and admonishes him that he must come home to her.

Both his father and his wife to be are dismayed when Doss decides to join the Army.  Although he is a pacifist he is also a patriot, believes the US is fighting against evil and wishes to participate as a medic, even though he has conscientious objector status.  (In the film Doss refers to himself as a conscientious cooperator.)

The second part of the film deals with the initial training of Doss by the Army.  Gibson skillfully, and humorously, shows Doss and his platoon going through the first days of military service.  Vince Vaughn gives a standout performance as Sergeant Howell, who introduces the men to Army life, profanely giving them nicknames as he does so:  he calls Doss “Cornstalk”.  Soon enough the pacifism of Doss, and the fact that he is a Seventh Day Adventist and does not want to work on Saturdays, introduces strain, and the company commander decides the easiest way to deal with the situation is to have Doss given a Section 8, insanity, discharge.  Doss resists this, stating that he is not crazy and that he wants to serve.  The Army psychologist who examines Doss agrees, finding that Doss has very strong beliefs, but that he is sane.  Pressure, including beatings, is then applied to Doss to get him to quit voluntarily.  Doss endures all, gaining the respect of the other men and officers in his company for the courage he displays in resisting attempts to drive him from the Army.  In exasperation, the Colonel of Doss’ unit convenes a court-martial of Doss for disobedience of orders to engage in weapons training.  Here the father of Doss dramatically intervenes, appearing at the court-martial in his old Army uniform, adorned with his medals, and bearing a letter from a General allowing Doss to not engage in weapons training and to complete his training to serve as a medic.  As the hearing officer concludes as he dismisses the court-martial, Doss is now free to enter the hell of a battlefield with no weapon to defend himself.

The third and final part of the film takes us to the hell on Earth that was the battle of Okinawa.  (For artistic purposes the film does not depict the service of Doss with the 77th Division, the Statue of Liberty Division, in the liberation of Guam and the Philippines where he was decorated and earned a reputation for outstanding courage among very brave men.  The hard fighting dog faces of the 77th earned the ultimate accolade, from the Marines they fought along side of on Guam, of being called by the jarheads  the 77th Marines.) On Okinawa the US incurred some 86,000 casualties, including about 20,000 KIA’s.  The entire Japanese garrison of around 110,000 was killed, except for some 7,000 that were captured.  Between 100,000-150,000 civilians were killed in spite of strenuous efforts by the US to avoid civilian casualties.  World War II in the Pacific was at its worst on Okinawa, where the grinding attacks of the US against Japanese fortified positions seemed to be a small replica of the trench fighting of WWI.

The film focuses on the battle of the 77th Division for the key sector of Hacksaw Ridge from April 29, 1945 to May 7, 1945.  The sequence in Okinawa begins with the 77th relieving the 96th Division that had  been attempting to take Hacksaw.  The drawn faces of the men of the 96th, along with their thousand yard stares and the trucks bearing the bodies of their dead speak eloquently of what is ahead of them to  the somber men of the 77th as they are approaching Hacksaw, a steep cliff up which the men of the 77th must clamber over cargo netting simply to get at the Japanese to fight them.  The film fully earns its R rating in its gruesome depiction of the fighting between the 77th and their Japanese foes.  I do not consider myself overly sensitive, but there were images in the film that I wish I could un-see.  When this comes out on Blu-ray or DVD parents should think seriously about it before allowing their kids to watch it.

Faith sustains Doss as he performs miracles of saving lives in this butcher shop.  His Medal of Honor citation says it all:

Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division. Near Urasoe-Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April – 21 May 1945. He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Private First Class Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small-arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small-arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Private First Class Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Private First Class Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Private First Class Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

Doss in the film is shown lowering man after man off the steep escarpment of Hacksaw Ridge, hiding from the Japanese after the 77th was driven down from the top of Hacksaw Ridge by a Japanese counterattack, refusing to leave the wounded.  Miraculously he escaped being either killed or captured by the Japanese, and lowered 75 wounded to life and safety from the top of Hacksaw, repeating over and over to himself, “Lord, let me save just one more.”  In the counterattack to take Hacksaw, his battalion waited until Doss completed praying, the men and officers regarding him as absolutely indispensable to the unit.

When he is himself wounded and taken to the rear, his fellow soldiers search until they find his lost Bible.  The last scene in the movie shows Doss, clutching his Bible, suspended on a stretcher between Heaven and Earth.

Just before the credits a few clips of the real Doss were shown.  He never took any credit for his courage giving all the glory to God.  He often said that the real heroes were the men from his unit that never came home, and who were buried on Okinawa.

Mel Gibson has fully redeemed his career as a director with this masterpiece.  A film that goes far beyond mere entertainment and illustrates what a man of faith can accomplish when he stays true to his beliefs and cares so much more about helping others than he does about his own mortal life.  Incredibly, the movie does justice to Desmond Doss, a true American hero.

 

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