“Hacksaw Ridge” is A Great Modern War Film, But It’s Not About War

hacksawExplosions release a torrent of flames, dirt and blood as the somber solider narrates a passage of Scripture: “Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:30-31). Thus begins the new WWII film “Hacksaw Ridge,” setting the stage for a tale of both sorrow and hope, defeat and triumph.

Desmond T. Doss (1919-2006) was an American Army corporal and combat Medic in the 77th Infantry Division (known as Liberty Division) during WWII. He served at Guam, Philippines and Japan, including the legendary Battle of Okinawa. He was the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot. As the film’s tagline reads,“One of the greatest heroes in America history never fired a bullet.” As a Seventh-Day Adventist and a pacifist, Doss was granted a 1A-O status, which means he was willing to serve but would not carry a weapon. Doss considered himself not an objector but rather a “conscientious cooperator” to his home and country. He wanted to serve, but he was also strongly opposed to taking a life, even in war, due to several life-defining moments in his youth. Instead, he wanted to save lives.

As Doss states in the movie, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.” What transpired is the extraordinary account of one man, who against all odds and refusing to retreat, withstanding heavy mortar and gunfire miraculously saved around 75 lives during the assault on Okinawa.


Nominated for 28 awards

“Hacksaw Ridge” boasts an all-star cast including Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Social Network) as the protagonist Desmond Doss. The film also sees the directorial return of Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ) after a decade’s hiatus since his 2006 Apocalypto. As of this writing, the film has already been nominated for 28 awards including 3 Golden Globes—one being for best motion picture—and the film has won at least 14 awards so far.

Of course the film takes certain liberties with the timeline and events, but the account is truer than most nonfiction adaptations. The acting is stellar. As you’re immersed in the world, you genuinely believe that you are watching Doss and not Garfield. Also, the story of redemption clearly parallels the filmmaker’s own life and struggles. Gibson’s search for forgiveness is symbolized in Doss’ search for wounded men.


A character study

Now as with all art, viewers will be split on this film. Some may feel that the start is too slow or the runtime too long or the bloody images too indulgent. But I think much of this has to do with our expectations. And it seems that Gibson wants to usurp our expectations. This is not your traditional war period piece like “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Thin Red Line.” At its core, the film is a character study. True, the film does deal with themes of war and peace. Yes, the timeless questions are asked such as, “What does it mean to be a hero?” In Doss’ words, “The real heroes are those who never came back.” But ultimately these concepts simply help frame the larger narrative at play. The story is about a courageous man with concrete convictions and what happens to him and those around him when those convictions come under fire. The real conflict and questions are: Can Doss actually hold to his convictions in the midst of raging, relentless bullets and explosions? Will he? Should he?

Before departing for basic training, Doss’ fiancée Dorothy gives him a Bible. It is bookmarked at 1 Samuel 17, the account of David’s fight against Goliath, as Doss will soon learn that he will be facing giants from both domestic and foreign.

This is one of those epics where you realize that the story is far bigger than the movie itself, and this can make the message difficult to communicate. How does one explain the certain confidence of one’s convictions with the loyalties and responsibilities of society? The film wrestles with question, but it is never so arrogant as to try and answer it. Neither does Doss. But the facts remain, and Doss stands firm in the face of foe and friend. It is one thing to stand strong against an enemy, especially faceless ones. It is much more difficult to stand strong before allies. Nevertheless, he expresses, “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.” Our emotions are pushed even further because we know how much Doss has to lose. The first half of the film really establishes the person and character of Doss. The second half of the film is an expedition to test that character to the point of collapse.


Biblical themes

At times, the film is grossly uncomfortable with its depictions of the brutality of combat. But it’s supposed to be—war is not meant to be consumed or enjoyed. If there’s a purpose to war then hopefully it’s to teach us a lesson, not to entertain us. The points of the film are made all the more clear as Doss’ calm and jovial demeanor as contrasted with the cold and jagged devastations of battle. The juxtaposition of Doss’ transcendental beliefs with the harsh realities of warfare are what make this film stand out the most. As a viewer, you cannot help but be in wonder at the miracle of a skinny, unarmed medic traversing the ruthless terrain ready to lay down his life at any moment for the sake of saving just one more life. Looking up at the ridge reveals the absurdity of the situation—truly like climbing up a fine-toothed hacksaw except that would have been much less dangerous!

At one climatic point on the battlefield, Doss, exhausted and desperate, asks God what he should do. The answer arrives with cries of wounded soldiers echoing from the shadows as a foreboding mist crawls with gnarled claws across the ravaged wasteland. Throughout the night, Doss will pray time and time again, “Lord, help me get just one more.”

Doss is portrayed as a type of Christ-figure albeit a reluctant one. Initially, Doss is despised by his squad-mates and dismissed as a weakling at best; a liability at worst. But as the shrapnel starts flying Doss proves that what he has to offer is much more valuable than the securing of a strategic island. All those around him become mystified by Doss’ bravery and resolve. Although many wouldn’t understand his beliefs, they would come to believe in him. Isn’t this what it means to be a Christian—a Christ follower? We don’t follow a principle. We follow a Person. We’re not saved by a creed. We’re saved by a Christ. It’s not about laws but about love. Jesus didn’t seek his own life, but he forsook it for the sake of others. At first, they called Doss a coward. They called Christ much worse. Now they call both saviors: Doss a savior of soldiers; Jesus a Savior of souls.

In one scene, Doss is lying on a stretcher as if crucified. From above, the camera zooms in on the weary soldier clutching his bride’s Bible then pans slowly 180 degrees to gaze up from below and towards the brightening sky. The cold, dark smoke billowing from the frontline begins to surrender to a warm, radiant heaven offering hope beyond. His comrades see him as a guardian angel, but Doss simply points the glory upward back to his God. By the end, as every muscle fiber is spent, he truly soars on eagles’ wings.

For more info visit: www.hacksawridge.movie

*Parental Note: This film is not for recommended for children and is rated R for intense graphic sequences of grisly death and war violence.


Finley is a doctoral student researching Organizational Leadership. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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