During World War II, a young man from Virginia named Desmond Doss passed up a possible deferment and joined the army, in spite of being a conscientious objector. Everyone else in his town had gone to war, and he didn’t feel he could remain home safe while others risked their lives. But he also didn’t feel he could use a weapon.
His conviction that there was no exemption from the sixth commandment, even during wartime, prompted him to refuse to carry a gun. Instead, he volunteered to be a combat medic. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Doss maintained his Sabbath-keeping, his prayer life, his refusal to bear arms, and even his vegetarianism throughout the war.
Director Mel Gibson can’t resist a bloody story of courage. Hacksaw Ridge is both biopic and war film, and the joining of those two things is not seamless. His early family life and the start of his relationship with his future wife are portrayed unevenly, bouncing between a father who suffers PTSD and a corny, sentimental romance. Andrew Garfield, who in the early portions of the movie portrays Doss with an aw-shucks goofiness, seems to have prepared by binge watching The Andy Griffith Show. You can’t help but wonder when Barney Fife will appear on the scene. Carrying on to basic training, Doss is surrounded by an assortment of caricatures who are confused by and scornful of him.
Then they go off to war. At the cliff in Okinawa the soldiers dubbed Hacksaw Ridge, the movie tips over into grisly violence. Gibson has shown a predilection for focusing on graphic, bloody brutality. There are extended, realistic scenes of chaos, showing the horror of war and the courage of soldiers who put themselves in its path. You can’t help but wonder how any of the wounded ever survived, but at the same time the camera lingers gratuitously on the broken bodies.
The story of Desmond Doss is inspiring—the story of a man who, based on his convictions and his faith, follows his beliefs and does what he can to help his fellow man. As he says in the movie, “with the world so set on tearing itself apart, doesn’t seem such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
His story is juxtaposed against the reality that, as valiant as he was, the war was only won because soldiers were willing to bear arms. That moral tension between a desire to see life flourish and a desire to fight evil still underlies much of our political discussion about warfare.
The uneven goofy and gory storytelling, however, may leave viewers more in awe of the man than they are of the movie. (Summit)