MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Mel Gibson. Starring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:11-12 (NRSV)
Desmond T. Doss (Garfield) was a Seventh Day Adventist who was drafted to serve his country during World War II, but there was one hitch – he was a pacifist and did not want to pick up or fire a weapon. His reluctance to bear arms made him the subject of ridicule and scorn (with the threat of a possible court martial) in his Army unit. His conscientious objector status was eventually accepted and Doss did his military service as a combat medic, accompanying his unit to Guam, the Philippines and eventually to the bloodbath of the Battle of Okinawa. Doss showed incredible courage under fire, pulling dozens of wounded soldiers to safety. For his extraordinary willingness to risk his life for others, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Hacksaw Ridge is his story. It’s a terrific tale and – when director Mel Gibson sticks to recreating the large scale battle scenes in the film’s second hour – it’s stirring filmmaking.
Unfortunately, the script is not as good as the filmmaking. Early scenes show us Desmond and his brother growing up in rural America with an abusive and alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), emotionally scarred by his service in World War I. Once Desmond begins to court Dorothy Schuttle (Palmer), the woman who will later become his wife, the film shifts gears and becomes rather sentimental and corny. When Doss begins basic training the script trots out even more stereotypical bits, including one recruit who is such a quick study that he introduces every soldier in the barracks to Doss. The gruff but good-hearted drill sergeant is played by Vince Vaughn, who soon has a nickname for everyone (Doss is called “Cornstalk”); I hadn’t heard so many nicknames since National Lampoon’s Animal House.
It’s a strange hybrid. In spite of the brutal violence in the war scenes – and it is extremely graphic – there is hardly any profanity or crude behavior. Doss’ faith is treated with respect, although Gibson prefers to use battleground images of blood and water to represent Christ’s presence rather than talk about Jesus.
Many critics have taken issue with Doss’ message of pacifism attached to Mel Gibson’s violent depiction of brothers in arms. But that is what makes this story such an interesting tale. Most of the amazing acts of valor shown on screen actually happened (and are mentioned in the Medal of Honor citation). And Corporal Doss was just a regular guy living out his beliefs with integrity and decency.
The film ends rather abruptly – a bit too soon – but concludes with film clips of the real Desmond Doss. He seems like just a regular guy back home after a great war. I may not care to ever watch Hacksaw Ridge again, but I will never forget Desmond Doss. (If you’re interested there is a feature-length documentary about Doss from 2004, The Conscientious Objector, which can be viewed for free on You Tube.)
Four halos: Courage under fire accompanied by faith; pacifism and tolerance.
Four pitchforks: Bloody scenes of war violence; graphic amputations; alcoholism; some emotional abuse.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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