“Hacksaw Ridge” and Courage Under Fire

“He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing.”

(photo: Register Files)

Last Sunday, Catholics read about the seven brothers who were tortured and killed for their Jewish faith, as was their mother. According to the Second Book of Maccabees:

It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God's law. One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Always powerful, this particular reading especially caught my eye because only two days earlier I had seen the story of Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Starring Andrew Garfield of “The Amazing Spiderman” fame as the pacifist Seventh-Day Adventist and combat medic, “Hacksaw Ridge” tells how Doss’ refusal to pick up a weapon led first to torment from his fellow soldiers and a near-court martial by the Army…but ended with him becoming a hero to his unit after he was credited with saving 75 people during one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War.

The real Doss died in 2006, 61 years after becoming the first non-combatant to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. And while he didn’t die for his beliefs like those in Maccabees, his treatment by his fellows and superiors was no joke – they considered him the weakest member of the unit due to his pacifist beliefs, and attempted to discharge him with a falsified mental illness.

In an irony acknowledged by Doss’ superior, Captain Jack Glover, after the war, Glover had gone “to my battalion commander, Colonel Gerald Cooney, and I suggested that, in my opinion, Doss should be transferred." That opinion changed dramatically once they were in combat: "He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing."

In an interesting twist, the movie may have understated part of Doss’ story that nearly did lead to his death thanks to his beliefs. After deflecting a grenade thrown at his unit (shown in the movie), Doss was hit by 17 pieces of shrapnel. Not shown was that as he was carried off of the Ridge, Doss got off the stretcher to help a wounded soldier, gave up his spot to his comrade, and waited five hours before crawling to an aid station.

During that time, Doss was hit with sniper fire – again, also not shown in the film. Nor did Director Mel Gibson include how Doss was largely unable to work after leaving the Army, due to his injuries, and how he was deaf for over 12 years until he received a cochlear implant in the 1980s.

Overall, the movie ranks a solid 8 out of 10 stars, though it is not recommended for children due to its intensely graphic depictions of violence, death, and injury. The “violence porn,” as I described elsewhere, takes up a solid 20 minutes of the film. While many of the scenes are visually gripping and are done with fantastic visual effects, they are unnecessary in terms of adding length to the film and depicting the horrors of war.

More minor issues with the film include Vince Vaughn’s unconvincing role as Doss’ training sergeant. (Vaughn’s character also seemed to never run out of ammo despite firing untold numbers of bullets.) Additionally, while flashbacks to Doss’ childhood appropriately set the stage for his pacifist beliefs, they are frequently abrupt and awkward.

In a nice positive twist, the movie seems to imply abstinence until marriage, and the marital sex scene is also implied without going past PG. Other subtle positives in the movie include Doss’ focus on his Bible, and his insistence on respecting Saturday as his Sabbath during training. When wounded, he loses the Bible, and a fellow braves enemy fire to bring it to him. (In reality, multiple soldiers risked their lives to find it).

Perhaps most powerfully – and this is also historically accurate – the movie closes on Doss’ unit delaying the final assault on Hacksaw Ridge until he is done praying for them. The only remaining medic in his company, Doss agreed to violate his Sabbath only if he could read his Bible and pray first.