If ever there was a war film more frighteningly violent than Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” it is Mel Gibson's “Hacksaw Ridge.” The movie, which opened nationwide Nov. 4, tells the story of the first conscientious objector in our nation’s history to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, and it has to be one of the most brutal films ever made about a pacifist.
Some may be put off by what they feel is Gibson’s over-the-top depiction of savagery in warfare, while others may find it impossible to understand why the lead character, Desmond Doss, is portrayed as a person who objects to violence yet still subjects himself to the horrors of the battlefield, but those folks will be missing the point of the story, which is based on actual events.
Performances by Andrew Garfield (Desmond Doss), as the Seventh-day Adventist who refuses to touch a gun, and Vince Vaughn (Sgt. Howell), as the hard-as-nails drill sergeant, lead a talented cast whose performances are direct and sincere. And the direction is nearly flawless, as Gibson, in almost lyrical fashion, presents us with a story of a young man’s coming of age seamlessly woven into a moment of American history when it was clear to everyone why we as a people needed to go to war.
Make no mistake: “Hacksaw Ridge” is an antiwar movie, but it is much more than that. It is a story of faith and conviction. The real-life Desmond Doss embraced his Church’s teaching of non-violence due primarily to his own life experiences, yet he felt compelled to enlist in the Army in order to do his part to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers. Doss felt that his part was to become a medic and step onto the battlefield without any weapons. However, that made no sense to the military during World War II, and the Army’s response was to try to force the idealistic enlisted soldier to abandon his convictions or to go back home.
The violence in the film begins long before Desmond Doss ever reaches boot camp or the battle of Okinawa. It is cultural and, to a great extent, it is tolerated. Interestingly, it is the horrors of war that help us, the audience, understand just how a great of a victory it was for the young private to be on that bloody battlefield and what a saving grace it was for his fellow soldiers. If you are not familiar with the history of the siege at Okinawa you really need to see this film.
What private Doss was able to accomplish in the midst of war was nothing short of a miracle. And where do miracles come from according to Mel Gibson? From God, of course, but sometimes it also requires faith and conviction on our part for the miracles to happen.