My husband, Stuart, and I saw Hacksaw Ridge, based on a true story, and both of us were tremendously moved, for similar although markedly different reasons. We were emotionally affected in spite of this being a Mel Gibson film, and realized going in that if it was made by Gibson, it would be excessively gory and technically focused on making the most of blood and guts. Knowing how much I hated Gibson’s Braveheart, I avoided seeing most of the worst parts in Hacksaw Ridge by turning my head and lowering my eyes. But wars are that way, and that was the especially disturbing part: knowing that in parts of the world people were fighting and dying as we sat in the theater.
Stuart’s father was stabbed three times in his leg during World War II in the Pacific, his life likely saved by playing dead under someone’s corpse in a foxhole (a similar scene graphically portrayed in Hacksaw Ridge). Stuart’s oldest brother’s story became all too real as well: he served as a medic during the Vietnam War and was wounded a bunker blow up. The main character of Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss, (Andrew Garfield) is a medic (from down the road from us in Lynchburg, Va., no less) who was a Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objector who was willing to serve in the Army, but not take up a gun. And that was the rub.
My father was also a C.O. during World War II who wanted to be a medic, but was told he would not be allowed to give aid to the enemy, so that was ruled out by his conscience. I do not claim my father did anything so courageous as the real-life Doss who risked his own life again and again to rescue some 75 comrades in arms (and some Japanese) from a peril-filled battle at the top of a ridge overlooking the Pacific. I remember my father talking about the “Seventh-day Adventist boys” he got to know through his assignments here in the U.S. — young men he appreciated knowing very much, which widened his view of the world and appreciation for those of other religious groups. I found it interesting that this Seventh-day Adventist combat-decorated war hero and my father died just days apart in March of 2006.
So they were colleagues in conscience. In this movie, my husband vicariously experienced a little of the horrors his father and brother went through in different wars. I too experienced a little of what my father’s colleagues went through in ridicule and derision for their beliefs. I was glad Gibson did not cheapen his film with an abundance of profanity, so common these days: the action and awfulness portrayed spoke louder than profanity anyway.
That Gibson spends almost half the film (my rough estimate) on the build-up to the horrific battle is to his credit. The well-developed interplay between Doss, his unit and their commanding officers (who must be totally won over to understanding why someone in a combat unit does not feel he can carry a gun) is what saves the film from feeling gratuitous in its violence. In spite of the well-known callous, crude and even vicious officers that are a given in military basic training, each of the officers comes around to seeing how true and deep Doss’ convictions go. One critic at Common Sense Media says Doss does a great job of “portraying a believable spiritual life” without coming off as touched in the head (which would of course booted him quickly from the army).
The film also builds in some exploration of abuse at the hands of his father, which both disgusts and dismays us, even while understanding his father suffered what today we’d call PTSD. That the film garnered a 10-minute standing ovation when first released at a film festival in Venice, with actors who for the most part are played by Australians (with pretty decent American accents), makes the film feel less like a gung-ho old war film and more a pretty decent study of what conscientious objectors went through during The Great War. That this true-life C.O. lived out his convictions with such amazing bravery, stamina and courage should touch the heart of any honorable person who sees the movie.
Like Doss’ father, I abhor the futility of war and pray for an end to all wars. Doss was the living example of “what would happen if everyone refused to kill another even in war.” There wouldn’t be war. Of course, we feel that is idealistic, unrealistic and totally not going to happen in our lifetime, given the state of conflicts around the world. But still, it makes me wonder. Maybe in the lifetime of my four beautiful grandsons? The Bible speaks of “wars and rumors of wars,” and we assume that means there will always be wars (Mark 13:8). But as Doss says in the movie and my father often reminded us, Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another and taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
My husband is rightly proud of his father and brother for surviving the horror (physically, emotionally and spiritually) of war. While he never served, he noted: “The film helps me understand why Daddy would almost break down crying every time they got a letter from my brother while he was in Vietnam.”
The film also brings home the reality of how ridiculed conscientious objectors were in general society in a time when Hitler gave the world such a morally right cause to combat.
Melodie Davis is a Mennonite/Presbyterian author, Third Way Cafe editor, columnist and blogger at FindingHarmonyBlog.com, where this post first appeared.