A Pacifist’s Battle in “Hacksaw Ridge”

By Julia Clausen

If there were ever a film or a message to remind young voters of the importance of healing and not hating older — and whiter — generations, “Hacksaw Ridge” might be it, if they were to actually go see it.

A tale of radical heroism, Mel Gibson’s latest comeback film tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who enlists in World War II to join the Pacific front, but refuses to kill the enemy or even carry a gun. He is criticized, court martialled and eventually released to join ranks in Okinawa as a medic. While everyone thinks he will die within the first five minutes of combat, he surpasses their expectations by putting his life on the line to save as many soldiers possible, even when all his comrades have given up. He was, and is, the first and only conscientious objector to receive a Medal of Honor in WWII.

True, “Hacksaw Ridge” is just about as nostalgic of a film as they come, with no speaking roles for minorities and only two women. The film brims over with love for a more “honorable” time when courtship and “serving our country” were treated with sincerity rather than sarcasm. The traditional white, nuclear family is romanticized and the audience can’t help but recall other glorified WWII films.

However, the climactic moment when the music swells and the audience is filled with awe is not during the carnage, but after. The action is pure chaos, full of bullets and flamethrowers and crazed screams, and the injuries are horrific. The entire scene leaves the audience feeling empty, wondering “Is that really all there is?”
But when the action ceases and the soldiers retreat, leaving the wounded behind in an eerie silence, that is when the heroism begins.

Private Doss spends the entire night on his own, dodging Japanese soldiers, tending to the wounded, carrying them on his shoulders across the churned landscape, and painfully lowering them down a cliff to safety.
One by one. All 75 of them.

The film doesn’t worship the muscular and brutal, yet scared men who measure their strength by the size of their rifles. Instead, it celebrates the ordinary man — the “corn stalk” as his drill sergeant calls him — who sees the potential for hatred in his heart, but decides to heal instead of wound.

His famous line echoes all through the night: “God, help me save one more.”

This mission even takes him behind enemy lines into Japanese bunkers and compels him, in a tense moment of fear and confusion, to extend his compassion to his enemies.

Doss’s mission is simple, but highly controversial during the most patriotic of wars. He tells the judge during his court martial, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, I don’t see the harm in trying to put a little bit of it back together.”

Of course, his determination to follow his code does not win him many friends during training. His fellow soldiers beat and mock him, and his commanding officers make his life a living hell.

But when they get to the battlefield, Doss, armed with only morphine and bandages, is the one who saves the lives of the men with guns, not the other way around.

“I learned how to hate quick, and how to judge people quicker,” says his primary tormentor, but later close friend, Private Riker. “I judged you wrong.”

Doss’ radical determination to hold true to his faith reveals just how much hate and fear lies beneath each good person around him, and how it drives them to mow down a line of men with a flamethrower to gain a mile of land. Or how it moves them to beat a man in the middle of the night because they don’t understand him.

The film doesn’t demonstrate reconciliation between different cultures, or even different religions, really, so the message can only be taken so far. The sympathetic (but heavily orientalist) treatment of Japanese soldiers undermines the film’s desire for openness and respect for other people’s convictions.

However, that doesn’t make the message wrong — only narrow. It is an important concept, particularly now, with the country so tense and divided, not to be dismissed for its bias, but could be expanded to include people of all cultures and creeds.

The only man Doss ever really hates is his father, a drunk, cruel and miserable WWI veteran who threatens his wife with a gun. He spends his days roaming the slanted lines of graves, spilling drops of blood and booze on the stones. And Doss hates him.

But his mother explains that his brutality is not an expression of hatred towards other people, but an outward expression of an inward pain.

“Why does he hate us?” asks a young Doss.

“He doesn’t hate you,” his mother replies. “He just hates himself sometimes.”

A powerful lesson, in times when it can be so tempting to retaliate and continue the cycle of pain, that authenticity and forgiveness are the only ways to break it.

As Desmond Doss demonstrates: To approach one’s circumstantial enemy, not with weapons, but with bandages, is the most disarming thing in the world.