Film Review: Hacksaw Ridge
Most everyone who has been a part of the Seventh-day Adventist church for a length of time knows the story of Private Desmond Doss, the World War II conscientious objector who voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army as a medic. Previously subject of the documentary, The Conscientious Objector (2004), directed by Terry Benedict, the heroic story of Desmond Doss has received the Hollywood treatment in the Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ) directed film Hacksaw Ridge, which was released this past weekend. The film, regarded by many critics as a likely Oscar contender, surprisingly does not shy away at all from Doss’s religious convictions while also not seeming as blatantly didactic as thematically similar films such as Angelina Jolie’s 2014 film, Unbroken.
Hacksaw Ridge very closely follows the story of Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man), chronicling his experiences as a medic in the army during World War II. The film actually opens at the end, after the assault on the titular Hacksaw Ridge, a cliff face held by Japanese forces on Okinawa. With this dark opening, showing an injured Doss being lowered from the cliff, we hear a voiceover of Doss reciting Isaiah 40:28-31, instilling religious overtones from the outset. These themes carry through the film, as Doss’s nonviolent philosophy and refusal to bear arms informs his interactions with all aspects of his military service.
A majority of the film before arriving at Okinawa portrays the hardships Doss experienced in being accepted by his fellow army members, who struggle to accept his beliefs against carrying a weapon as anything other than cowardice. This culminates in the final scene at Hacksaw Ridge, where, after his company retreats down the cliff, Doss stayed at the top and, over the course of twelve hours, saved 75 injured men. In addition, the film covers some crucial moments from Doss’s early life which informed his worldview, as well as his courtship of Dorothy Schutte and his basic training. These details seem to be mostly factually in line with reality, though some small details are shifted around. One of the most interesting details that was left out was how much Doss was injured before leaving Okinawa. After being injured by a grenade, Doss gave up his stretcher to another soldier. While he waited for another, a Japanese sniper shot him, shattering his arm, requiring Doss to crawl to safety. Purportedly, Gibson left this detail out of the film because he worried audiences would find it too unrealistic.
The film was impressive in how it did not seem to value one ideology about war over another. During basic training, Doss is constantly bullied for his beliefs, even being threatened with a court martial; yet he stands firm, and the film pays his inflexibility a reverent amount of respect. While Doss is undoubtedly the hero of the story, neither he nor the film vilify the opposing viewpoint. Although they are mean to Doss at first, we are made to empathize with the other soldiers by the end of the film when they reconcile their differences with Doss and realize that his different version of heroism is no less valid than theirs. Likewise, Doss says nothing to condemn those who disagree with his viewpoint, regarding his beliefs as personal and between him and God alone.
Hacksaw Ridge is still a war movie, however, and some critics have accused Gibson’s attempt at verisimilitude as actually just pornographic violence. The gore and blood is what caused Hacksaw Ridge to garner an R-rating, and I often found myself shielding my face when the spilling intestines and spurting blood became too overwhelming. Similarly, the film relies on the war movie-trope of demonizing and dehumanizing the enemy, in this case the Japanese troops, to make sure the audience knows which side are the “good guys.” There are scenes which show Doss trying to save some injured Japanese troops, but the other soldiers are quick to devalue the soldiers and Doss’s actions. While this likely does accurately portray what the American troops felt at the time, in 2016 it is uncomfortable and problematic.
Statements from SDA leadership seem overwhelmingly positive about the opportunities the film provides for Seventh-day Adventists to engage with non-Adventists about the faith. Hacksaw Ridge is likely the most positive mainstream publicity Adventism has received (Some groups from Andrews University even visited theatres this weekend to hand out pamphlets detailing Doss’s real-life testimony). While the film does not spend an incredibly lengthy amount of time on it, we do see Doss engaging with some of the major tenets of Adventism. Through Doss’s philosophy, the film accurately portrays the official Seventh-day Adventist stance of discouraging members from bearing arms. Hacksaw Ridge also provides some clues at other SDA beliefs, characterizing Doss as a vegetarian, showing him in emotional prayer, and covering his beliefs in keeping the Sabbath. Most importantly, especially in the scenes where Doss is delivered safely from the midst of the hell of war, the film very clearly shows the power of protection God provides to the faithful, connecting to the words from Isaiah from the beginning scene: “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles…” With this promise as the main theme of the film, Adventists who can stomach the R-rated gore should find Hacksaw Ridge to be an inspiring and enjoyable film.