“War does not determine who is right. Only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell
“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” – George F. Kennan
The first film Mel Gibson has directed in nearly a decade, Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during World War II. Every story of the 466 Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor for service during World War II is amazing and compelling, but among them the story of Private First Class Doss is unique. That is because he was the first man to receive our nation’s highest award for bravery while serving as a Conscientious Objector.
Doss was born and raised in Lynchburg, VA, son of Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) Doss. Tom had fought in World War I and did not want to see Desmond or his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlist after Pearl Harbor. Desmond encounters Dorothy Schutte, a nurse at a hospital after he saves a man’s life and they fall in love. She also doesn’t want to see Desmond go off to war, but when he says he will enlist, they agree to marry when he gets his first leave to come home.
Problems arise when Doss arrives at Fort Jackson for basic training. He informs his drill instructor, “Sergeant Howell” (Vince Vaughn, portraying a composite character) that he will not handle a weapon. Doing so would go against his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs. His company commander, Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) wants him out of the Army. Howell manages to turn most of the other members of the platoon against Doss, as they are convinced he is merely a coward. Glover’s desire to drum Doss out of the Army nearly comes to pass as Doss is brought to court-martial but thanks to a timely intervention, he is allowed to go with his unit to Okinawa.
The name of the movie was the WWII nickname of the Maeda Escarpment, which was defended by a mass of well dug-in Japanese Imperial Army soldiers. The assault by Doss’ unit is initially successful but they are forced to retreat by a Japanese counterattack. All of them descend down the rope ladder on the escarpment’s face except Doss. He plans to rescue as many of the wounded as he can, under the cover of a Naval artillery barrage.
There has been a trend in making war films, World War II films in particular since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to deglamorize war and the ugly violence that results. Hacksaw Ridge is no exception as we see graphic violence and gruesome deaths taking place at a frenetic pace on the battlefield. Mel Gibson’s last war movie in which he starred (but did not direct) We Were Soldiers did this well, but Hacksaw Ridge does it even better.
Andrew Garfield plays the role quite well, giving substance to the man who wanted to serve but refused to kill because of his beliefs. He and Teresa Palmer have terrific chemistry and as always, the camera simply adores her. But the truly stellar performance here is that of Vince Vaughn. As good as he is in the plethora of comedic movies he does, he excels doing the dramatic turn here.
There are those who may not be happy with the poetic license taken in bringing the story of Desmond Doss to the big screen. In the film it seems like his military service starts and ends in 1945 at the Maeda Escarpment but the reality is he enlisted in 1942 and saw action in the Battles of Guam and Leyte prior to his exploits at Hacksaw Ridge. It also telescopes his heroism there into a much shorter time frame than the actual three week period during which they took place.
Hacksaw Ridge was in “development hell” for over a decade but the truth is that people have been trying and failing to tell his story on the big screen for many decades. Casablanca producer Hal B. Wallis and actor/producer Audie Murphy (himself a Medal of Honor recipient) met with Doss who turned down their entreaties to tell his tale. We are all fortunate that prior to his passing in 2006, Desmond Doss finally consented to his story being made into a movie. It is an amazing story and an awesome film.