"I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble," said Desmond, "because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again." - Desmond Doss
It wasn't long before the death of Desmond Doss on March 23, 2006 that I had the chance to speak with the Congressional Medal of Honor winner by telephone while interviewing Terry Benedict, director of a documentary based upon Doss's life, The Conscientious Objector. Having already possessed a lifelong commitment to nonviolence myself, even from my childhood days as a Jehovah's Witness, that brief conversation forever changed the way I view my commitment to creating a peaceful world.
I'm not certain, of course, exactly how Doss would feel about Hacksaw Ridge, the Mel Gibson directed feature film based upon his life that opens in theatres nationwide this weekend. Somehow, Gibson is both faithful to Doss's story and yet glorifying of the violence that Doss so committedly shunned and that left him 90% disabled at war's end with severe injuries that were visible reminders of Doss's commitment to his faith and commitment to his fellow man.
Doss, for those unfamiliar, was drafted into the U.S. Army in April, 1942 during the height of World War II. Despite being eligible for a deferment and having a religiously grounded opposition to violence, Doss opted to enlist as he felt he could not sit idly by while others fought for his freedom. Doss unwaveringly believed he could both serve his country and remain faithful to his commitment to not kill another human being. Doss was so committed to nonviolence that he refused to hold a gun, train with a gun or ever consider carrying a gun as a member of the Army Medical Corps even when his platoon was sent to Okinawa in the perilous battle to climb the Maeda Escarpment, aka Hacksaw Ridge, a 350-foot high ridge that runs across much of Okinawa. It is in this battle that Doss, who'd endured violence, threats, humiliation and attempts to have him discharged from his fellow soldiers and superiors, would become the first Conscientious Objector ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor having saved approximately 75 lives during the battle despite never, I repeat never, having picked up a weapon and having sustained his own serious injuries during the battle.
It is worth noting that Doss himself shunned the Conscientious Objector label, preferring to see himself as a Conscientious Collaborator who was committed to serving in the military but to doing so within the framework of his deeply rooted faith as a Seventh-Day Adventist.
It would seem that Gibson has directed two separate films with Hacksaw Ridge, the first being a retro-styled war serial with your classically good ole' boy soldier played with a sort of "aw shucks" sincerity by Andrew Garfield and going up against the powers that be more than once for having convictions that seem completely unfathomable for a young man who has intentionally enlisted himself into the U.S. Army during wartime. The second film, if you will, is a more traditional war picture, perhaps the finest war picture captured on the big screen since Saving Private Ryan, a relentlessly brutal war picture that makes you realize again and again and again just how unfathomable the choices were that Doss was making. Doss, quite literally dozens of times, climbed up the Hacksaw Ridge and one-by-one risked his life rescuing wounded soldiers and lowering them to safer grounds.
They say that real pacifism isn't just avoiding conflict, but being at peace amidst the conflict.
Doss lived it and nearly gave his life doing so.
Garfield's work here is simply stellar. Even if Doss might have issues with the overall tone of Hacksaw Ridge, especially the latter half, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't be enthralled by Garfield's pitch perfect portrayal of the quiet and humble man whose faith and commitment to nonviolence should be the textbook role model for any true pacifist or peacemaker. The film's early scenes, featuring Doss's war vet turned abusive drunk father (Hugo Weaving) and more stabilizing mother (Rachel Griffiths), give way to familiar war movie stereotypes like the hardened drill sergeant (nicely played by an ultra serious Vince Vaughn) and paint-by-numbers fellow soldiers like the narcissist nicknamed Hollywood and the loudmouth New York Italian along with Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), who tries his hardest to get Doss booted out. There's also Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a military nurse whose romance with Doss is right up there with the best of Hollywood's classic meet cute scenes.
If you've watched Gibson's films, such as The Passion of the Christ or Braveheart, then you already know that Gibson surrenders himself to both the spirituality and the reality of war and violence. Gibson prefers relentless authenticity and he lives into that with Hacksaw Ridge, a film that is at times jarring in its brutality and relentless in its carnage.
As I left the theatre, I found the lingering effects of that relentless carnage blurred the line between the brutalities of war and tiny, shimmering lights like that provided by Doss's uncompromising devotion to "Thou Shalt Not Kill," a scripture seldom taken as seriously as it was taken by this unassuming man from Lynchburg, Virginia. In one of Hacksaw Ridge's key battlefield scenes, while other men have taken cover to protect themselves Doss can be seen exposing himself to artillery fire while lowering a soldier to safety then praying aloud “Lord, give me one more!," an action he would repeat dozens of times and a prayer he would repeat dozens of times before his own body could do no more.
Is Gibson glorifying the violence that Doss nearly gave his life to shun? Perhaps, though, perhaps it's only glorified in a way that is almost inevitable when bathed in the light of Doss's peaceful presence and conscientious collaboration. For all the blurred lines and sensory overwhelm I felt leaving the theatre after being pummeled by Gibson's recreation of the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, the truth is that I left that theatre even more enveloped by that brief conversation with Doss just over ten years ago that has served to remind me time and again that I can choose love instead of hate, peace instead of conflict. Gibson gives the film a final touch that is sublime, a not so subtle presence of Doss that brings home the truth, and much of what appears in the film is truth, and the power of Doss's simple yet life-changing story.
Despite the occasional blurriness of its subject matter, Hacksaw Ridge deserves to be mentioned among the year's finest films and, most assuredly, Garfield's stand-out performance as Doss must be mentioned among the year's finest performances. It would be as hackneyed and cliche'd as the film itself is on occasion to suggest that Gibson has, perhaps, integrated into his own worldview the reality that one can be fully immersed within the world but not of the world and that lesson has helped him direct this film about a man considered one of America's unlikeliest heroes.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic