Viscera, valor, values: “Hacksaw Ridge”

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Hacksaw Ridge
directed by Mel Gibson
acted by Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn
produced by William Mechanic, David Permut, Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, Tyler Thompson, William D. Johnson, Brian Oliver
rated R “for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images”
running time: 138 minutes
 
by Bill Stamets
 
“For intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images” the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America rates “Hacksaw Ridge” R. Heads explode, guts spill, limbs are blown off, skin is aflame, rats feast on the dead.
 
Director Mel Gibson is not adverse to placing viscera on the screen– “Apocalypto,” “Braveheart,” “The Patriot,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “We Were Soldiers”– but it’s hard to see where “war violence” belongs in a film weighing non-violence as a value. Is the sickening realism here mocking the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shall not kill”) or is it there to vindicate a pacifist on the front line?
 
“A True Story” states an opening title in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Private First Class Desmond T. Doss (1919-2006), a conscientious objector and U.S. Army medical corpsman, receives a screen salute from Gibson and co-writers Robert Schenkkan (“The Quiet American”) and Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”). 
 
President Harry S. Truman awarded Doss a Congressional Medal of Honor on the White House lawn on October 12th, 1945. The citation details “outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty” on May 2nd, 5th and 21st of that year. The unarmed Seventh Day Adventist pulled some 75 wounded riflemen from the field of fire on Okinawa. His own wounds, along with the tuberculosis he contracted, left him disabled for the rest of his life. He considered raising tropical fish to get by, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 27, 1947.
 
“In a cinematic landscape overrun with fictional `superheroes,’ I thought it was time to celebrate a real one,” says Gibson in the film’s press notes. In the role of Doss, he casts Andrew Garfield from “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” 
 
True Comics, published in Chicago, profiled Doss in a 23-panel tale “Hero Without a Gun” in its April 1946 issue. A 1967 book titled “The Unlikeliest Hero: The Story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, The Soldier Who Wouldn’t Touch a Gun” was written by Booton Herndon, who served in a medical unit that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day. “Desmond Doss: In God’s Care, The Unlikeliest Hero and Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient” is the 1998 book by his second wife. 
 
The first screen version of the Doss saga was “The Conscientious Objector,” produced, directed and co-written by Terry L. Benedict. A Seventh-day Adventist, he made that 2004 documentary at the behest of the Desmond Doss Council, an organization initiated by Doss himself in 2000. Its mission is to “Preserve, protect and manage the life story of Desmond T. Doss and his intellectual properties, collections, and memorabilia in a manner that honors his legacy, his beliefs, his church and his God.” Benedict is credited among the eight producers of “Hacksaw Ridge.”
 
We first see Doss on his back. Wounded, he recites verses from Isaiah 40. The camera hovers overhead. Mud and blood are underfoot for his litter-bearers. The scene closes at the edge of an escarpment. Gloriously suspended in a white void, the din of battle muted, Doss is not heavenward. The story moves to the Blue Ridge Mountains, 16 years earlier, to the home of his Christian values.
 
Two concise scenes cue turning points for Doss. Ten-year-old Desmond (Darcy Bryce) fights with his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero). Losing and laying on his back, he knocks Hal out with a brick. “I could have killed him,” realizes Desmond. His mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) says: “Murder is the worst sin of all, is to take another man’s life. That is the most egregious sin in the Lord’s sight.” Doss peers at a framed illustration of the Ten Commandments and imprints on the Cain and Abel episode.
 
Years later his drunk father Tom (Hugo Weaving) once again threatens his mother. Desmond, now a young man, points a gun in his face. He later relates this incident to a fellow soldier in a lull in the hell of Okinawa: “And that’s when I made my promise to God I ain’t never gonna a touch a gun again.” 
 
Before their infantry company deployed for the Pacific Theater, drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) had presented Doss and other trainees with “a clip-fed shoulder-fired semi-automatic weapon designed to bring death and destruction to the enemy.” Doss declined the M-1: “I’m sorry sergeant, I can’t touch a gun.” On Okinawa he does touch one in order to jerry-rig a litter for dragging the wounded Howell from the enemy. (The real Doss in 1945 used a rifle stock to set a compound fracture in his own arm.)
 
In other brief exchanges Doss makes his case to enlist as a medic, a noncombatant with a 1–A–0 classification. To his father: “I figure I’ll be saving people not killing ‘em.” To his sweetheart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer): “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe, much less how you could live with me.” 
 
“The United States Army does not make mistakes,” insists an officer inconvenienced by a conscientious objector out of place in a rifle company. “If there’s a problem, you must be that problem.” An army psychiatrist is supposed to issue a section 8 discharge for Doss. “This is Satan himself we’re fighting,” claims the ostensibly secular clinician. “What are you going to do? Hit him with your Bible?… What do you do when everything in your world is under attack?” 
 
“I don’t know sir,” responds Doss. “I ain’t got answers to questions that big. But I also feel that my values are under attack and I don’t know why.” The psychiatrist’s worldview evokes “Prelude to War” in the “Why We Fight” series. National values are at stake in this propaganda film underwritten by the United States War Department and the Office of War Information. S. Lowell Mellett, head of the Bureau of Motion Pictures, appraised this 1942 Frank Capra film: “One of the most skillful jobs of moviemaking I ever have seen, the picture makes a terrific attack on the emotions.” In a November 9, 1942 letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he wrote: “Engendering nervous hysteria in the Army or in the civil population might help to win the war, although I doubt it.”
 
On a date with Dorothy, Doss watches “Prelude to War.” Gibson’s film, however, implies that Capra’s film hardly makes an impact. The Seventh Day Adventist draftee opts to not accept a deferment. (Benedict says the real Doss made his first trip to a movie theater when we went to see his documentary “The Conscientious Objector.”)
 
The 138-minute “Hacksaw Ridge” devotes only seven minutes of dialogue for setting forth Doss’s faith and ethics. The script omits his religious tradition. “In the 1850s Adventists singled out the United States” as “the second beast of Revelation 13,” according to an Adventist sociologist. During the Civil War, a prophetess counseled: ”God’s people… cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith. The church assured Congress that Adventists were “a people unanimously loyal and antislavery, who because of their views of the Ten Commandments and of the teaching of the New Testament cannot engage in bloodshed.” The church would urge draftees in 1916: “Show yourself willing to cooperate, but keep your conscience clear, even unto punishment and death itself.”
 
The Selective Service Act of 1940 designated inductees who refuse to bear arms as “conscientious objectors.” A year later Adventists started using the expression “conscientious cooperators” for their patriotic form of “Christian noncombatancy.” Doss was one among some 12,000 Adventists serving as medics in WWII. 
 
An Associated Press dispatch from Vatican City on November 22, 1941 quotes Pope Pius XII equivocating: “If it is true that the church does not want to mix in disputes about the opportunity, utility and earthly efficacy of diverse temporal forms which are purely political institutions or activities.” Plainspoken Doss, by contrast, is clear about his aims as an aidman– the U.S. Army term for a medic: “While everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart it doesn’t seem such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
 
Gibson pits a-man-of-principle against the powers-that-be, although the film makes a point of not thinking too much about it. Tom Doss, a bitter WWI vet, tells his son Desmond he’s not cut out for war: “Everybody else jumps in, does things quick without thinking like the damn idiot fools we were. Soldiers who live, they live because they can do that. You can’t. You got to sit and think and pray about everything. Well, look at you, you’re doing it right now… See, there you go thinking it all out.”
 
At Fort Jackson, Sergeant Howell isolates Doss in front of other soldiers-in-training: “Do not look to him to save you on the battlefield. Because he will undoubtedly be too busy wrestling with his conscience to assist.” An Associated Press headline about the real Doss in 1945 would tell a different story: “Medic Won’t Kill Japs, But He Saves 75 Yanks.” Time Magazine wrote: “He felt that God would not let him perish by the sword if he did not live by the sword.”
 
An oddly included scene at the end of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes off as a wrong-headed comment on two cultures of sacrifice. Instead of surrendering, a character listed as “Japanese General” (Yoji Tatsuta) commits seppuku (self-disembowling) with a short sword, followed by kaishaku (decapitation) performed by an underling with a longer blade. Samurai code of honor and Seventh Day Adventist duty to uphold the Sixth Commandment are juxtaposed– to what end?
 
“Hacksaw Ridge” is more action film than a pacifist apologia. A brave saviour under fire is a more likely hero than a spiritual introvert thumbing through his Bible. Gibson lauds the valor of Doss more than his values. 
 
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A month after receiving his Medal of Honor, Doss and 48 other recipients came to the American Legion’s 27th annual national convention in Chicago. They stood to accept the applause of the assembly at the Coliseum. A breakfast was served in their honor at the Morrison Hotel. One piece of business reported by the Chicago Tribune: “To the accompaniment of cheers, the convention voted that conscientious objectors be kept in service until sixth months after the discharge of the last combat soldier.”
 
American Legion program for the four-day meeting stated: “For God and country, we associate ourselves for the following purposes: … To foster one hundred per cent Americanism; To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the great wars…”
 
On July 4, 2004 a bronze life-size statue of Doss was dedicated at the National Museum of Patriotism in Atlanta. The place closed in 2010. At an October 30, 2010 auction the President Jimmy Carter statue went for $125. Martin Luther King’s sold for $100. No word of what happened to Doss’s.

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