Hacksaw Ridge

Directed by Mel Gibson in his first movie since 2006’s Apocalypto, Hacksaw Ridge is a tremendous World War II movie that is remarkable both for its brutally realistic depiction of war and powerful story of heroism. It is based on the true life story of Desmond Doss who served in the Pacific Theater as a combat medic and was distinct for refusing to carry a weapon of any sort. Growing up in a working-class family in Lynchburg, Virginia, Doss, portrayed by the baby-faced Andrew Garfield, had a difficult childhood but always maintained deeply-held religious convictions as a Seventh Day Adventist. The first part of the film is primarily focused on his life back at home before he enlisted in the army and includes his falling in love with a local nurse named Dorothy. It also revealed his often tense relationship with his drunk and abusive father, played by Hugo Weaving, who clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress as a World War I veteran. Although his faith taught him to be nonviolent, Doss enlisted in the military to serve the United States like his fellow countrymen and eventually was deployed with the 77th Infantry Division in 1944. However, while at boot camp where he meets his initially unsympathetic sergeant, played by Vince Vaughn, he is scorned by his fellow soldiers and commanding officers for his pacifist stance. Ultimately, he is granted conscientious objector status and allowed to serve as a medic without ever touching a rifle. The second part of the movie is much more gritty and does not hold back on showing the truly hellish parts of warfare. It follows Doss and his regiment in May 1945 as they attempt to take control of an area of the Japanese-controlled island of Okinawa, simply referred to as Hacksaw Ridge. At times, the very extended sequence of extremely graphic combat violence is difficult to watch but is very much necessary to underscore the horrific costs of war. Throughout such intense scenes, Desmond Doss is portrayed as the epitome of courage: he voluntarily goes in harm’s way to save as many lives as possible without a means of defending himself. He must literally rely on his fellow soldiers for his life and, in the process, develops an unbreakable bond of brotherhood. His heroism was richly rewarded when he became the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. Overall, I found the film to be one of the best war movies made and the horrifically gruesome battle scenes reminded me of Saving Private Ryan. Besides simply presenting a skillful portrayal of warfare, it has a heartfelt message about courage and the struggle between a person’s conscience and patriotic duty. For all his personal flaws, Mel Gibson is finally back to form and gives us a film worthy of Braveheart.

Backdrop

Born in 1919 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Desmond Doss was drafted in April 1942 and worked in a naval shipyard in Newport News before serving as a combat medic in an infantry unit. Although he could have received a deferment as a conscientious objector, he was deployed with a rifle company in the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division and sent to the Pacific Theater, first to Guam and the Philippines before eventually arriving on Okinawa in May 1945. He participated in taking the 350-foot high Maeda Escarpment, ominously referred to as Hacksaw Ridge, a heavily fortified part of the vitally important island of Okinawa. The three-month campaign collectively known as the Battle of Okinawa resulted in over 12,000 American deaths and more than 75,000 Japanese deaths on top of the upwards of 150,000 civilian casualties. Okinawa was only 340 miles off the Japanese Mainland and therefore could serve as a crucial air base for an Allied invasion.

During the course of the battle over the Ridge, Desmond Doss is estimated to have saved the lives of 75 soldiers, all without touching a single weapon or killing any Japanese. Throughout the war, he was injured at least three times and lost five ribs and a lung as a direct result of contracting tuberculosis on the island. He was also largely deaf for more than twelve years as a result of doctors accidentally giving him an overdose of antibiotics. Following the war, he spent five and a half years recuperating at various times in VA hospitals and was eventually discharged in 1951. He spent the remainder of his life primarily in Georgia and Alabama where he grew his own vegetables on a farm with his wife Dorothy who he was married to from 1942 until her death in 1991. In 1993, he married his second wife Frances and together until his death in 2006. He died in Piedmont, Alabama at the age of 87 due to respiratory complications associated with his tuberculosis. For his service, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on October 12th, 1945 by President Harry Truman, which made him the first conscientious objector to receive the honor and remains to this day only one of three to have ever received it.

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