BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers from the film Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss.
Up to now, these articles have been focused on World War I, and on wide-reaching elements rather than personal stories. For a change of pace, this article is about the World War II-based film Hacksaw Ridge, which opened in theaters in Juneau Nov. 5.
The film tells the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss, the only Conscientious Objector to serve on the front lines during the Second World War. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Doss refused to touch a gun or to take a human life. He signed up to serve as a combat medic, but was faced with a steep uphill battle for the right to go to war without a weapon. Doss finally overcame the objections, and was deployed with his unit shortly thereafter. They were eventually sent to Okinawa with orders to capture the strategically valuable Hacksaw Ridge (officially named the Maeda Escarpment) in an effort to close the Pacific Theater. When the battalion was forced off the ridge in a disastrous route by the Japanese army, Doss single-handedly rescued 75 men despite heavy enemy fire. For his heroic actions Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – the first Conscientious Objector to receive the country’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.
Many parts of Desmond’s pre-war life received a Hollywood varnish for dramatic appeal. The interesting thing about this film is that, despite the changes, it remains very true to the overarching elements of Doss’ story. His son Desmond Doss Jr. stated that while his father did not want his story made into a book or movie for fear of inaccuracies, he believes Doss Sr. would have been pleased with the film.
The first half of the film concerns Doss’ personal history. After a childhood fight in which he almost killed his brother Hal, Doss came to hold the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” as paramount. He believed that the Lord had given all life and it was no man’s place to take that life, even in a war. This conviction became a defining attribute as World War II escalated and he entered the service. In the film, Doss volunteered, while in real life, he was drafted. However, in both cases, he had the option of accepting a deferment because of his job in a defense plant. Citing his desire to serve, Doss joined the army.
This desire, shared between Doss and his brother, is juxtaposed with their father’s trauma from World War I, an experience that made Thomas Doss a bitter, drunken ruin of a man. The contrast between the old man and the younger ones drives much of the tension in the first half of the film, but is later resolved in excellent fashion.
Once Doss reached basic training things became more succinct, fast-paced and (with the exception of the court-marshal hearing) fairly accurate to events. His time there was interspersed with successes and troubles as superiors and peers challenged his refusal to touch a gun. The film uses this time to look at the reactions, concerns, and attacks that Doss was subject to for his unusual ideas. Doss’ father uses his connection to WWI to come to his son’s aid during a court-marshal hearing based on Desmond’s refusal to bear arms. Though it never actually reached those extremes (an officer threatened to court-marshal him, but was reminded that he could never make the charges stick) it was a poignant way to tie together the separated World War generations.
One of the films strongest elements is the manner in which they handle the battle scenes. War films often over-romanticize the details of battle, either lightening them to make it easier to stomach, or over-focusing on every minute detail of horror. The mid-point of the film starts with their deployment to Okinawa and the first appearance of the titular ridge. Hacksaw’s approach is to throw everything down with speed and blood, echoing how huge, traumatic events unfold in the real world. It feels like the viewer is being dragged from one section to another, and never knows where to look next. This is an excellent attempt to convey the insanity and chaotic sense of panic inherent in battle. All around men are being gunned down, explosions are going off, and the tide of soldiers surges towards its goal in a barely coordinated mass.
Another strong element of the film is the character of Smitty Riker. Smitty is an interesting case because he is not based on a real person, but rather is a composite of many individuals. The writers wanted to include more of the people from Doss’ military career, but did not want to sacrifice the pacing by introducing lots of secondary characters. Smitty Riker was one of Doss’ opponents at basic training, accusing him of using his religion as a cover for cowardice. Up on the ridge however, when Doss tackled a Japanese solider to save him, Smitty realized how badly he had misjudged the medic. Thus, Smitty is given enough development to make the viewers care about him, but not enough to stop him from serving as the composite of many distinct people.
Doss’ Medal of Honor, however, was earned when US forces were pushed off Hacksaw Ridge and Doss stayed behind to rescue the wounded. Doss, alone on top of the enemy filled ridge, rescued seventy-five injured men scattered across the field. This section of the film is especially accurate to what happened; from the details of his search, to the way he was able to lower the men off the ridge, they adhered closely to Doss’ testimony. The filmmakers took special pains to include the mantra that kept Doss going during that night. After each man he saved, Doss said, “Please Lord, let me get one more.” The film recognizes his faith as the catalyst for this strength, treats it with dignity, and balances it well against the war-torn background.
However, some elements of Doss’ heroism were left out so the film pacing could be closed smoothly. This is the only Hollywood film I have heard of in which the director chose to leave details out because he feared it would affect audiences’ suspension of disbelief.
At the credits there are a few clips with his brother, captain, and Desmond Doss himself. This last tribute ties the unbelievable tale to a real man who both saved and changed the lives of so many.