Remember, remember the 5th of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot.
I can think of no reason,
The Gunpowder Treason,
Should ever be forgot.
I realize that is an unusual way to start a review of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. However, it was on November 5th that my father-in-law, mother-in-law, wife and I went and saw the film. For many years my movie memories for November 5th all came from V for Vendetta. Now, a new movie has been burned into my brain. I want to share a few thoughts reviewing and revisiting this movie that left a tremendous impact on me. I warn you, there will likely be spoilers, but it can’t be worse than NPR’s strange headline from the movie’s release date: “The Real ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun.”
Narrative, not Documentary
If you are unfamiliar with this film it tells the incredible story of WWII medic and conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, whose actions on Okinawa won him the Medal of Honor. He truly was an incredible man of courage, strength, resolve, and conscience. The movie captures that about him. It doesn’t do that by nailing every fact, but by presenting his story in a comprehensible narrative. Some facts get streamlined, or tweaked so that they can communicate the essence of what happened without the film needing a narrator. Unfortunately, this actually, meant leaving out some of his remarkable courage, not adding to it (if you see the movie, just compare it to his Medal of Honor citation). So if you are a nit-picky fact checker, be warned, this is a narrative retelling of this inspiring man’s service, not a documentary.
Violence not Action
In this narrative retelling, Gibson uses many tools. One of the hardest tools to watch is the violence. And I mean violence, not action. At one point in the movie, Bess leaned over and whispered “I don’t like this part…I want it to be over.” I said nothing, but in my head I responded with, “I don’t think you are supposed to like it.” That part was the middle of an extended battle scene that was brutal. It was different from a gory action movie though. Most of the violence that evoked a response of “Jesus,” from the viewer behind me was inflicted on American soldiers. You saw hard to watch violence inflicted on Japanese soldiers, but most of the time you saw Americans dying. This did not come off as an attempt to dehumanize the Japanese. Instead, this took what could have become a bloody action scene and turned it into a gut wrenching window into the hell these men lived through. It was terrible, and you were supposed to feel that way.
It is the violence that I warn people about before they go see the movie, but I also clarify that I don’t think Gibson was wrong to include it. In interviews, I have heard Gibson speak about wanting the audience to be stirred to respond to the needs of returning veterans. In someways he made audiences squirm through those horrific scenes as a way of calling us out when we judge a veteran on a street corner. That reason alone would be enough for me, but there is a second reason the violence seemed, dare I say, appropriate. It truly was a narrative tool.
See for anyone who has never heard how brutal the Pacific theater was in World War II, or how terrible Okinawa was, or how horrendous the fight on Hacksaw Ridge was, then the immensity of Desmond Doss’ decision is lost. To even begin to understand the magnitude of what this man did. To understand the courage and strength he found in his faith as he responded again and again to the call of “medic.” You need to understand the hell-on-earth that Hacksaw Ridge was. I think that is truly achieved in this film.
A Peaceful Alternative
Fortunately, if you can’t, or don’t want to, put yourself through that experience you can still witness Doss’ story. There is a documentary called the Conscientious Objector. It is not flashy. Nor is it super cinematic or fast moving. However, it is good. Doss’ story alone will keep you engaged, but even more than that, Desmond himself will intrigue you.
A Clean Conscience – A Man without Ghosts
All throughout the documentary, and even at the end of Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, you are confronted by a striking reality. Doss seems like a man with a clear conscience. He was a man that witnessed some of the most horrendous wounds war can produce in a theater of battle where medics were intentionally targeted and lured to their deaths. Yet, in all his interviews, his joy and peace are visible. This is a man who suffered through the long battle of following his conscience and finished his days with the joy of that victory. I think this is what fascinated Mel Gibson. In so many of his movies, Gibson presents us with haunted men. Men who did too much, like Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, or men who did too little too late, like William Wallace in Braveheart. In Desmond Doss, Gibson found a man without ghosts.
As I walked away from Hacksaw Ridge I felt haunted. I realized that what Gibson’s movie achieved was two-fold. I was convicted by this paradoxical man who was a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor. I was convicted that I have unjustly ignored the struggles of veterans in my struggles with how I view war. And I was convicted by how easily I silence my conscience when it will require a sacrifice on my part. I think that is how we breed ghosts. Because instead of dying to ourselves we ask someone else to die for us. Instead of responding to Christ’s call to carry my cross daily, I lay it upon another’s shoulders.
Desmond’s story reminds me that to live without ghosts means modeling Christ’s own entry into our mess. When I reach those times that I have to choose between my own comfort and ease or responding to whatever that cry of medic sounds like. I hope I remember Desmond’s simple prayer, “Lord, let me get one more.”
Hacksaw Ridge is a great movie. It is hard to watch. But then again, to live without ghosts is harder still.