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The war film is one of the few genres where modern Hollywood tolerates overt displays of Christian faith. But even here, it is typically a secondary concern, coloring for side characters (Shia Labeouf’s evangelical tank operator in Fury, for example). Rarely is it the main thematic event. Mel Gibson, at his countercultural best, defied this convention in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), a true story turned into a remarkable war film that earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Director for Gibson and Best Actor for his lead, Andrew Garfield. With Memorial Day front of mind for many of us, Hacksaw Ridge is worth revisiting for its portrayal of unusual courage—the courage not to kill—and of how faith need not negate one’s patriotism.

Hacksaw Ridge is a forgotten place on Okinawa, an escarpment American troops had to take and then defend from the Japanese in the waning days of World War II. That is where Desmond Doss (Garfield) performed his famous deed of war. Under cover of night, wounded and abandoned by his retreating unit, he rescued seventy-five wounded infantrymen by carrying them to the edge of the cliff and lowering them by ropes, working until daybreak, praying with each delivery to save one more. One is immediately reminded of John 13:15: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Doss’s courage earned him the Medal of Honor; more importantly, he earned the respect of men who had until that night despised him for his faith.

Doss was a conscientious objector; he signed up to serve in the war, as many patriotic young men did, but he refused to fire a gun. He believed the Sixth Commandment forbade him from taking a life, even in wartime. Despite being offered a deferment for working in the Navy shipyard at Newport News, he chose to serve in the infantry as a combat medic.

Hacksaw Ridge is split between Virginia and Okinawa (eliding earlier campaigns in Guam and Leyte), showing Doss growing up and getting married, among family and at work, in peace as well as at war. Diffident, if jovial, he does not seem the man who’d win his country’s highest military distinction. We see his fraught relationship with his father, who had fought in the Great War and disapproved of his son enlisting. And we see his Seventh-day Adventist mother bringing him up in piety. At least in Gibson’s telling, this faith is the great source of his moral and physical courage.

The testing of Doss’s courage begins in basic training, where he refuses to touch a rifle or train on Saturdays, and thereby makes himself an outcast. His commanding officers try to discharge him for mental illness (how they characterize his faith). When this fails, they subject him to harsher training, hoping he’ll drop out. His fellow soldiers even gang up and beat him mercilessly one night. He is eventually court-martialed for refusing to carry a weapon, and only escapes conviction when his father—in a moving rapprochement—intervenes with his own former commanding officer, now a brigadier general.

Doss is a paradoxical character. He is good-natured and innocent to the point of seeming like a stereotype of the unprepossessing, “aw-shucks” Southerner, and yet can be remarkably earnest. His shyness is always in tension with his unflinching confidence. He is obedient to military regulations in particular and law-abiding in general, but indomitable on the one demand of his conscience. His patriotism seems to be outright contradicted by his pacifism. And yet these tensions all feel coherent through Garfield’s performance and Gibson’s direction. One could argue that they are made coherent through the testing of Doss’s convictions. 

As serious as the Army’s persecution was during training, a tonal shift occurs once the troops arrive at Okinawa. The scene where they first ascend Hacksaw Ridge and begin advancing toward the Japanese position is unforgettable. You can see reality dawn on Garfield’s face as he discovers that the mud they’re marching through is laced with the rotting corpses of American soldiers who had come there before them and failed. The stakes have become real, and only now can his faith be proven, not just to his fellow soldiers, but to himself. 

In this way, Hacksaw Ridge pays a compliment and a counterpoint to Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941), the best Great War movie made at the peak of Hollywood achievement. Also based on the true story of a Medal of Honor recipient, Sergeant York starred Gary Cooper as a Southerner and devout Congregationalist who is denied exemption from enlistment as a conscientious objector. York, however, makes peace with the Sixth Commandment in a different way, counting violence in war among the things to be rendered unto Caesar. In the pivotal scene, his lingering ethical concerns vanish when he sees his comrades gunned down, and, in an inversion of Doss's feat in Hacksaw Ridge, York single-handedly kills so many German soldiers that the entire contingent surrenders to him.

Since Memorial Day is about the men who die for America in war, it’s as much a matter of religion as of patriotism. Hacksaw Ridge, like Sergeant York before it, is that rare film that forces us to reflect on the tensions between these two great loyalties, and dares to show us how, even in extremis, they can be resolved.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. 

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Image by Balon Greyjoylicensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

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