Hacksaw Ridge      
Directed by Mel Gibson      
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn     
131 minutes

“I’m losing faith in humanity” is a catchcry among pundits at the moment. Like many of us, they have lost their faith that good will ultimately overcome evil. At least the news outlets I read and watch give that impression; MercatorNet may be an honourable exception (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, just leave the brown paper bag in my letterbox).

But often those awful moments in human history draw out greatness. There are men and women who despite all the odds stand up for the good they believe in and triumph, people like William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, to name a few.

All overcame adversity to return some form of order, peace and the reign of love on various scales.

And now I happily add Desmond Doss to that list of heroes of humanity after watching Mel Gibson’s latest epic, Hacksaw Ridge. The film follows the true story of the life of Doss, played by English actor Andrew Garfield.

Doss was an American medic during World War II and a conscientious objector. He didn’t approve of killing and would not bear arms but he still felt called to serve his country and stand next to his American brothers on the battlefield.

There is no plot spoiler here because we know how this story is going to end; Doss received the highest honour in the American military, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for miraculously saving the lives of 75 of his comrades during a battle in April 1945 at the Maeda Escarpment (dubbed Hacksaw Ridge) in Okinawa. He was the first conscientious objector to receive this honour in American history. “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe,” he explains to his sweetheart.

I say miraculously because when you watch the film Gibson and his team do a tremendous job in portraying just how insane the battles for Hacksaw Ridge were. The fighting lasted two weeks; the terrain was hilly; hidden in in caves and tunnels, anf fighting with fanatical tenacity, the Japanese defenders were almost invulnerable to bombardment.

It was practically a suicide mission for the American soldiers. As soon as the men got on top of the escarpment, bullets and explosions started ripping them apart. On a few occasions a member of the infantry begins to yell or signal to a comrade to take cover or move forward. Before they can finish, they are lying in a pool of their own blood.

But Doss inexplicably runs to the aid of many, seemingly oblivious to the onslaught.

The carnage is so intense that you may need to cover your eyes from the stomach-churning violence. But it will lead you to wonder “where did Doss get the strength to do what he did?”. He never once carried a rifle. The only time in the film that he even touches a weapon is when he uses a rifle to pull a soldier to safety.  

To see a man run into the hell of battle without a weapon is shocking but to see him rescue his injured brothers under fire is inspirational. And Gibson showed only some of Doss’ smaller acts of heroism, as he was afraid the movie would seem too Rambo-like had he narrated the full story.

The movie is quick to establish where Doss draws his grit and love from. It opens with him reading a passage from Isaiah.

“Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint.”

Aside from this, the protagonist is depicted reading his beloved Bible and repeating prayers and passages from scripture from beginning to end. Each time he rescues a soldier he feels he has no strength to go again and he calls out “Lord, just give me one more. Just one more.” And off he goes.

Doss was brought up as a Christian, a Seventh Day Adventist, and this lead him to believe that Jesus’ new commandment of loving one’s enemies must be applied always, no matter the cost, no matter who it is. He even assists an injured Japanese soldier. “With the world so set on tearing itself apart,” he says, “it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

Of course it wasn’t all beer and skittles for this hero. Prior to Okinawa he was jeered as a coward and bullied but nothing could deter him.

It’s a movie that will inspire you to consider sticking to your conscience even if your convictions seem a little crazy to onlookers. Or in Doss’ case, completely bonkers.

Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist. 

Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.