Films are a highly impactful form of media, transporting the viewer into a new world and returning us to our rightful place in time minutely altered. Films inspire and provoke emotions and dreams in the audience through their complex themes and real-world understanding. This is even more true when films are based on true stories like that of Mel Gibson’s 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge. The true story of the American war hero Desmond Doss is brought to life through an incredible cast and an accurate portrayal of Desmond’s heroics. Doss is an unlikely war hero, however, because he is a ‘CO’. A Conscientious Objector to war and all forms of violence, Doss does not believe in taking the life of another human or in violence as a pathway to peace. Doss is often described as crazy, strange, and cowardly throughout the film as he resists peer and legal pressure from the American Military, who aggressively insist he must carry a weapon. Doss continues his rebellious attitude on the battlefield, saving lives as a combat medic while refusing to fight the enemy directly.
When asked to pick up a rifle during combat training, Doss refuses to touch the weapon or any other object meant for destruction. The sergeant and captain attempt to get his fellow soldiers to turn on him and bully him out of the military by having group punishments for false accusations and orders disobeyed. In one scene, a fellow private attempts to bait him into violence by teasing Doss; however, he refuses to hit him back. He stays strong after a beating from his battalion and does not reveal those responsible to the sergeant as a display of trust and camaraderie. He remains true to himself in the face of immense peer pressure and instead commits to peace and amity. When this peer pressure fails to break Doss, the military attempts to have him dishonourably discharged and placed in a military prison for disobeying the orders of a superior. With help from his father, a veteran of WWI and a high-ranking colonel, Doss is freed and allowed to enter the war without bearing arms. A military court judge states, “Private Doss, you are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to defend yourself”. Doss’s resistance to conforming to the violent hegemonic powers that surround him, pressuring him to become a thoughtless killer, enables him to remain committed to saving lives as a medic. Upon arrival on the battlefield, Doss and his battalion are continuously warned of the Japanese soldiers and the hell on earth that is Hacksaw Ridge.
In the film’s second half, Desmond’s heroics on the battlefield save seventy-five men, although Doss claims it was 50. During the battle on Hacksaw Ridge, the Japanese push back the Americans and Doss and his battalion are ordered to retreat. Doss disobeys this order and stays behind on the battlefield, recovering wounded men camouflaged by the darkness of night. Repeating, “please, Lord, help me get one more”, Doss saves the lives of dozens of injured soldiers. A particularly poignant moment in the film is when Doss comes across his wounded sergeant on the battlefield, bunkered behind a tree. Under fire from the Japanese soldiers, we see Doss touch a weapon for the very first time in the film. Doss uses a rifle and a sheet to create a makeshift sled for his Sergeant, who cannot walk. Running under fire from the Japanese, Doss saves his sergeant from certain death without having to harm another human. Until this moment, Desmond has rejected weapons and sworn against touching one. His entire journey to the battlefield was a fight with his superiors, who had the sole purpose of forcing a gun into his hands. When Doss finally grabs a weapon for the first time, it is used creatively to save a life rather than to take one. In the film’s final battle scene, the captain, who once held no respect for Desmond, stalls an attack. He tells Doss that he has gained immense respect from his fellow soldiers who once sought to force him to leave because of his beliefs. Those same soldiers do not want to go into battle without Doss by their side. His Captain tells him, “the men believe in how much you believe, and the others want a piece of it, and they won’t go up there without you”. Doss had become a beacon of hope and light in an otherwise bleak world because of his unwillingness to conform to the military’s expectations of him. He becomes a hero or, in his own words, a Conscientious Collaborator.
Desmond Doss’s journey from an outsider in military training to a Medal of Honor recipient is rooted in his resistance to killing another person and his rebellious attitude toward the greater war. Upon returning home after the war, Desmond is the first CO to win the American Medal of Honor, a medal for bravery under gunfire. Hacksaw Ridge is an inspirational tale of resisting the status quo and staying true to one’s faith. Released in 2016, this film remains highly influential when considering the current events in the world today. Desmond Doss and his actions are moving and encouraging to everyone as we can carry his message forward: violence and killing do not answer the questions of peace.
By Carter Price