Hacksaw Ridge and the Deplorable Desmond Doss

This month, Mel Gibson nabbed a nomination for best director from the Broadcast Film Critics Association.  The last we saw Gibson directing, a Mayan priest was tossing heads down the pyramid steps in Apocalypto.  In the decade since, he has lost his own head a few times, suffering tequila-induced tirades and effectively achieving for himself excommunication from the Church of Hollywood.  Such is perhaps for the best, as it provides for him the freedom to make films that rise above the swirling box office toilet bowl of superhero spandex, toy trolls, and incomprehensible Harry Potter spin-offs.

Gibson's latest, Hacksaw Ridge, garnered a mere $14 million in its opening weekend, despite being what Rex Reed has called "the best war film since Saving Private Ryan."  Spielberg's 1998 epic was infamous for triggering shell shock among veteran viewers with its brutal depiction of the Normandy invasion.  It was undoubtedly a powerful re-enactment, though by the time Matt Damon withered into the old man whose purpose was to provide the moral lesson at the end, the message likewise fizzled into something vague.  The clarity of Hacksaw's message sets it apart as a classic of the genre and renews its subject's place as a hero in the annals of American warfare.

Andrew Garfield portrays Desmond Doss, a real man born 1919 in Lynchburg, Virginia, who died in 2006 as the first conscientious objector to earn a Medal of Honor.  A country boy bred in the backwoods of the Blue Ridge mountains, his view of the world is simple, even childlike, but firm in faith and unwavering in conviction.  A boyhood accident impresses upon him early the weight of God's moral expectations.  By the time his country is drawn into conflict with Japan, Doss has grown into a young man of acute sensitivity and gentle pacifism – in short, a man utterly unfit for war.  His tortured father, played movingly by Hugo Weaving, understands this.  Tom Doss spends his days stumbling among the tombstones of his fallen comrades from the Great War, wallowing in whiskey and regret, irreparably shattered.  Among the most moving scenes is when he entreats uselessly against his son's intention to serve without bearing a weapon.  "Whatever beliefs you have in your crazy head now," he admonishes, "they won't ever play out."

The first half of the film concerns the battle Doss faces before even leaving American soil.  Following his bumbling but tender courtship of Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), he begins basic training, where he is looked down upon by the other men as a coward and a rube.  Returning to his dramatic roots, Vince Vaughn provides a much needed hint of comic relief as Drill Sergeant Howell.  He and his commanding officer, Captain Glover (Jack Worthington), try desperately to be rid of Doss, who, despite being mocked, beaten, and imprisoned, stubbornly resists touching a rifle.  Even Dorothy pleads with him to compromise as he awaits a seemingly doomed and needless court martial.  But as he explains at his trial, his conscience compels him at once to serve in his country's war and to resist the violence of it.  Exonerated at the last moment, Doss continues to be eyed askance, and the painful moral pretzel into which he twists himself is a staggering source of reflection, especially in an age when the highest allegiance is to the self.

The second act follows Doss and his unit to the Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest in the Pacific theater.  The offensive amid the Ryukyu Islands lasted months and wreaked havoc so horrific that even to otherwise civilized men, atomic bombs appeared preferable.  Gibson memorializes this unforgettably and reminds us of the suicidal, demonic brutality of the Japanese bushido.  The frenzy of the battle scenes is overwhelming.  As is doubtless true of real combat, the speed and ferocity of the carnage is more than the mind can fully absorb.  Brains explode, limbs blow off, and entrails spill out of characters who disappear from the story gracelessly and in a moment.  Into this hell Doss is hurled with nothing but his blind faith to defend him.  At first he scrambles helplessly amid the chaos, mending those he can, until at last his company is repelled back over the eponymous escarpment.  Alone again, he discerns the voice of God in the cries of the anguished, and he follows it into the valley of death.

The ensuing heroics would strike as canned and ham-handed were they not in fact true.  Gibson even omitted, for the sake of believability, several additional astonishing events: a badly wounded Doss leaping from his litter to offer it to another; the Japanese sniper whose rifle jammed repeatedly in his attempts to pick Doss off; the inexplicable cessation of enemy artillery while Doss fastened the cargo net by which the men scaled the escarpment; and the near miraculous survival of every man in his company when Doss was permitted to preface a particular onslaught with prayer.  Using an unusual rope knot that the real Doss insisted was brought to his mind by God, he saves seventy-five men by lowering them over the cliff, away from the battle.  One by one they descend, and as he lowers even wounded Japanese, it is clear that his love is of an otherworldly quality that transcends the wars of nations.

Footage of the real Doss presents him as a soft-spoken man.  His quiet drawl dissolves almost to a whimper as he recounts the trying crucible of his early life, his passage through which he ascribed solely to God.  His life after the war was relatively unremarkable.  He married and had a son, but his wounds left him largely handicapped and unable to establish himself in a career.  A documentary depicts him in his twilight years minding a campfire, cultivating a small garden next to his modest Georgia farmhouse, and fishing alone in his boat.  The overwhelming impression one receives of him is loneliness – the loneliness of the prophet.

Hacksaw Ridge is doomed, like Doss himself, to be unpopular.  The film's heart-wrenching violence is unpalatable, but even more off-putting is the tacit indictment offered by the quiet courage of men like Doss to a generation wringing its hands over pronouns, gluten, and microaggressions.  Had he come of age today, his homespun background and obsession with the Bible would have secured for Doss a place at the bottom of the nation's "basket of deplorables."  As the world darkens again with the gathering strength of barbaric enemies, we had better hope there will be enough faithful deplorables like Desmond Doss to save us.

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