Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Hell of Hacksaw Ridge

Over Veterans' Day Weekend I ventured to the movie theater with some fellow history buffs to view director Mel Gibson's latest historical tale of violence and redemption. As many of you know, Hacksaw Ridge is based upon the real life story of Army medic Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who earned the Medal of Honor for saving seventy-five comrades during the bloody struggle for Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Every war movie that has been released over the last eighteen years is largely measured by the Saving Private Ryan barometer of carnage and quality. While Gibson never quite reaches Spielberg's mastery of combat orchestration, Hacksaw Ridge is certainly on par with the level of bloodshed. The opening shots of the cinematic battle unfold a constant cacophony of whizzing bullets and incoming shells that is not for the feint of heart.

Like Full Metal Jacket, the film is essentially three different stories combined into one. In this case, those narratives include 1) a home front story of love and family struggle, 2) basic training and a testing of spiritual conviction, and 3) the triumph of that conviction tested by the hell of the Battle of Okinawa.

To offer some insight (and potential spoilers) of what the film overlooks or condenses, we first need to examine the life and beliefs of protagonist Desmond Doss (portrayed admirably by Andrew Garfield, who very well may receive an Oscar nomination for this role.) Born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919, Doss grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist and became a devout pacifist at a young age. As a youth, Desmond witnessed his father's arrest following an altercation between the dad and his brother-in-law. Only after Desmond's mother interceded did the father relinquish the pistol in his hand. Desmond never wanted to hold a gun after witnessing that violent episode within his own family. Later, he worked at a Newport News shipyard during the outbreak of World War II.

Doss's religious conviction earned him much grief after being drafted in the Army in April 1942. Contrary to what the film shows, he was never beaten by comrades who thought him cowardly, even if they did consider him an impediment to unit cohesion. Mockingly referred to as "Holy Joe," he campaigned to do no work or drill on the Sabbath. This certainly did not gain him celebrity in the ranks. His non-commissioned officers sought to give him a Section 8 for discharge, claiming he was mentally unbalanced. However, the ruling officers determined that religious tenets alone were not grounds for dismissal. While Doss was threatened with court-martial, formal charges never proceeded as the film depicts.

The film makes a big chronological jump between the second and third acts. The movie completely overlooks Doss's experiences on Guam and Leyte, giving the audience the false impression that Okinawa was Doss's baptism of fire. A member of the 77th Infantry Division, Doss had undergone multiple Pacific Campaigns and had likely warmed up to his initially suspicious comrades by that point.

Nonetheless, the film excels at presenting the bleak landscape of Okinawa. One of the best accounts of this battlefield comes from Marine Eugene Sledge, whose With the Old Breed itself became the basis for Hollywood interpretation with HBO's The Pacific. Sledge wrote that the island was "the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed. . . . Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them." Everywhere were "maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool." Gibson captures this grim vista in the most realistic of ways. Rats devour rotting human flesh. Combatants embrace in violent death throes. It is as bloody as a war movie can be.

As the title would suggest, the pinnacle of the film is the struggle for "Hacksaw Ridge," a cliff that seems to loom over 100 feet above the division's staging area. (In actuality, it was about forty feet high). According to the West Point volume The Second World War: Asian and the Pacific, "On April 29, when the 77th Division replaced the 96th, [Andrew D.] Bruce's troops began a bloody, close-in, demolition battle with the determined Japanese; but as the Americans advanced, the local Japanese commanders launched vicious counterattacks to recover lost ground. This pattern of close attacks typified the fighting in the Shuri defensive area. In this close battle, which caused heavy casualties on both sides, tanks were often the key to success." Time and again, the Japanese sought to funnel in the Americans through this relatively narrow gap in order to maximize casualties. As the film accurately shows, Japanese troops intentionally targeted medics to deprive the wounded of treatment. The Maeda Escarpment, known thereafter as "Hacksaw Ridge," was finally captured on May 6 after incomprehensibly brutal fighting.

See the real Okinawa and Hacksaw Ridge. Featured here is Ernie Pyle before he was killed by a Japanese sniper as well as a snippet of Doss standing atop the escarpment.

The 77th Division estimated it had killed some 3,000 Japanese in a seven day time span. During and following that time, Doss lowered seventy-five wounded comrades down the cliff with an improvised pulley system. He was wounded four times by both grenade fragments and sniper fire. For his efforts, he was awarded the Medal of Honor that October by Harry Truman. Undoubtedly, Mel Gibson was drawn to this story of faith and adversity as he tries to redefine his own life and career in the wake of his past scandals. The movie is as intimate as his The Man Without a Face, as grand as Braveheart, and as gut-wrenchingly gruesome as The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Needless to say, the film possesses far more strengths than weaknesses.

Yet, as both an historian and cinema aficionado, I would be remiss not to mention some of the film's stumbles. Beyond the super picky material culture flubs such as green GI t-shirts, undubbed boots, technical bungles, and some continuity dilemmas, the movie is rife with some of the most repeated war movie clich├ęs: lots of tough guys with Brooklyn accents, grenade pin pulling with teeth, firing mortar rounds off helmets a la Saving Private Ryan, and more. Most heinous of all, one soldier picks up the blown-off upper body of a comrade and uses him as a shield as he simultaneously fires a twenty-four pound Browning Automatic Rifle one-handed. Come on, Mel.

While Hacksaw Ridge falls short of the power of All Quiet on the Western Front or Platoon, it nonetheless wields its own sense of importance and stands proudly within the canon of anti-war films. Above all else, it reveals to us that amidst these divided times that a little bit of empathy and compassion goes a long way. Most poignant of all is actual footage of Desmond Doss at the film's finale. In Doss's own estimation, the Medal of Honor was not the greatest award he ever received. He notes, "You can't always win, but when your buddies come to you and say they owe their life to me, what better reward can you get than that?" Who could disagree?

The real life Desmond Doss passed away in 2006.


  1. Motion picture making can and should never be totally faithful to the truth. That's the business of documentaries and even there it's a struggle.
    The most important thing is the Gibson's truly great film was at no times mischievous with the truth.
    I suggest it may be the most faithful account of history ever adapted into a motion picture.

  2. Interesting review, I have yet to watch it yet but when I come.home from West point I am definitely going to see it. One thing though is that the mortor rounds scene is possible and it was documented as being used during the war. I forget where but I know it happened. Good read though.

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