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Convictions on the battlefield

03 February 2017

Stephen Brown on a hero of Okinawa who never fired a shot

Courageous medic: Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss on an errand of mercy in Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s film on current release

Courageous medic: Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss on an errand of mercy in Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s film on current release

MEL GIBSON, whose faith (Cath­olic Traditionalist) is somewhat on the margins of organised religion, has directed a film about another man whose religious affiliations (Seventh-Day Adventist) also lie outside mainstream Christianity. Hacksaw Ridge (Cert. 15) focuses on the true story of Desmond Doss (1919-2006). During the Battle of Okinawa, in the Second World War, he saved 75 men without carrying or firing a gun. Doss was the first conscientious objector — he pre­ferred the term “conscientious co-­operator” — to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Paradoxically, his belief was that the war was justified but killing was wrong. This may puzzle some. Other serving army medics may have taken a different view — more like “War is wrong, but, given that it’s happening, there’s an obligation to care for the wounded and dying.” Officially, Seventh-Day Adventism doesn’t prohibit its followers’ bear­ing arms. Yet the film gives little information about how this squares with Doss’s point of view.

His father (Hugo Weaving), whose previous war experiences have con­verted him to non-violence, except when intoxicated, asks: “How you figure this war is going to fit in with your ideas?” Desmond responds: “While every­one else is taking life, I will be saving it.” Hacksaw Ridge is content to admire, without too much inquiry, someone prepared to exer­cise his conscience at great cost to his own safety.

There is a conversation with a military psychiatrist invoking shades of Gary Cooper’s stand in Sergeant York (1941), but the earlier film’s soul-searching is all but absent. Andrew Garfield as Doss isn’t much like the beleaguered Father Rodrigues he plays in Silence (Arts, 6 January), in which faith and doubt engage in a monumental wrest­ling match. Nowhere in Gibson’s picture does Christianity truly confront the American way of life and, in these circumstances, death. It simply becomes, under the Constitution, US citizens’ right to believe what­ever they want so long as it doesn’t seriously disrupt the war effort.

Hacksaw Ridge is gory: Saving Private Ryan (1998) heroics meet the emotional turmoil of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). I am, however, putting the cart before the horse, because the first half of this 139-minutes film is devoted to Doss’s home life in Lynchburg, Virginia. Pacifism is little in evi­d­ence here when Desmond ser­iously hurts his brother Harold in a fight. We are never told what is dist­inc­tive about the family’s Advent­ism beyond vague references to the Commandments. And yet we are being presented with someone whose convictions appear indestruct­ible, nurtured by hearth and home, presumably.

I realise that I am asking for a different kind of film, one that seeks to explore how someone’s sense of truth is perceived and owned to the extent that this extraordinary man can do what he does, whether en­­dur­ing barrack-room bullying and court martial or risking life and limb rescuing stricken comrades in the war zone. In a world running rather short on heroes, it is little won­der that the Venice Film Festi­val audience gave a standing ovation to the memory of one who exercised great moral courage, even if we never really learn much about the faith that impelled him.

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