Hacksaw Ridge: The incredible true story of a WW2 hero that never fired a gun
"While everybody else is taking life, I'm gonna be saving it. That's gonna be my way to serve."
Desmond Doss joined the war effort for the same reason that everyone else did: a great evil was threatening the free world and it was his duty to help stop it.
He couldn't let other men go and fight for his freedom while he stayed behind, so Doss left his wife and home in Virginia, and along with many millions of other young men, enlisted in the US Army. He was deployed to the Pacific and served as a medic.
The difference between Desmond Doss and those millions of other young men that enlisted was that Desmond Doss refused to fire a gun; he refused to even touch a gun.
A pacifist, Seventh-day Adventist and contentious objector, Doss entered the war completely unarmed. He not only survived, he almost single-handedly saved the lives of 75 wounded soldiers in a single battle. He was the first and only contentious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest US military honour.
Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge. Photo: Summit Entertainment
Desmond Doss' extraordinary story is told in Hacksaw Ridge, a new film from director Mel Gibson, starring Andrew Garfield as Doss. The movie begins with Desmond as a boy, who quickly learns the consequences of violence in a fight that very nearly kills his brother, then at the hands of his alcoholic father, still suffering from his time in the Great War.
His Christian faith shapes his decision not to practise violence, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II, Doss knows that he has to enlist. At basic training, he proves himself to be as good a soldier as any other recruit, but his refusal to even touch a rifle, let alone shoot it, causes a deep rift between him, his platoon and his superiors.
"Private Doss does not believe in violence," barks Sergeant Howell, played by Vince Vaughn in what might be his best role to date. "Do not look to him to save you on the battlefield." His fellow soldiers take against him, accusing him of cowardice and beating him bloody. The prejudice against him lands Doss in a court-martial, and eventually follows him to the battlefield, but it is there that he proves himself.
Hacksaw Ridge is extraordinary for two reasons. First, it features the most intense scenes of war since the opening D-Day assault in Saving Private Ryan. Mel Gibson was nominated for an Oscar for his direction, seemingly announcing his return to Hollywood's A-list. It's gory, unflinchingly so, but in Hacksaw Ridge Gibson has crafted visceral, gut-wrenching portrait of war that is often so horrific that you might be tempted to leave the cinema.
But don't, and this second reason is why. Watching Hacksaw Ridge, you continually have to remind yourself that this is a true story, and a remarkably accurate one at that. When you see the incredible feats of bravery undertaken by Doss, and the unbelievable physical, mental and moral strength he had to have in order to endure what was going on around him, you cannot help but sit in disbelief.
The real Desmond Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on October 12, 1945
Photo: US Federal Government
Andrew Garfield has also been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Doss, deservedly so. His southern drawl and goofy demeanour may make you groan a little at the film's outset, but when he proves himself a hero, you're with him 100% of the way. Everyone underestimated Doss, and the audience does too - why are we watching this sappy bumpkin gurn at a pretty nurse? - but when in hell and under fire, he proves everyone wrong.
The film shows little mercy for the Japanese combatants, the majority of whom, like Doss and his company, were just soldiers doing their duty. This is one of the film's few missteps, and though there is one scene between Doss and an enemy soldier that attempts to address the issue, one can't help but think that Gibson, though seemingly redeemed by Hollywood, still has questions to answer.
There are plenty of times and places to discuss whether you can separate the artist from their art, but even when you strip both away, we're left with an incredible true story of courage, faith and moral backbone, told with guts and vigour. It won't win the Oscar, that's already sitting on La La Land's mantlepiece, but no other film will make you believe in the power of one person more than Hacksaw Ridge.
Hacksaw Ridge is in UK cinemas from Friday 27th January.
Feature: Summit Entertainment