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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Hacksaw Ridge’: Praise for a ‘coward’

Dan Webster

For the past seven decades, Hollywood has produced one film after the next that focused on World War II. The latest to hit local theaters was "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson's telling of a true story.

Since it's Veterans Day, it seemed only fitting that I would review it. Following is a transcription of the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The biblical Commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill set up one of the great philosophical conflicts of human history. Taken strictly, it means exactly that: Do Not Kill. Yet most societies allow for exemptions, such as self defense, protecting those we love, and going to war.

The demands of war in particular have proven problematic. One astute statement about war came from the pen of the French free-thinker Voltaire, who wrote, “It is forbidden to kill, therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

The sound of those trumpets – especially when blown in support of a cause of presumed righteousness – can rouse an array of emotions, all of which serve as fuel both for acts of self-sacrifice and for wholesale slaughter … often both at once.

Desmond Doss, a devout young man from Lynchburg, Virginia, was among those of his generation who answered what he considered a call to duty during World War II. He wanted to serve, even though he could have sought a deferment because of his job at a shipyard.

When he was drafted, though, Doss faced the eternal clash between military service and his own conscience: Because of his religious convictions, he had sworn never to touch a weapon. His intent as a self-proclaimed “conscientious cooperator” was to serve as a combat medic, attempting to save lives, not take them.

Yet his stance was questioned, by his platoon sergeant, by his commanding officer, by his fellow soldiers and, in the end, by the Army itself. During his training he was marginalized, harassed and threatened with summary dismissal unless he agreed to carry a rifle. But he remained true to his convictions and, ultimately, won his case.

“Hacksaw Ridge,” which was directed by veteran actor/director Mel Gibson, portrays all of this over the first full half of its 131-minute running time – though, like most depictions of actual history, the script does take various liberties with the truth.

And if anything, the movie’s second half underplays Doss’ heroism. His own commanding officer, formerly one of Doss’ biggest critics, ended up crediting him for having saved 100 of his fellow soldiers during the battle portrayed in Gibson’s movie. The official record, meanwhile, listed his saving only 75.

Acted by a largely Australian cast, including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a worthy honoring of the real-life Doss – portrayed by the British-raised Andrew Garfield – even if it does feel, at times, as traditionally melodramatic as your standard 1950s MGM big-screen release.

The difference is the violence. Gibson is known for depicting scenes of savagery graphically in such films as “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.” Filled with lushly filmed scenes of fire, flame and dismembered corpses, Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” is as much a study in barbarity as it is a celebration of steadfast principle.

It’s almost as if by creating such beautifully rendered tableaus of horror, Gibson is sounding his own trumpet, one that prizes the nobility of suffering itself over a single man’s courage.