Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

"I can't hear you" prays Desmond Doss. The last time Andrew Garfield played a character struggling with God's silence, the heavens remained silent. But now God's voice is heard. "What do you want me to do?" persisted Doss. The heavens answered in the form of a wounded soldier crying for help. Strengthened by a sense of divine calling the army medic braved Japanese bullets and bayonets to rescue his injured comrades. In all Doss was said to have rescued 75 soldiers from Hacksaw Ridge. 

They thought he was a coward. But our medic hero didn't refuse to bear arms because he was a scaredy cat. He was a pacifist who wanted to do his bit for the war effort by saving rather than taking lives. Cue attempts by his fellow infantrymen to bully him into leaving the army. It didn't work. 

Eventually a military tribunal granted Doss his wish to enter the heat of battle unarmed. And off to war he went. 

Doss's company was charged with taking Hacksaw Ridge as part of the Battle of Okinawa. The ridge was heavily defended by well dug in Japanese soldiers. The battle scenes are a graphically depicted riot of fire, blood and guts. Like the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, only worse. 

The film muddies the reasons for Dross's pacifism. On the one hand it's related to his Seventh Day Adventist faith. On the other, a flashback sees Doss threaten his drunken father with a gun. Horrified by what he had done, Desmond swears never to touch a weapon again. Maybe regret over his actions led him to commit more deeply to his faith? I dunno. 

What's clear is that Doss took the biblical command 'you shall not kill' as an absolute prohibition of the taking of human life. While his pacifist exegesis might be questioned, his sincerely and courage could not. He was willing to brave the scorn and derision of his comrades and enemy fire to remain true to his beliefs. In the end Doss won the respect of his company and was awarded the Medal of Honour for his sacrificial bravery. 

In a Baptist Church of which I was once a member were two elderly men who served in WWII. One was a Desert Rat who fought with Monty to defeat Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein. The other, like Doss, was a 'conscientious collaborator' who served as a medic, risking his life and limb to save others. Brave men both. The film is a tribute to those who helped the war effort with bandages rather than bullets. 

It is noteworthy that Doss treated injured Japanese soldiers as well as Americans. He was a patriot, not an enemy-demonising nationalist. If that aspect of the film has resonance for the United States today, then well and good. 

Exhausted and alone, after rescuing each injured comrade Doss prayed, "Just one more". The secret of his resilience was revealed in the opening scenes of the film as Doss is heard reading the words of Isaiah 40:28-31. "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength". 

In a nod to Band of Brothers, the closing credit sequence features contributions from the men behind the characters portrayed on screen. The real life Desmond Doss recalls the prayer just quoted, "Just one more" - 75 'one mores'. 

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