Trauma can plant its seed-bomb in the minefield of a vulnerable mind, a risk every participant in war takes, and one the film addresses in several contexts. For the viewer, identifying with a protagonist who is able to confront war’s savagery with his values and heart undiminished is encouragement to vicariously attempt the same. It enables the witnessing of a terrifying destructiveness that a crucial redeeming thread runs through and rises above. Desmond survives as that redeeming thread but by no means remains unscathed.
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Few stories are as captivating as those of people who put their lives on the line for a greater good, the mysterious powers of which their best efforts seem to summon, sometimes with miraculous results. The selflessly daring feats of WWII conscientious objector and unarmed medic Desmond Doss occur in that indefinable territory between the improbable and the miraculous, and receive a worthy recounting in the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge. The film follows Doss from childhood through his courtship of his wife and his battles with both the U.S. Army and its foreign enemies. It’s a harrowing, edifying adventure based on the altruistic valor of an unusual young war hero and empathically re-created through the skills of a gifted young actor, both men testifying to the extraordinary possibilities in life and in art when pressing the usual limits of ego.
The risks and sacrifices Desmond Doss undertook for others, so radical that some had to be omitted by the screenwriters as unbelievable, are given a living memorial by actor Andrew Garfield. His Oscar-nominated performance is all the more impressive considering how difficult it is to credibly portray the motives and aspirations of people who truly live religious ideals with regard to their fellow human beings. Like other misunderstood “minorities,” this small but consequential segment of humanity is often stereotypically represented on-screen. It’s challenging for actors to access that depth of spiritual brotherhood, and the internal conflicts that typically make characters interesting and relatable can be reduced by the sheer simplicity of its presence. Dramatic tension often must reside in the effect such people have on others rather than in their own full humanity. But Garfield brings a keen immediacy to the qualities that earn Doss a Medal of Honor, striking a poignant balance between buoyant naivete and serious faith. His up-against-it calibrations of what each new situation requires of his nonviolent values, the quick shifts from innocent openness to sobered assessment to searching location of grit and surety, are close-ups of living from deeply felt ideals that precede your own impulse and benefit. And the look of bemusement that flits over his face after administering bandages and morphine to a Japanese soldier he finds in a cave says more about war’s insanity than words could, in a moment so understated it could easily be missed.
Human goodness, a quality we have many fancier names for, is what both Doss in real life and Garfield in cinematic art at their best embody here, and their fortuitous blending effects an unusually enriched and layered presentation of its transpersonal nature. Like aligned lenses, one man’s empathic acting lets us see through his personal self into the being of another man whose selfless actions let us see through his personal self into a spiritual dimension that informs the entire film. It’s the kind of meta effect that can’t be planned, as if the spirit of a story guides the storytellers in its completion, the providential improvisation of movie-making magic.
Doss’s Virginia hill country dialect is appealingly and effectively employed in Garfield’s portrayal. Voices of the region seem to reflect the lilting rhythms of those hills, even when expressing intense emotions. While the speech of his mostly urban northeastern company has an abruptness that increases with import, his gentler rural dialect can lend an uncanny and unexpected potency to words of consequence. When Desmond speaks with rowdy soldiers or shouts amidst warring ones, his earnest country-boy cadence counterpoints the din of the surrounding violence, seldom losing its quiet music. It amplifies Desmond’s quality of emotional innocence, for which Garfield had to risk great vulnerability, as many find innocence embarrassing, boring, or unbelievable. What can’t be bought often proves costly to those who possess it, but this story, like hagiographies, attests to the pivotal grace it can provide.
While Hacksaw Ridge depicts the grotesque violence and trauma of war, perhaps too unsparingly, even those who normally avoid such depictions may find that Desmond’s heartfelt presence renders the horror more bearable. We know that actual combat can be less devastating if an internal motive or external result is held dear enough, the possibility of which Desmond represents for the viewer. As the captain says before the final battle, “Most of these men don’t believe the same way you do but they believe so much in how much you believe.” Yet there are circumstances that the strongest beliefs may not withstand. Trauma can plant its seed-bomb in the minefield of a vulnerable mind, a risk every participant in war takes, and one the film addresses in several contexts. For the viewer, identifying with a protagonist who is able to confront war’s savagery with his values and heart undiminished is encouragement to vicariously attempt the same. It enables the witnessing of a terrifying destructiveness that a crucial redeeming thread runs through and rises above. Desmond survives as that redeeming thread but by no means remains unscathed.
As a combat medic, Desmond Doss faced overwhelming carnage with an astonishing degree of agency. Because his response was so unshakably allied with his Christian faith, he was protected from the injury to agency that is so common in traumatic stress. But another reason for his psychological survival was the subsequent affirmation of his community. He had been severely persecuted by his company and his commanders for refusing to bear arms as a conscientious objector (he preferred “conscientious cooperator”) while still insisting on military service. Some of the soldiers, especially beneficiaries of his daring care, had been realizing how far he was from the coward they had called him, but this was a gradual process until the incredible events at Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. When he finally comes down from the steep jagged escarpment that was the scene of those events, they express solidarity and a shocked realization of just how wrong they’d been about him. There are people who can only be truly seen by seeing the spiritual dimension that undergirds and motivates their lives. The men finally see Desmond. This changes his world, and their world also when through him they glimpse that dimension’s power, which soldiers from his company were documented still meditating on in old age. “It’s as if God had his hand on Doss’ shoulder,” said one. “It’s the only explanation I can give.”
One of the film’s most moving scenes sensitively distills the tenuous transition into community life after trauma and exclusion. Desmond lowers himself down from the ridge on a makeshift pulley, made from a tree stump and a double rope knot he had once accidentally or fatefully invented, after employing it under enemy fire to lower down 75 wounded soldiers left for dead by everyone but him. (His panicked company had fled to their encampment below and it was too dangerous to retrieve the wounded without reinforcements.) After an interminably hellish night of carrying, dragging, and lowering men weighing more than his own slight frame while continuously praying “One more, Lord, one more,” the idealistic, straitlaced young man lands like a creature some darker world has swallowed and spit up; burnt, bloodstained, half mad. Incredulous soldiers surround him, reach out to “lay hands” on him as he passes through their small crowd, utter reassurances and encouragements, “It’s us, Doss. You’re safe now. It’s OK, Doss. Desmond, it’s all right.” Their expressions range from quizzical to stunned to awed, while his is disoriented and distrustful. It’s only when he sees the grateful captain, who had repeatedly attempted to have him transferred, that he begins to return to himself. The captain looks directly into his eyes, cups his face in his hand, asks if he is wounded. For a brief moment he rests his cheek in the captain’s hand like a child, allowing that contact to enter. The captain quickly returns to his normal demeanor, but by his timely tenderness the post-trauma trajectory is steered right. And Desmond becomes no longer a misunderstood outsider but an indispensable provider of morale for his company.
The (Oscar-winning) film editor John Gilbert helps emphasize the importance of this wrenching scene by deftly extending its original length. An astonished glance or hand reaching out is recycled later in the same scene but subtly enough that you only notice if you slow the motion. Such astute attention to emotional pacing, evident throughout the film, heightens the power of Desmond’s re-entry into community as a key turning point. Immediately after, in what some might call a “Mel Gibson moment,” Desmond is washed off under a bucket of water in a dramatically lit “baptismal” vignette. The allusion may be heavy-handed, but Gibson’s directorial instinct that the grime of that underworld journey must be shed and a new beginning marked hits the necessary note. (The real Desmond was given a hard-to-find, brand-new uniform.) In a similarly exaggerated but emotionally effective stroke, after the following and final battle the badly wounded medic floats on an airlifted litter in a skyward shot locating him off the earth in the realm of heroic myth.
Desmond Doss: yet another dovetailing detail of fate (there are so many in his story) that his surname means “a hill or ridge.” Interview footage of him in old age at the film’s end shows a weathered but sensitive man with the long gaze of those who have spent their lives around mountains. Or perhaps of those who have made transformative journeys and arrived home, accustomed to other kinds of distances. And yet a modest, unassuming man, still other-oriented by all accounts. Listening through a cochlear implant, he is accessible and obliging, though preferring down-home colloquialisms to explanations. That’s a “horse of a different color” is how he might answer a question. Crediting everything to God. Photos of him as a young man show a cheerful innocent smile; after his proving a happy warrior grin; in old age hard-bitten from many physical and financial trials but a glint of that smile unextinguished. Just as enduringly, Desmond at every age appears to have possessed that rare “peace that passes understanding.”
Everybody’s brother: the persisting desire to give yourself completely to a greater truer unity. Or sister: women may express its imperatives in different ways and contexts. A perennial human mystery is that our finest reaches occur when people are motivated by this desire in one form or another, while a close look at their attainments often points to the possibility that they encounter a mysterious transpersonal force when they give their all for it. (Perhaps the Japanese sniper who reported his gun jammed repeatedly during the time he had Desmond in his sights felt that force in some way, though he had no knowledge of the medic’s bandages being found on Japanese fighters.) Desmond Doss lived this mystery as an unsophisticated believer who could demonstrate his faith in it through direct action on behalf of others. Andrew Garfield touches the same mystery very differently; as an empathic conduit who can communicate immense emotion in the shift of an eyelid. Yet both men give themselves entirely to their passion for sharing in its possibility. One man’s radical devotion, experienced by a couple hundred soldiers on Okinawa in 1945, together with one man’s vividly sympathetic on-screen portrayal, have allowed many millions to contemplate the uncharted dimensions of that timeless and uniting passion.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.