It’s rare nowadays to see a story in which faith plays a central role, but is neither a caricature of a protagonist nor the villain. In a great deal of modern popular culture, faith either makes you a crazy cartoon character or a wicked person who wants to see the world burn. And then there is Hacksaw Ridge. The movie follows the story of real-life Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Desmond T. Doss, the only Contentious Objector ever to be awarded this honor.
The film is, in many ways, a straight line. There aren’t a huge amount of surprises or twists which drive the narrative. While this might appear formulaic to some, it’s linear motion actually allows some characters time to develop — characters which might otherwise have been overlooked. Hugo Weaving, for example, plays Doss’ WWI veteran father. In the first act of the film his PTSD looms large over the story, and becomes a key point in the development of Desmond’s convictions. Had the story taken a more laborious arc I could see how much of Weaving’s performance might have been trimmed from the tale.
The second act of the film spends time with Doss in basic training, and here is where I felt the movie could have been strengthened somewhat. When it was revealed Doss refused to even touch a weapon he raises the ire of his sergeant, his company, and the Army in general. He is isolated, made to suffer, and is even physically abused by his fellow soldiers. Doss gradually wins the respect of many of his detractors, but much of this happens off-screen. By the end of basic he’s depicted as “one of the guys,” and only his commanding officers continue in their desire to remove him from his unit. I’d have liked to see more of this development, but I understand why it was cut. The third act is so expansive it would have bogged down the narrative 1.
The third act takes place on the eponymous “Hacksaw Ridge,” during the battle of Okinawa. It’s where Doss demonstrates the heroics which earned him the Medal of Honor 2. It is brutal, massive, and incredibly filmed. The third act alone is worth viewing the film.
And then there’s Doss’ faith.
This is not a “Christian” film, and I cannot thank the Lord enough for it. At no point in the movie does Doss attempt to “lead anyone to faith,” or enter into conversations filled with theological jargon and drippy piety 3. His faith is not simple, it is simply part of his character. I resonated with his struggles as he continually conveyed, “This is my conviction and I can’t move beyond it, but I understand your convictions are different.” People misunderstood his motives, and felt he was setting himself up above others, when it simply wasn’t the case. He wanted to help, he wanted to serve. He recognized others were fighting for his very freedoms and couldn’t stay behind while they did so, but he simply could not take a life. He’d seen the capacity for violence within himself and chose instead to bring healing.
His faith drove him forward, and during the final act his prayer was, “Please Lord, let me get one more.” It sounds like Hollywood schmaltz , until you see the interview clips before the end credits and realize this was his actual prayer.
Doss was a normal guy, whose faith led him to walk down remarkable paths. It is, as I’ve said, the type of faith popular culture doesn’t often depict 4. It was refreshing to see this type of faith play out on the screen — deep, subtle, and genuine — without beating the audience over the head with jargon.
Of course the move compacts Doss’ timeline. There is a documentary called The Conscientious Objector which details his story in more detail. I’m planning on watching it soon. Hacksaw Ridge, however, is well worth the time to watch.
- The only other portion which could have been cut to make room was his relationship with his love interest in the first act, but as she formed Doss’ anchor this would have left too large a gap. ↩
- In the movie, anyway. Doss was involved in more than one battle ↩
- The kind of conversations no one has in real life, unless all they watch is Christian movies. ↩
- Mostly because it doesn’t display the extreme peaks and valleys demanded by good drama. “Ordinary” faith is neither aggressive nor defensive as an always on posture. It’s the mold of one’s character for humble service. Sadly, most “religous” folks also fail to understand this. It’ what transforms evangelism from living and sharing good news into little more than a used car sales pitch. ↩