If you are a Christian and you can stomach gore and war violence, you need to see this movie.
I see a lot of movies. Very rarely do I say that a movie has challenged me in some specific way to be a better Christian. Hacksaw Ridge is one of those movies. I saw that as someone who does not identify with the specific theology of Desmond Doss. Unlike Doss, I am neither a pacifist nor a Seventh-Day Adventist. But the amount of courage and selflessness he displays in this film challenges me on a deep level.
Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector in World War II who saved an incredible number of men on the battlefield as a medic, and refused to carry a weapon even for self-defense. Directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, the film is one of the most candid looks at both war and faith to be released in recent memory. This isn’t just because the film features horrific war violence and a conscientious objector, but because Mel Gibson approaches this film in a way that highlights an oft-overlooked feature of Christianity: the extreme difference between concluding something in a Bible study and living it out in the messy real world.
The first part of the film takes place in Doss’s small town Virginia home. This part of the story is interweaved with occasional serious elements (Doss’s veteran father is a mean alcoholic, for instance), but is mostly bright and optimistic. In fact, Desmond falls in love with a pretty nurse in an arc that would not be terribly out of place in a Nicholas Sparks movie. But when he decides to enlist and the rubber meets the road, he’s met with more challenges that he could ever imagine.
Although he is allowed to enlist and told he won’t have to carry a weapon, that doesn’t go over so well once he gets to basic training. The officers say Doss “thinks his morality is better than ours.” The other soldiers beat him up, taunt him, hate him. The Japanese aren’t the only enemy. His own men are his enemies, too.
Before we ever get to the battlefield of Hacksaw Ridge, Doss has shown immense courage and dedication. The army gives him the chance to quit, and that would be the easiest way out, but he refuses it, preferring to take the beating for doing what he believes is right, rather than go home to an easy lifestyle and nice, quaint church. There’s a lot for Christians to think about right there. We spend a lot of time and energy fighting persecution and the right to live “The American Dream” while being Christians. But it could be that our calling is to serve God and honor him in the midst of the persecution, and shine a light through it.
But even that is nothing compared to the third act. I’ll not try to whitewash this segment of the film: the violence is grotesque, graphic, and assaulting. Even as a viewer, I was horrified by the carnage that was on screen. I was supposed to be. Mel Gibson isn’t just using the violence for shock here; it’s serving a very important purpose. In an interview with Relevant Magazine, Gibson said “Even as an audience member [you have] to be a little bit in the foxhole, to have your breath taken away by the hell of war. War has to be hell . . . You have to see what he was up against.”
The contrast between the sanitized world of small town Virginia and the bloodbath at Hacksaw Ridge couldn’t be clearer. Most of us would have given up in the midst of that terror. Dawson doesn’t. Throughout the entire film, he always maintains hope. When one of the other medics tells him to leave a man because he won’t make it back to camp, he shouts “You don’t know that!” That’s before he charges back into the battlefield because he hears another man crying for help. This is a pivotal moment in the film, and it comes after we’ve seen the worst of the film’s graphic violence. It’s not until we’ve seen the carnage that we can appreciate just how much bravery and selflessness Dawson has displayed.
The takeaways from this film are immense. Most directly, am I willing to live out the convictions of my faith, even if that means facing persecution from believers and heathens alike? Do I have the bravery and selflessness to seek to save everyone, even those who are trying to kill me, at the possible cost of my own life? In many ways, Dawson serves as a living example of Christ-like love, with a courage that few of us will ever have the opportunity to match, much less the willingness to.
Aside from a few isolated moments of cheesiness (and the miscasting of Vince Vaughn), Mel Gibson has crafted a marvelous film that ignites important conversations about faith and violence, while giving inspiration to Christians of all flavors with a message of courage and conviction. This is certainly not recommended for the faint of heart (or stomach), but for those that can endure that part of the story, it’s a phenomenal film and a quality Christian voice in the public square.