The most successful war movies in history seem to always revolve around the perpetual, sometimes unbearable paradox of human beings’ self-destructive tendency to creating wars. And all of them manage to grasp a laser-focused facet of humanity as a starting point to illustrate the paradox. In Hacksaw Ridge, the facet is faith.
The film’s protagonist, Desmond Doss, was one of the very few conscientious objectors in the US history that have earned the highest military honor. His story, on the individual level, seems like a paradox itself—joining the army despite his strong nonviolence philosophy, his conviction to never carrying a weapon, and ultimately, saving lives of 75 wounded soldiers under heavy gunfire almost singlehandedly. The tension runs through the entire film, builds up as Desmond’s beliefs are markedly challenged by his peers and superiors, climaxes as he begins and succeeds in his heroic acts, and twists surprisingly as he agrees to join the fight on a Sabbath day, an action directly contradicting his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs that he has tightly held onto ever since the beginning.
To me, that final twist is a moment of illumination when Desmond is able to set aside his doubts and struggles, and continues to do what is right to him, which leads to a few questions that greatly interest me. What makes him change his behavior at that final moment? Is it a sign of compromised faith as it has been under siege by the gruesomeness of the battle? Or is the faith elevated as Desmond ceases to be bound to legalism even though it is just his own version of law? I prefer believing in the latter. His final act justifies and bolsters his previous convictions, making the magnitude of his faith known, not just to his fellow soldiers back in time, but also to movie-goers in the 21st century. In a culture that values freedom, personal choice is merely protected, but justified conscience can be extolled.
This film’s technical achievements are outstanding. The battlefield scenes are easily among the most gory and bloody ones in film history, and yet relentlessly demonstrate the powerlessness of human in war. It also salutes a number of notable war films by sharing their signature themes—sacrificial camaraderie in Saving Private Ryan, reflection of human cowardice in Paths of Glory, war’s soul-twisting power in Full Metal Jacket… Mel Gibson is a master of epics, often times centering grand scenes around singular historic figures, and arousing contemplation of Christianity. The character of Desmond Doss blends common sentiments relatable to ordinary people with remarkable resilience and heroism transcending human nature, therefore renders the film a profound and thought-provoking masterpiece. —WZ
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