A few weeks ago, a friend offered me a copy of a book compiled of articles and dispatches from her grandfather, who was a war correspondent and a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist for forty-two years. Roelif Loveland was a Marine private in World War I. At eighteen he endured some of the bloodiest fighting in France: Bellevue Woods, Soissons, the Argonne and St. Mihiel. Twenty-five years later, my friend’s grandfather went back to France as a correspondent with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Loveland was often the jeep-mate of Ernest Hemingway, and he was a friend of Ernie Pyle.
It is in the spirit,of stories to be told that ” Hawksaw Ridge” shines. We wish these war stories were a thing of the past, yet war is still with us. And there are thousands of stories to be told. Is there glory in killing? Is there ecstasy in suffering? are the big questions.
Mel Gibson ‘s film begins with battle and a voiceover prayer for the weary. Flashback sixteen years to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Here our protagonist,eleven-year-old Desmond Doss, wrestles with his brother Hal as his veteran father pours whiskey on the graves of his friends killed in the First World War. Drunk, his father (Hugo Weaving ) slices his hand and vows to keep his boys from harm. His buddies have ruined their snappy uniforms with their own bloody offal. His wife beating is understood as hatred for himself as a survivor , but young Desmond has already ” killed him in his heart”. Yet, Dad, dressed in full WWI Corporal regalia, and because of his military connections intervenes to extricate Desmond from being court- martialed. One story arc is set.
“Hawksaw Ridge” is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who voluntarily enlisted in 1942 and served as a medic in the 307th Reginald, 77th Infantry Division in Okinawa. His story is of a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor for gallantry and became one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II. Andrew Garfield plays the devout pacifist and vegetarian, who will not touch a gun except to use it as the spine for a stretcher like sled. Garfield’s wide-eyed innocence is arresting and sweetly sentimental. It is a performance that will be remembered.
Vince Vaughn as the sergeant shows how military inspections are done. He plays an intelligent bully. Desmond is told that “stalks of corn have better physiques”. When the sergeant tries to get Doss a psychiatric discharge, Doss clears section eight. Vaughn does a great job of ” throwing hell at Doss, when Doss throws God at him”. He screams that the unit is no better than its weakest member, yet he is curious about what makes Doss tick. After twenty-mile extra hikes, KP and latrine duty, muggings by unit members and loneliness, Desmond is asked by Vaughn:”Why the hell are you still here! This is not good for anybody.” Desmond proves him wrong. Someone’s values are under attack, but they are not Desmond’s here.
Teresa Palmer is nurse Dorothy, a beauty who slaps Desmond the first time he impulsively kisses her. Their romance is as romantic as any from the 1940’s: passionate kisses on a mountain top swirling with white clouds. She later accuses him of pride and stubbornness. She tells him not to confuse his will with the Lord’s. Anguish is something Gibson seems to understand, however misguided. She proves as supportive as she is lovely.
The Japanese are not given any political correctness as they are portrayed as putting a premium on shooting medics and as being dishonorable tricksters in raising a white surrender flag and then throwing grennades at the enemy. When one Japanese soldier screams in the face of an American soldier, the American cartoonishly mocks the yells back. This is weird patriotism, Gibson style. He does include the harikari ritual of the Japanese as an honorable death, and has Doss minister to a wounded Japanese soldier in the tunnels.
On the positive side, “Hawksaw Ridge” is a cinemagraphic feat. Dusty gray scenes of stepping over body parts and rat-infested corpses are welcome after the air-exploding, earth-flying flapping of soldiers being shot and bayoneted. Three battalions are wiped out. Carnage reigns. Firestorms rage and slow motion is used rarely in tumbling scenes of bodies tumbling in flame. Boots in the air and body fireballs assault us. Make no mistake; you are watching war, and war is a violent assault on our senses.
Desmond Doss’ interview is screened at the movie’s close. He died in March of 2006 at the age of 87. He tells us that his “Please God, let me get one more” is prayed over and over. Twenty-five wounded men are retrieved and hoisted down a three- hundred foot rope laddered ridge. Seventy- five casualties are aided. All this is does alone, after the army has retreated. This is his story, and we presume that there are many such stories ready to be retold. “You don’t have to carry a gun to be a hero” would be a slogan I could wax patriotic over.