Hacksaw Ridge: Gibson’s Catholic Vision

Mel Gibson’s latest film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Army medic who was the first noncombatant to receive the Medal of Honor, for actions on Okinawa during World War 2.

The story as presented is very familiar to Seventh-day Adventists–how a boy from Lynchburg, Virginia, volunteered for the Army but was adamant that he wouldn’t carry a weapon; how he suffered abuse from his fellow Soldiers and chain of command; and how their views of him changed due to his actions in combat. To see the real story, check out the documentary, “The Conscientious Objector,” which features interviews with Doss and Soldiers from his unit.

Like any director, Gibson has to adapt the tale for film. He changes a few details. He truncates the story (he only covers about 30% of the actions detailed in the citation!). But Adventists who have seen the film have responded very positively–this is a story they know. The Adventist audience I watched it with laughed and cheered at recognizable elements of the story, including his accidental tying of a double bowline and his application of it on the escarpment.

But this is Mel Gibson’s interpretation. As in his other war movies, he exaggerates the violence, and dwells upon the gore. And I think we can see that he looks at the story through the lens of his own Traditionalist Catholic theology, and gives us a depiction of Desmond Doss as a Catholic saint. As in “The Passion of the Christ,” Gibson’s Doss is a man who does superhuman feats, filmed to emphasize that only divine aid could have been their source. He’s a Christ figure, highlighted symbolically through the blood and water shower after his passion on the hill, and his resurrection/ascension on the litter as it carries him from the hill. He undergoes temptation in the Garden of the Blue Ridge Mountains: will he be violent or will he not? He defends his Mother, to whom he is devoted.

Like Gibson’s other war heroes, William Wallace and Hal Moore, he is a man of faith who inspires devotion in Soldiers. They witness his passion, like Wallace, and then, in his name, go on to win the battle. The climax is reminiscent of “We Were Soldiers”–in that film, Moore leads his Soldiers in a charge up the hill to overwhelm and defeat the enemy that had them trapped. In this, Doss leads the way (after prayer) back up the escarpment, where the Soldiers, inspired by his talismanic presence, wreak havoc on the enemy.

And this is the odd thing. Gibson’s Doss does not inspire men to follow the path of the non-violent Jesus; his courage inspires Soldiers to fight and conquer.  Now, that has a historic basis.  That’s why Soldiers receive medals, to honor their contribution to the fight; to honor their courage that inspires others.

Gibson’s conclusion seems to me to strike a discordant note.  Gibson honors Doss’s integrity, his courage, his steadfastness under persecution.  But Gibson is a man of violence whose films glorify violence.  He bathes his characters in blood, relishing the horror.  He’s not a man of peace.  He’s not a man whose characters exemplify the Sermon on the Mount.  Courage is the substantia for  Gibson; Doss’s nonviolence is the accidens.  It doesn’t really matter that he kept the Sabbath, was an Adventist, was a vegetarian, was nonviolent–Gibson accepts none of these as True.  What matters is that Doss was consistent with his own beliefs.

I hope Adventists don’t follow the same path.  Let’s not exaggerate the hero–let’s focus on the One he emulated.  Let’s focus on the Truth he clung to.  Let’s remember our heritage of nonviolence that he exemplified.  Let’s use this to drive us back to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.

Early Adventists believed that all Ten Commandments remain binding in their literal sense–including both the Sabbath, observed “from even unto even,” and the commandment against killing, observed through love of enemy and nonviolence.

The world needs men of integrity, like Doss.  But it also needs the rest that only Jesus can give.  And in this age of violence, in this age of excuses for vengeance, in this age of retribution, it needs to see that the path forward is through peace, and understanding, and the care and protection of those who have been wounded by this world.  We don’t need to be stoked to reengage our enemies–enough people are doing that.  We need examples who teach us to love our enemies, as Jesus did, and as Doss did.

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Further notes:  I was fascinated by Gibson’s exploration of the experiences of Doss’s father, Tom, a World War 1 vet.  Here he looks at the role of PTSD, grief, and survivor’s guilt in a veteran, and the impact on the family.  I hadn’t read much about that, and I wonder how much is factually based. He inspired me to do some more reading … And much of this is the imagination of the screenwriter.

Also, Doss is seen treating a Japanese soldier — the only humanizing they get in Gibson’s film.