The Bible calls it a burning lake, a blazing furnace. Dante imagined it as nine circles of Sisyphean torture. Bosch colored it with our darkest nightmares. It’s been called Abaddon, Gehenna, Tophet, Hades.
Perhaps those who took part in the Battle of Okinawa have another name for hell: Hacksaw Ridge.
It’s the waning months of World War II. Germany has surrendered but Japan fights on, contesting every inch of land with ferocious tenacity. And as the United States military pushes ever closer to the Japanese homeland, the fighting grows more desperate, more horrific.
The U.S. turns its guns on Okinawa, just 340 miles from Japan. It pounds the island with fire as soldiers and marines scurry ashore. Japanese soldiers hide underground, determined to push the Americans into the ocean. Hacksaw Ridge is one of the island’s most contested points, and soon the ground lies smoking. Bodies litter it like autumn leaves; blood pools in foxholes and footprints; sounds of agony fill the sky. Countries may fight for this patch of land, but it’s Death that rules here. Death that wins.
But into that black, blasted game board scurries one slight, skinny man. He carries no gun: Indeed, he fought the U.S. Army for the right not to. Bandages, not bullets, fill his pockets. He alone seems to walk upright in this land of crawling, screaming flesh. He alone dares all in this doomscape of the dying.
“Please Lord,” he prays, his clothes soaked in the blood of others, his hands ripped open from the burn of rope. “Let me get one more.”
Desmond Doss finds another man, almost dead—skin torn away, muscles ripped, bone exposed. He gives the man a shot of morphine—American, Japanese, doesn’t matter—and hoists him to his back, returning to the face of a cliff where, below, lies sanctuary. There, at the top of the ridge, he secures the man to a rope and slowly lowers him down, the rope cutting deeper into his hands as he does. Once the man is down, Desmond breathes deep and turns his head again to the smoking ruins of Hacksaw Ridge.
“Please Lord,” he says again. “Let me get one more.”
And into hell he goes again.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. The character that we meet here is pure, unalloyed hero.
Like many young men of the day, Desmond took the bombing of Pearl Harbor “personal” and was on fire to volunteer. Even though he could’ve stayed home if he wanted to, Desmond didn’t think it was right to stay behind while others fought in his place.
But Desmond also promised God that he’d never carry a weapon or kill another human being. And as you might expect, that creates a few problems once he and his squad move to the shooting range, preparing for war. Desmond explains to his superiors that he volunteered to save lives as a medic, not take them. And even under threat of a court martial, and despite the pleas of those closest to him, Desmond refuses to violate those personal convictions.
“With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to put a little bit of it back together,” he says.
Desmond’s commander, sergeant and the rest of his company find the pacifist soldier’s stance to be peculiar at best, cowardly at worst. But Desmond proves, through his actions at Hacksaw Ridge, that he is no coward.
Desmond’s stance on killing people stems from his deep religious convictions. As a fervent Seventh Day Adventist, he keeps his Saturday Sabbath. He reads his Bible constantly, even asking someone to retrieve it for him from a battlefield. His fellow soldiers sometimes mock him for his piety—sometimes it’s friendly teasing, sometimes more serious—but he never wavers. The closest Desmond comes to a spiritual crisis is amid the battle on Hacksaw Ridge after seeing a close friend die.
“What is it You want from me?” he asks of God. “I don’t understand. I can’t hear You.”
And then he hears the cry of “Medic!” and Desmond knows what he has to do.
[Spoiler Warning] After his daring feats become known, Desmond and his faith become a source of inspiration for his fellow soldiers. He violates his Sabbath just once; when his captain, Captain Glover, tells him that a renewed assault on Hacksaw Ridge is planned for Saturday and that the men won’t go without him. Even then, the captain and the rest of the company wait patiently—almost reverently—as Desmond prays for them all.
Desmond’s convictions took root early. A poster featuring the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments adorns the family home. And as a boy, Desmond is particularly drawn to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” which his mother tells him is the worst sin.
But it’s also clear that other deeply faithful people have come to different conclusions about that commandment. Glover tells Desmond, “I believe in [the Bible] as much as any man.” Desmond’s brother volunteers for the Army and, apparently, has no such anti-weaponry qualms. Dorothy, his love interest back home, cautions Desmond about his stubborn streak: “Don’t confuse your will with the Lord’s,” she says.
Desmond’s mother sings in a church choir. Desmond compares the choir to angels … though not necessarily musical ones. A bombed-out church stands on a bleached battlefield. Someone wears a cross, putting it in his mouth during battle. Desmond recites a portion of Isaiah 40.
Desmond is attracted to Dorothy from the moment he sets eyes on her, telling his folks that he plans to marry her. He asks her to a movie and, afterward, steals a kiss. She smacks him, telling Desmond that he needs to ask first. But she forgives him and they continue to date. They kiss several more times before they get married. Their wedding night is filmed with restraint. We see Desmond shirtless, and we glimpse Dorothy in a demure white nighty before they kiss and collapse onto the bed, out of the view of the lens.
A member of Desmond’s company likes to go naked. We see his bare backside as he does chin-ups in the buff (as other soldiers rib him about his anatomy). He’s forced to remain unclothed when the company sergeant demands they begin training at that very moment. The guy climbs walls and scrambles through mud in the nude as the sergeant calls him a “exhibitionist degenerate” and seems to ask if he might also be into bestiality. While we never see him unclothed from the front, we do see plenty of his rear.
Soldiers about to go on leave talk about safe sex, condoms and venereal disease. When a fellow soldier spies Desmond’s Bible, he points to another member of the company who (he says) also reads the “Good Book.” The guy holds up a girlie magazine (nothing explicit is seen) and suggests that his reading material is indeed good. One of Desmond’s friends admits he never knew his father—only that it could’ve been one of ten guys. A sergeant tells the troops that their gun should be their “lover, their mistress, their concubine.”
Hacksaw Ridge features some of the most brutal depictions of war ever put to screen. It’s impossible to overstate the level to which we see men turned to meat.
The camera captures dozens, perhaps hundreds of casualties, many of them incredibly gruesome. Sometimes men have bits of their face and bodies chewed off a bullet at a time. Limbs are blown off, and Desmond sometimes carries these soldiers to safety, strips of flesh dangling from their ripped shirt sleeves or pant legs. Corpses litter the ground, their organs exposed and intestines spilled. Two men grapple with each other as one holds a live grenade, which eventually kills them both. Another grenade goes off under a corpse, partially disintegrating it in a shower of blood. Soldiers get bayonetted to death. Several are set alight by flamethrowers or explosions, running or writhing as the flames consume them. One man hangs himself. Another commits ritual suicide—stabbing himself in the gut and drawing the blade across before his assistant beheads him. (We see the blow land and the head fall away from the body.) Countless people try to staunch their own bleeding, screaming in pain. Countless corpses are shown, some being eaten by rats. Japanese soldiers calmly shoot or stab the wounded.
Desmond is attacked in the night by some of his bunkmates, leaving him bloodied and bruised. He’s harassed by Smitty, another soldier, who kicks him in the face during an obstacle-course run, then punches him in the bunkroom, calling him a coward. Desmond’s alcoholic father and a former war veteran, Tom, crushes a bottle of whiskey, cutting his hand. He describes how one of his friends in World War I was killed by a bullet in the back. The wound blasted the man’s internal organs out and, according to Tom, messed up his suit something terrible.
As boys, Desmond and brother Hal fight—Desmond eventually nearly killing his brother by thwacking him in the face with a brick. Tom, was physically abusive, too: Though we don’t see him beat his kids, Tom does struggle with the boys’ mother, gun in hand. As a teen, Desmond bursts into the room where the two are fighting, grabs the gun and nearly shoots Tom (as the dad begs him to pull the trigger). A man working on a truck has the vehicle fall on his leg, puncturing an artery: Blood squirts from the wound before Desmond staunches the bleeding with a makeshift tourniquet.
To appeal to a faith-based audience, director Mel Gibson reportedly edited out all the f-words and misuses of Jesus name from the film. And indeed, there are none of those to be heard. But plenty of other profanities are heard, including seven s-words and multiple uses of “a–,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ss.” We also hear crude slang for the male and female anatomy.
Tom, suffering from what we’d recognize today as post-traumatic stress disorder, is a “drunk,” according to Desmond. Most of the time when we see him he’s obviously inebriated, abusing his family or despising himself. Several soldiers smoke. Desmond injects injured soldiers with morphine.
Soldiers refer to the Japanese enemy as “Nips” and “Japs,” and many seem to believe them to be inhuman monsters. The film does little to humanize them: For the most part, they are indeed seen as almost faceless, heartless opponents—perhaps reflecting how the battle felt to the Americans who took part. Still, it feels jarring today to have a movie spare so little empathy for the soldiers on the other side.
We see a soldier vomit.
As horrific as Hacksaw Ridge is, the real Battle of Okinawa was perhaps worse. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in World War II’s Pacific Theater, with more than 14,000 Allied deaths (mostly American), more than 77,000 Japanese fatalities and thousands upon thousands of Okinawan civilian casualties—with some of those civilians used as human shields by the Japanese or encouraged to commit suicide.
Other horrors are also kept from us in the film: The fact that Japan pushed middle school-aged boys into the front lines. In that era, the Japanese believed that death, even by suicide, was preferable to surrender. Okinawa’s horrific casualties reportedly were an important factor in the U.S.’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan instead of invading the Japanese mainland.
Okinawa’s battlefield provides a fitting stage for director Mel Gibson, given his proclivity for violence in his movies. From Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ to Apocalypto, Gibson bathes the screen in blood, often using pain and destruction as a catalyst for stories about freedom and redemption. Gibson, a longtime Catholic, seems to believe quite literally in the saving power of blood.
Which makes Gibson’s selection of his newest on-screen hero—the conscientious objector Desmond Doss—an interesting one. A director long fascinated by violence tells the story of a man who eschews it. Instead of giving us a hero who would die for his people, he gives us a hero who lives—and lives to save others.
Hacksaw Ridge is riveting cinema. But it’s also bloody—as bloody as we’ve seen on screen for a long, long time. And while the horror and gore we see may impress upon us the depth Desmond’s heroism, these images nevertheless assault us with their unblinking depiction of this hellish battle’s carnage.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.