“War movies” have gotten increasingly difficult to watch over the years. In the old days, men died heroically while ringed by their buddies — taking a bullet, closing their eyes, and then slumping over after saying a few well-chosen words about their loved ones and the cause of freedom.
No longer! For decades now, war movies have been much more focused on trying to accurately depict the horror and brutality of war. Ever since Saving Private Ryan, the battle scenes in war movies have become a bloodbath, with heads shot off, legs blown off, men screaming in agony, and battlefields littered with intestines, blood, and body parts. You really need a strong stomach to go to a war movie these days.
Hacksaw Ridge, with its depiction of a savage fight to take a ridge during the battle of Okinawa in World War II, definitely falls into the “strong stomach” category. But around the battle it tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wants to participate in the campaign against the Japanese, but whose religious beliefs and personal story won’t allow him to fire a gun or take a human life. So he enlists in the army, puts up with the disbelief of the other members of his unit, narrowly defeats a court martial for disobeying orders to fire a weapon, and ultimately is accepted by his fellow soldiers and becomes a first aid corpsman. And when the unit goes into battle on Okinawa, Doss displays incredible courage and gallantry under fire in his efforts to help desperate wounded men, ultimately lowering them each down a cliff before going back to try to find “just one more.” For his heroism, Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Hacksaw Ridge is a good movie because it’s a classic American story about one man standing true to his beliefs and showing how one man can make a difference. It has a lot of the familiar elements of war movies — the hard-boiled sergeant, the soldiers from every part of the country, the tough-talking guy who starts out a bully but ends up a comrade — and, in the battle scenes and their aftermath, brutally explicit carnage as the Americans and the Japanese fight hand to hand with rifles, pistols, flamethrowers, grenades, packet charges and machine guns. All of that death and destruction created the vicious setting that allowed Desmond Doss, well played by Andrew Garfield, to show what one man of faith was capable of doing. And in the scenes after the battle, when after nightfall an exhausted Doss keeps going back, risking death from the Japanese patrols in his efforts to try to save just one more wounded soldier, the tension created by the film is electric.
It’s a good story, but one that is brutal in the telling. After the movie Kish said she just couldn’t watch parts of it. Maybe there’s something to be said about war movies that are so bloody and realistic that they are terrible to watch.