The Real Story: Mel Gibson’s HACKSAW RIDGE
Breaking Down Courage
By James M. Kushiner
Executive Editor, Touchstone & Salvo magazines (www.fsj.org)
HACKSAW RIDGE, the first movie directed by Mel Gibson in ten years, depicts the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector soldier who refused to carry a gun yet was awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S.’s highest military honor, “for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.” Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist, entrusted his life to God on the battlefield as a U.S. Army medic at Okinawa in May 1945 and personally saved the lives of an estimated 75 of his comrades while under fire. He was wounded and went on permanent disability after the war.
I’ve never seen a more compelling portrait of the unbreakable meekness that will inherit the earth: moral courage under fire sustained by faith and humility. There is beauty, grace, and pathos here to behold, and together they speak to our ultimate human questions.
Perhaps I was primed for this by my forays into World War histories, especially my reading of THE SOMME by Peter Hart this summer. The book brings to the imagination in grim detail the carnage witnessed on the battlefields of the Great War. Most soldiers who saw and survived it did not care to speak of it, lest the conjured memories return and re-traumatize their hearts and minds. Most kept these things behind an earthen dam to hold back those raging floodwaters of memory.
HACKSAW RIDGE is rated R for depicting such battlefield violence, including the sights the medic Doss would have encountered in battle. The Okinawa battlefield was also a charnel house of newly- and lately-slain Allies and Japanese soldiers in various stages of decomposition, a home for vermin and pestilence. These images are not for the squeamish.
In 2004, documentary film director Terry Benedict made THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR about Doss. He knew Doss for 17 years before his death in 2006 at 88. At a private screening of HACKSAW RIDGE last night, Benedict described how Doss told his amazing story for years – but only “by rote,” and never let out the full story of what he experienced until Benedict pressed him on it, friend to friend. Doss’s inner dam broke and he emotionally spoke of his internal experience of HACKSAW RIDGE to Benedict. (In Gibson’s film, the Doss character does appear deeply shaken after his heroics.)
While relating this last night, Benedict himself swallowed hard and nearly lost it when be began to describe how Doss lost it when he opened up. Such is the power in the personal encounter of such events, when shared friend to friend; they run deeper than rote surface descriptions of a basic story line. The truest stories are passed on in a personal way from man to man, or in a phrase Russell Kirk often used, a conscience speaking to a conscience.
So, too, does the Gospel-directed encounter with Jesus Christ rise up within our hearts, seeking to convert the whole man, deeply shaking our inner dams so that we let go of the world we clutch with our self-centered egos, and turn to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. These dam breaks often flood out with tears.
Religion can give us a surface appearance of integrity we maintain; but the pure in heart, the unbreakable meek, will be the ones to see God. In HACKSAW RIDGE, I saw a lightning flash of that courageous and suffering love for mankind that enlightens this dark and woeful world of war. Follow that Light!
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