From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the divine, comes Desmond Doss. We see him as a child, played by Darcy Bryce, scrapping with his brother and clouting him with a brick—the sole occasion, in “Hacksaw Ridge,” on which the hero harms another person. Quaking with guilt, and awaiting a whipping from his drunken father (Hugo Weaving), Desmond stares at a picture on the wall and reads the inscription: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Easier said than done, in a time of war. Yet such was the mission of Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who was drafted in 1942 and joined the military as a conscientious objector. He served as a medic with the 307th Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for what the citation called “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action,” at Okinawa.
Conspicuous is right; after the bulk of the regiment was forced to retreat, Doss, alone and exposed to continual enemy fire, went to the aid of some seventy-five injured comrades, lowering them, one by one, over an escarpment to safety. Only when there was no one else to rescue did he descend. No wonder he became a talisman to the troops; in “Hacksaw Ridge,” preparing for a renewed assault, they calmly delay until Doss has finished his prayers.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the strangest release of the year: an implacably violent film about a man who wants no part of violence at all. Gibson asks us to observe the spectacle of spilled viscera, limbs in flight, rats feasting on mortal flesh, and one soldier using the sundered torso of another as a shield, so that we may better comprehend the faith that upholds Doss, inspiring him to bind the wounds of his friends (and even, in one stirring instance, his foe).
At last, Doss escapes from Hacksaw Ridge. He is framed against the sun, pouring water over his half-naked figure to wash off the blood of other men. We are meant to imagine someone being baptized and born again. The result, though corny at times, treads close to madness and majesty alike, and nobody but Gibson could have made it.