CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the number of U.S. service members who were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the Battle of Okinawa. Twenty-four service members were awarded the Medal of Honor following the battle — 13 posthumously.
The Battle of Okinawa has been referred to as a “meat grinder” because of the carnage that took place during the three months of savage fighting between Japanese and U.S. led allied forces in 1945.
As ground forces slugged it out in brutal combat on the tortuous terrain of the island, the supporting U.S. Navy suffered heavy losses as the Japanese launched wave after wave of kamikaze attacks that succeeding in sinking a dozen destroyers. Combined casualties for both sides surpassed 150,000 and the battle is believed to have claimed another 150,000 lives from the local civilian population. The ferociousness of the Japanese defense of Okinawa and the costly toll in inflicted upon U.S. forces likely influenced the decision to drop the atomic bomb rather than launch an invasion of mainland Japan.
Mel Gibson spares audiences none of the viciousness of the battle in Hacksaw Ridge, the first movie he has directed since 2006’s Apocalypto. The visceral film places audiences in the middle of mud, smoke, blood, dismembered limbs and flying bodies that seem to have enough kinetic energy to pop off the screen. Viewers are thrust so close to the unrestrained fighting that it feels as if there is an imminent danger of being bayonetted. Gibson framed some shots so tight shots that they induce claustrophobia and panic.
Within this world of horror and death emerges a sliver of goodness that is the focus of Hacksaw Ridge. The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector from Virginia who participates in the battle as a medic. Because he joins the Army determined to save lives rather than take them, he refuses to carry any type of weapon. His resistance to even train with a rifle in boot camp angers both his superiors and fellow soldiers who believe he is a coward hiding behind religion. He is viewed as a weak link who will endanger everyone in his company. Vince Vaughn (Swingers) as the sergeant warns the rest of his men that they cannot count on Doss in a fight.
After being subjected to physical and mental abuse by those who want to force him to transfer out of the battalion, Doss endures a hearing that attempts to discharge him on the grounds that he is mentally unstable. Doss perseveres and wins the right to serve his country without being required to bear arms. He takes the opportunity and proves to be one of the unlikeliest of heroes.
When his battalion is overwhelmed by a Japanese counterattack and withdraws from a fiercely contested ridge on Okinawa, Doss stays behind to aid the wounded that were left behind in the hasty retreat. Dodging Japanese patrols that are searching for remaining Americans, Doss begins to locate his comrades and then lower them down the cliffs to safety. As word spreads of his selfless actions while in the immediate threat of the enemy, even his biggest detractor in the company (played by Luke Bracey of Point Break) begins to recognize the genuine bravery and dedication of Doss.
Doss would be credited with single-handedly saving 75 men on Okinawa before he himself was too severely wounded to continue. He would become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Twenty-four other men would also receive the United States of America’s highest military for their actions during the Battle of Okinawa — 13 posthumously.
By all accounts, the real Doss was a virtuous man whose confidence in his faith was unwavering which is exactly how he is portrayed by Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman and The Social Network). Other than including one scene of Doss experiencing a brief violent outburst while being held in the stockade, Gibson seems to have resisted any temptation to make Doss a more dramatic character tortured by a personal conflict between his faith and sense of duty. Doss knew who he was and knew what he valued.
Critics have taken issue with the historical accuracy of films involving Gibson in the past (Braveheart and The Patriot) but he has always been a great storyteller. There will always be people who nitpick details but he presents a captivating film with Hacksaw Ridge that closely follows actual events. The movie is visually stunning and also succeeds in convincingly capturing Doss’s life in the Blue Ridge mountains prior to the war. Gibson proudly notes that the film was produced with a budget of $40 million, which is a remarkable accomplishment for a film that has the look and feel of the Hollywood blockbusters that now routinely exceed $125 million in production costs.