Hacksaw Ridge: a flimsy perspective of pacifism and Christianity

By Baylor Smith
Perhaps the most telling line of “Hacksaw Ridge” is found in a clip from an interview with Hal Doss, (the brother of the main character Desmond Doss), “You are your convictions.”

Perhaps the most telling line of “Hacksaw Ridge” is found in a clip from an interview with Hal Doss, (the brother of the main character Desmond Doss), “You are your convictions.”

“Hacksaw Ridge” follows the real life story of World War II soldier, Desmond Doss, who was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, doing so while refusing to carry a gun because of religious justifications. Rather than serving as an infantry soldier, Doss choses to run into the field of battle without a gun and attempt to save his fellow soldier’s lives as a medic.

“Hacksaw Ridge” presents pacifism and to a larger extent, Christianity in accordance with Hal’s statement, that one must be their convictions. Such a statement not only misrepresents the life and message of Christ, but it is the foundation of fundamentalism and in some cases, bigotry.

Director Mel Gibson rewards service to a conviction far and above a more robust understanding of the Christian life, particularly the importance of recognizing the personhood of the other. This can be seen through his depiction of the Japanese, who are horribly manipulated as a fear mechanism throughout the entire film. We hardly ever see their faces, let alone hear them talk or interact with another human being. The one moment given to an individual Japanese soldier simply serves to further glorify Doss’ character as holding his conviction. After Doss has attended to the wounds of an injured Japanese soldier, an American back at base camp says in reference to Doss, “He even saved a couple of Japs, but they didn’t make it. Anyway, gotta go back to see Doss save more people!” Ok, maybe the latter sentence is a little exaggerated but you get the point.  

Gibson, true to his previous films, aestheticizes violence as the backdrop to a painting of his main character. Using severed bodies, slow motion shots of flamethrowers and cries of men shooting guns as a means of a gloried spectacle. The hypocrisy of it all is that in his films, Gibson’s characters are supposed to stand for peace, nonviolence and compassion (see, Jesus Christ in “The Passion of The Christ”) not military victory or individual heroics.

Now, the true story of Desmond Doss is compelling and certainly should not be scoffed at, it involves immense bravery and physical sacrifice. However, Gibson’s film adaptation purports to be a powerful message of Christianity while it ultimately diverts from the message of Christ. One ought not be simply satisfied with little nods to Bible stories (and believe me, there is no shortage of those in the film). If a director wants to handle Christian theology in a film, it ought to be done with closer attention and care. 

Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge”

(It’s gonna get a little preachy right now, so brace yourself)

For those who claim the title Christian it is ever pressing to understand that Christ’s message was not about being a conviction, but rather by consistently viewing people who are different than you as a person-holding the image of the divine, so that “to the extent to which Christ became human, humans may participate in becoming divine.” (That’s a little quote from my boy G-Naz, otherwise known as Gregory of Nazianzus, first century Church father… I certainly am not enlightened enough to formulate that myself.)

Being a conviction can hinder a human’s ability to pursue humility, suffering and the empathy necessary to recognize another human being’s personhood. Desmond Doss (as directed by Mel Gibson) was nonviolent for the sake of being nonviolent, forever focused on his service to his own conviction rather than his service to the other human beings as holding the personhood of Christ Jesus.

If you do go to see “Hacksaw Ridge,” which I would not necessarily recommend, at least examine Doss’ exercise of religious conviction in tandem with your own. Are you holding a belief for the sake holding it? Or does it allow you to embrace another human being, especially one who is different than you?