Mel Gibson is nervous. The cinema in Plano, north-east of Dallas, Texas, is packed with mega-church pastors, military veterans, special guests and a small contingent from Southwestern Adventist University. Walking across the front of the giant screen to take his seat on one of three directors’ chairs set up between two posters of his first feature film in 10 years, Gibson stops momentarily to straighten one of the posters that is a little crooked on its easel. It was in that moment I knew we were in for something special. That is the hallmark of a filmmaker who sweats the details, who cares enough to adjust the poster. How much more care will he have taken with the legacy of Desmond Doss—a war hero by anyone’s estimation and a giant of his faith if you’re an Adventist.
Much has been written of Gibson’s personal struggles but as a filmmaker there are few equals, particularly when it comes to war movies. If the sentence starts with Mel Gibson and war movie I’m already in the cinema eating my second mouthful of popcorn before you’ve finished that sentence. But this is different. This is an Adventist war movie. This is one of the most celebrated Adventists we have: Private Desmond T Doss. His courage and sacrifice as an army medic during one of the bloodiest conflicts of World War II, the battle for Okinawa, is awe-inspiring.
Hacksaw Ridge is as much a love story as it is a war film. . . love is the only thing that can explain why someone would run back into that [the battle].
During basic training, his fellow soldiers repeatedly beat him to a bloody pulp for his refusal to carry a gun and stubbornness to keep the Sabbath. He was court-martialled for refusing to carry a weapon and in doing so disobeying direct orders, a charge that would be eventually withdrawn, allowing him to serve as a conscientious objector. In spite of this abuse he held fast to his faith and saved scores of the same men who mistreated him. A man so modest that when he was conferred the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honour, he downplayed the number of men he saved during the battle for Hacksaw Ridge. He said around 50; those he saved said more than 100 and finally he and the army agreed to call it 75. Wow!
No wonder Gibson was nervous. He didn’t need to be. From the opening moments to the climax this is one of the most inspiring, faith-affirming portraits of what it truly means to be a follower of Christ.
I want to encourage you to start planning who you’re going to invite to the cinema on November 3 to see this film with you. If you’ve never been to the cinema, maybe consider this to be your first outing. What an opportunity we as Adventists have with this film. Desmond Doss’s faith is dealt with openly, honestly and never shied away from. His personality shines through: cheeky, romantic, slow to anger, patient and kind. One of the theology professors from Southwestern Adventist University who met him numerous times commented after the screening, “that’s exactly what he was like”.
Andrew Garfield, who some will remember played the lead role in The Amazing Spider-Man, turns in a performance many are already saying could win him an Oscar nomination. Premiering at the Venice film festival on September 5, Hacksaw Ridge received a 10-minute standing ovation, a rarity at Venice and a testament to the power of one man’s reflection of the character of Christ.
Now I have to address something, my fellow Adventists: the elephant in the room. We’re not historically a people who have engaged with cinema. We’re suspicious of it, many of us have opinions about its influence and others will tell you outright that it’s simply of the devil. My encouragement to us as a movement, as Adventists collectively, is to recognise the opportunity that’s about to present itself with this film. There hasn’t been and likely won’t be for some time to come, an opportunity this high profile to talk about your faith with someone who you normally wouldn’t be able to. Take it!
Make no mistake, this is an R-rated film*. As one critic, David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter, commented, it’s a “Forceful comeback . . . A violent drama about pacifism that succeeds in combining horror with grace.”
These are graphic depictions of the horrors of war without which the impact of seeing an unarmed Desmond Doss run back into the death and destruction would simply not work. While this will create discomfort, that’s the reality of war. It’s not comfortable nor should it be sanitised.
Gibson was quoted at the Venice premiere as saying of Doss, “His struggle is singular—in the midst of hell on earth he goes in armed with nothing more than faith and conviction. He does something extraordinary and supernatural, really, that inspired me.”
Hacksaw Ridge is as much a love story as it is a war film, which will appeal to an audience not typically engaged with this genre. As one audience member at the screening put it, love is the only thing that can explain why someone would run back into that [the battle]. The clearest example of this occurs midway through the battle. The American forces have suffered a horrific number of casualties, as have the Japanese. The Japanese counter attack and swarm out of their tunnels, a tactic they employed with regular, deadly effect during the Pacific campaign. They force the Americans back over the rope ladders and down the ridge, leaving their dead and wounded behind. The navy once again begin to pound the top of the ridge—it’s literally a maelstrom of hellfire, dirt, blood and body parts. And there at the top of the ladders kneels Desmond Doss, alone. At this point he has rescued dozens of wounded soldiers throughout the course of the day. No-one would think ill of his retreat from this madness; he has done his duty. But there he is praying the most dangerous prayer any believer can pray: “Lord I can’t hear you, tell me what I should do?” The response is almost instant as out of the deafening bombardment comes the cry: MEDIC!
* US classification. The film is rated R15+ for New Zealand. The film is rated MA15+ for Australia.
** Record is not recommending people see the MA15+ rated movie Hacksaw Ridge but is informing Seventh-day Adventists of the current opportunity to witness.
Kyle Portbury is associate professor of the Communication Department at Southwestern Adventist University in Texas, USA. Hacksaw Ridge opens in cinemas nationally in Australia on November 3.