The Anti-War Message of Hacksaw Ridge

I recently watched the Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge after reading raving review after review.

I regret not seeing it in a movie theater. It is probably one of the best World War 2 films, if not one of the best war films ever made. (On a side, after growing up on movies such as Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers, it was rather strange to see Vince Vaughn play a serious character in a somber film).

Adding to the film’s value is an effective courtroom scene that gently, subtly takes aim at the arguments behind U.S. involvement in foreign wars.

Short background: Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a Seventh-Day Adventist and avowed pacifist. He signs up for the U.S. Army thinking he’ll be allowed to work as a medic. However, his superiors are revolted by his religious views and regard them as a threat to their command and the integrity of the unit. He is given an order to pick up a rifle and then sent to a trial by court-martial when he refuses. He is then offered the chance to plead guilty and be given a light punishment instead of a long-term prison sentence.

Still, he won’t back down.

Meanwhile, Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving) is a decorated World War and alcoholic unable to cope with the loss of his close friends during the conflict. After his son is arrested, the father seeks out his old commander, who signs a letter saying Doss’ religious beliefs are protected by An Act of Congress.

With the letter in hand, he hurries to deliver it to the court martial’s presiding judge, and after forcing his way in to provide it, he is told by the judge that he must leave because he is no longer a member of the military.

The look on Weaving’s face brilliantly captures the sentiment he articulates:

Is that truly the way it works? Fight for your country, lose so much that was dear to you, and then you’re done with? Uniform’s forgotten, you have no voice?

The reply leaves the judge unsettled; he notices the medals the father has on his uniform. The war vet then reveals he fought at Belleau Wood.

Most Americans don’t know much about that battle, but chances are the men in the courtroom scene did. There, the Germans used mustard gas on the U.S. Marines attacking them and the fighting often was reduced to hand-to-hand combat. Americans suffered 10,000 casualties during the month-long engagement.

The judge and everyone else know that Doss’ father has earned his right to be in the room, rules or no rules.

Thinking that he intends to rely solely on the appeal of a father for his son, the judge attempts to lecture him about “the laws” his son violated, to which the father dismisses with a discreet rebuke of both the judge and the U.S. government that sent him off to fight decades prior.

I know the laws, and my son is protected by those laws. They are framed in our Constitution. I believe in them as he does. They’re why I went and fought to protect them. At least that’s what I thought I was doing, because if it wasn’t for that, then I have no idea what the hell I was doing there, sir.

In this short reply, he is linking his war record with his son’s right to not fight. But he is also calling into question the true reason for the war, which everyone knows did not have anything to do with protecting America or his son’s freedom.

His final statement places the judge in a very untenable position; to deny his son his rights, and to force the father to leave the room, would be to strip away any meaning to his sacrifice. Moreover, it would beg the question as to what freedoms they’re protecting by fighting the Japanese.

What makes this dialogue so masterful is that it doesn’t directly say anything overtly or blatantly anti-war. It describes and conveys the poignant experience of a suffering U.S. war vet who fought under false pretenses. No one would interpret it to be an attack on U.S. foreign policy today, but I wonder how many people will think of Doss’ father and the anguish Weaving conveyed so well if and when another call for enlistment occurs.

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