Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Thou shalt not kill.
Exodus 20: 13
If you have seen Mel Gibson’s WW 2 film Hacksaw Ridge, you must see this riveting documentary that gives even more details about Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. One reviewer of the Gibson film called it “the untold story,” but in reality, Desmond Doss’s incredible story has been told twice before, the first time in a comic book called True Comics. “Hero Without a Gun” appeared in the April, 1946 issue. That story so inspired one reader, young Terry Benedict, that Doss became his childhood hero. Growing up to become a filmmaker, Benedict released his award-winning documentary in 2004. Desmond Doss had turned down many offers before Benedict came along because he did not believe Hollywood would deal well with his faith, and he wanted to live a quiet life on his small farm. Benedict, however, also a member of the hero’s Seventh Day Adventist Church, promised that he would not slight the faith aspect of his story. As we see in both the documentary (and Mel Gibson’s version) he certainly kept his promise.
Comparing the two films, we see that Gibson changed and condensed things, a case of the latter being that the dramatization concentrates on the medic’s experience on Okinawa, omitting his brave life-saving efforts on Guam. We do see in both films on the wall of the Desmond home the colorful lithograph of The Lord’s Prayer surrounded by smaller pictures of The Ten Commandments, but in the documentary, there is no tale of Desmond’s hitting his brother with a brick, and thus from remorse vowing never to kill. It is simply exposure to that framed lithograph, along with the teachings of his mother and church, that formed the boy’s conscience.
Desmond did walk to Lynchburg to give blood (a 6-mile round trip), butin the documentary there is no meeting the cute nurse who would become his wife. We do see Dorothy several times, but no story of the Army’s refusal to grant the trainee leave to attend his wedding while he languishes in the stockade. In the documentary Desmond is denied leave to go home by his vindictive commander, but the occasion was his soldier brother Harold’s visit with the family before shipping out for combat. It was an especially low point for Desmond because of the possibility of not seeing Harold again. Also, the Gibson’s film’s powerful courtroom scene did not happen, though Desmond did come close to being drummed out of the Army for his refusal to pick up a rifle. His father Tom, instead of showing up in person at the court martial, used the telephone and letters to get the officer he had served under during WW 1, now a general, to bring about Desmond’s release and allow him to serve as an unarmed medic, as he had signed up to do. If you rad fast, you can read most of the general’s letter while it is on the screen.
Through a series of testimonials by the various men of his unit, including two officers, Desmond’s amazing story of the rescue of so many wounded is told. All of them admit to despising and harassing him during training when they thought it was out of cowardice that he would not pick up a gun. They now cannot seem to heap enough praise on him, one of them saying that he would not trade “for nothing” his serving with the medic. Considerable combat footage from the Okinawa battle is interspersed, as are colorful panels from the True Comics’ story (loved this touch!). There is even a picture taken by a combat photographer showing Desmond standing atop Hacksaw Ridge after helping carry and tie up the cargo net which the troops would use for their climb. The fact that Desmond was one of two volunteers willing to climb up, unguarded, was left out of Gibson’s film—I wonder if they were worried that the audience would think this was laying it on too thick. This guy seemed to be everywhere that danger lurked!
The survivors describe the savage fighting with great feeling, especially when they return as a group to tour the Okinawa battle field. Much of the landscape has changed, large trees now growing atop the ridge, but many of the caves and holes are still visible. One man almost cries as he talks about seeing Japanese soldiers, their bodies burning as a result of flame throwers, dashing out of those holes and rolling on the ground. The Americans would take the top of the ridge by day, and then at night have to retreat down the cliff when the Japanese emerged in hordes from their hiding places. It was during one of the American retreats that Doss and many wounded Americans were left behind.
No longer wearing a red cross armband because Japanese soldiers were especially trying to shoot medics, Doss places himself in danger to rescue wounded soldier after wounded soldier. He prays, “God, let me rescue one more.” One veteran says, “God had his hand on his shoulder.” Probably true because we learn that one Japanese sniper had the medic in his gun sight several times, and each time he pulled the trigger, his rifle jammed. Before one mission back to the top of Hacksaw Ridge, Doss was given permission to pray—and lo and behold not a man was lost! When the battalion was scheduled to make its final attack on a Saturday, which was his Sabbath, Doss agreed to go along despite his usually strict observance of the day. Before starting out, the men asked him to pray for them, and he said he would if they would give him a few minutes to read his Bible. The commander, when he inquires why the men have not started their assault, is told that it is because Doss is reading his Bible and then will pray for the men. The colonel calls a halt to all the units until Doss is finished and his unit is ready to go.
There is more, much more, including what happened when Doss is taken away wounded and discovers that he had left his precious Bible somewhere on the battleground.
There is no better example of the power of faith and the courage of one’s convictions than this man’s story. The film opens with the quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Whosoever would be a man, must be a non-conformist.” The apostle Paul expressed a similar when he wrote to the Romans, “Don’t let the world around squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands, and moves toward the true goal of maturity” (Rom. 12:2, J. B. Phillips)—words that describes well Desmond Doss, “The Hero Without a Gun.”.
Note: You can see and read True Comics “Hero Without a Gun” at the Adventist Digital Library website: http://adventistdigitallibrary.org/adl-366778/true-comics-issue-48-hero-without-gun
This review with a set of questions is in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.