Most films about the “true” exploits of war heroes tend to exaggerate the feats of heroism, and make up a lot of stuff along the way. Here is maybe the rarest thing of all: A war movie that actually shows less of the astonishing deeds of the hero. It is the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist from Virginia who declined to call himself a conscientious objector (though the Army considered him one), preferring the term conscientious cooperator, because he knew it was a just war and he was obliged to be a part of it, but because of his religious views he refused to even pick up a gun. Naturally the Army took a dim view of this, as did his fellow soldiers at boot camp, where he was hazed brutally. They wanted to Section 8 him, but he wasn’t crazy. In the end they let him be a combat medic.
The changes that were made in the story were all done in the interests of time and to keep the story line simple. His deeds are shown here as taking place in a few days, when actually they were spread over three weeks, which is even more remarkable. And what were those deeds? If you want chapter and verse his Medal of Honor citation (the longest one I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a bunch) is available at Wiki. But the centerpiece was when his unit was ordered to climb the Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa, a place so deadly the grunts named it Hacksaw Ridge. It was a killing field. Assault after assault was turned back. American losses were so horrible that American bodies were stacked as high as the medics could reach. The Japanese had had many years to prepare, and the whole damn island was honeycombed (I prefer to think of it as rat trails) with camouflaged tunnels. What looked like an innocent hillside would suddenly erupt with thousands of troops yelling Banzai!
Into this hell went Doss. And when the unit was forced to retreat once again, he stayed at the top to treat the wounded who were left behind to the tender mercies of the Japs, who bayoneted the ones they could find … if they were lucky, that is. In all, he lowered seventy-five men down the cliffside, while under constant enemy fire. He was the first C.O. to be awarded the Medal of Honor. To this day, there are only three.
Several of the events shown seem unlikely, seem like Hollywood inventions to pep up the story. Such as, when Doss is finally terribly wounded (he would suffer all his life from these wounds) he realizes he has left his precious Bible behind on the field. His mates, by now convinced of his immortality and wanting some of it to rub off on them, go back for it. Not true! A great big lie! … actually he didn’t notice it was missing until he was aboard the hospital ship … and then the other soldiers went back into Hell and found it!
I said they actually toned the story down. Here’s how. While he was lying on a stretcher with seventeen pieces of shrapnel and one sniper’s bullet in him, he spotted a soldier wounded more seriously than he was … and rolled off the stretcher and told the medics to take the other guy instead! Mel Gibson, the director, decided not to show that, because he didn’t think anybody would believe it! But it was true.
This is a seriously bloody film, so be warned. Men are literally blown apart, into pieces so small that there was little point in picking them up. Japanese soldiers are immolated by flame-throwers, which proved to be the most effective way of rooting them out, and made them easier to shoot in the dark.
The Japanese put great store in the concept of honor, but in my opinion they behaved with great dishonor all through the war. One scene shown here is of a few Japs coming out of a rathole waving a white flag … and when they were out, throwing grenades they had concealed in their hands. This really happened! We took very few Japanese prisoners in the Pacific. One reason was that they literally preferred to die than be captured. (Civilian Okinawans threw themselves off cliffs rather than be tortured by American monsters.) The second reason was incidents like that. I would only need to see that once to understand that I, for one, would never take a prisoner. White flag? Hold it to your chest so I can shoot you through it, you cocksucker!
(Note: I use the pejorative term “Japs” here deliberately. I deny being a racist. I actually love Japanese culture, but they were monsters during World War II, and before it. I wanted to insult those people. If it offends you, tough shit.)