While growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia during the Great Depression, young Desmond Doss nearly kills his brother Hal, hitting him with a brick. This traumatizing experience, along with a talk from his religious mother, firmly reinforces his belief in the Sixth Commandment of the Old Testament. Years later, Doss saves a man who becomes injured by a car and while taking the man to hospital, is instantly smitten with a nurse, Dorothy Schutte. They soon begin dating and fall in love, and Doss begins to learn about medicine from her work.
With the majority of his town, including his brother, enlisting in the Army to fight in World War II, Doss is motivated to sign up as well. His father, a troubled veteran from the First World War, is deeply upset as he expects to lose his sons just as he lost his boyhood friends. Because of his beliefs as a conscientious objector, Doss intends to serve as a medic. Before he leaves for training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he asks for Dorothy’s hand in marriage, and she accepts.
Doss is placed under the command of Sergeant Howell, and while he excels physically, he immediately becomes an outcast among his fellow soldiers when he refuses to handle his rifle nor train on Saturdays, as he is a Seventh-day Adventist. After Howell and Captain Glover fail to get Doss discharged for psychiatric reasons, Howell worsens Doss’ conditions by putting him through grueling labor and turning his fellow soldiers against him by mistaking his beliefs for cowardice, intending to get Doss to leave of his own accord. Despite being beaten one night by his fellow soldiers, he refuses to disclose the identities of his attackers. He continues training.
Doss’ squad is temporarily released from training, and Doss intends to marry Dorothy, but he is arrested for insubordination for his refusal to carry a firearm. Dorothy visits Doss in jail, and tries to convince him to declare a guilty plea in his upcoming trial so that he can be released without charges, but Doss is still unsure, not wanting to compromise his beliefs. At his trial, Doss pleads not guilty, and before he is to be sentenced, his father barges into the courtroom with a letter from his former commanding officer stating that his son’s refusal to carry a firearm is protected by the US Constitution. The charges against Doss are dropped, and he and Dorothy are promptly married.
Doss’ unit is assigned to the 77th Infantry Division and sent to the Pacific theater to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, where the Americans must climb the cliff face of the Maeda Escarpment, nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge”, to take on the Japanese forces stationed there. In the initial fight, losses are heavy on both sides, and Doss is successful in saving several soldiers, including ones whose injuries appear too severe for them to survive. The Americans bivouac for the night, and Doss spends the night in a foxhole with Smitty, a squad mate who was the first to call Doss a coward. Doss tells Smitty that he nearly shot his drunken father after he threatened his mother with a gun, revealing his aversion to holding a firearm. Smitty apologizes for doubting his courage and the two make amends.
The next morning, the Japanese launch a massive counter-attack and drive the Americans off Hacksaw. Smitty is killed and many Americans, including Howell and several of Doss’ squadmates, are injured and left on the battlefield. Disheartened, Doss hears the cries of the dying soldiers and decides to run into the carnage instead of away from it. He spends the entire day and night carrying wounded soldiers to the cliff’s edge and rappelling them down on rope, each time praying to save one more. The arrival of dozens of wounded who were presumed dead comes as a shock to several men stationed below. When day breaks, Doss rescues Howell and the two finally escape Hacksaw under enemy fire.
Captain Glover tells Doss that the men have been inspired by what they are calling his miracle, and that they will not launch the next attack without him. Despite the next day being the Sabbath day that was kept as a Holy day each week by Doss, he joins his fellow soldiers to care for the wounded. Along with extra reinforcements, they begin to win the battle. During an ambush set by a falsely surrendering group of Japanese, Doss manages to save Glover and others by knocking enemy grenades away with his bare hands. Doss is wounded by the blast of one grenade, but the battle is won. Doss is safely lowered down the cliff, clutching the Bible Dorothy left for him.
Pre-credit text reveals that Doss ended up rescuing over 75 soldiers at Hacksaw Ridge, and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman, the first time in history it was given to a conscientious objector. Doss stayed married to Dorothy until her death in 1991. He died on March 23, 2006 at the age of 87.
Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss
· Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell
· Sam Worthington as Captain Glover
· Luke Bracey as Smitty Riker
· Hugo Weaving as Tom Doss
· Ryan Corr as Lieutenant Manville
· Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte
· Rachel Griffiths as Bertha Doss
· Richard Roxburgh as Colonel Stelzer
· Luke Pegler as Milt “Hollywood” Zane
· Richard Pyros as Randall “Teach” Fuller
· Ben Mingay as Grease Nolan
· Firass Dirani as Vito Rinnelli
· Jacob Warner as James Pinnick
· Goran D. Kleut as Andy ‘Ghoul’ Walker
· Harry Greenwood as Henry Brown
· Damien Thomlinson as Ralph Morgan
· Robert Morgan as Colonel Sangston
· Nathaniel Buzolic as Harold “Hal” Doss
· Ori Pfeffer as Irv Schecter
· Milo Gibson as Lucky Ford
· John Batziolas as Private Schulenburg
· John Cannon as Corporal Cannon
· Mikael Koski as Private Giles
· Charles Jacobs as Private Webb
· Ulyses Medina as “Are you alive” boy
The film is described as an anti-war film with a pacifist theme. It also incorporates recurring religious themes and imagery such as eternal peace, baptism and ascension. Producer David Permut said it was very crucial that the team maintain the integrity of Doss’ story as Doss was a very spiritual and very religious man.
Others would disagree with labelling the film as “anti-war”, and that, while not shying away from showing the horrors of war, the focus lies elsewhere. The theme of compassion is very pronounced, which Doss demonstrates even before the war when he saves the man injured under the car. In battle he risks his life over and over again to save his comrades. He refuses to abandon those soldiers that others believe to have no hope of survival. Doss even treats a wounded Japanese soldier and lowers several of them to safety off the ridge, much to the shock of the Americans below. His love and compassion for his fellow man transcends everything, including having “enemies”. Thus, the film hints that courage has many forms, even in battle. Despite the fact that Doss refuses to hold a rifle, his actions lead to him being called the bravest man in the whole unit.
Futhermore, there is a recurring theme of forgiveness, reconciliation, and that judging others is wrong. Many of the soldiers, including Doss’ captain, repent for their false judgment of him as a coward. They seek his forgiveness, which he grants joyfully. Moreover, although Doss Sr. was violent and abusive with his sons and wife, there is redemption in his saving his son from certain conviction and imprisonment by the Court Martial. The film also demonstrates the importance of staying true to one’s principles. In a real life interview at the end of the movie, Doss’ captain speaks of how Doss helped him to learn this. Despite being judged, outcast, bullied, and severely beaten by his fellow soldiers, Doss refuses to quit the military as he feels he is morally bound to serve. Nevertheless he also holds fast to his conviction that he must not ever handle a rifle.
The after affects of the horrors of war are strongly pronounced as well, most notably in Doss Sr. He is left emotionally and psychologically broken from his experience in the First World War, and is driven to alcoholism and violent abuse of his wife and sons. When the young Doss asks his mother why his father hates them, she responds with a recollection of what he was like before the war.
Doss on top of the Maeda Escarpment, May 4, 1945
After the war, Doss turned down many requests for books and films, because he was wary they would portray his life, his wartime experiences and his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs inaccurately or sensationally. Doss’ only child, Desmond Doss Jr., stated: “The reason he declined is that none of them adhered to his one requirement: that it be accurate. And I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie.”
The makers of the film did change some of the details, notably the backstory about his father, the incident with the gun Doss took out of his alcoholic father’s hands, and the circumstances of his first marriage. The film also does not mention his prior combat service in the Battle of Guam and Battle of Leyte and leaves the impression that Doss’ action on Okinawa took place over a period of a few days but his Medal of Honor citation covered his actions over a period of about three weeks.