by Jonathan Salvador

What grace. What form. When Andrew Garfield spin-kicked his way onto the screen like Spiderman in the trailer to upcoming Mel Gibson film “Hacksaw Ridge.” perhaps you were left in awe of Desmond’s acrobatic feat of heroism as he deflected an enemy grenade with his outstretched foot like a deranged, suicidal ballerina. Perhaps you were among those who dropped a collective “pfffffff” at what seemed like yet another typical Hollywood dramatization of historical events for the sake of a cool trailer shot.

If you’ve never heard of Desmond Doss, do yourself a favor and look him up. He occupies the third-highest position on my “top ten favorite humans” list and that’s not a list I even knew I had until I read his biography seven years ago. Who are the first two you ask? Desmond Doss and Desmond Doss. That’s right, this man is so undeniably epic, he occupies three positions. I suppose being employed by an organization with a cult-like dedication to the art of death and responding to an order to carry a weapon with, “nah, I’m good” wasn’t brave enough because that fool proceeded to charge headfirst into the deadliest war in history without so much as a combat knife. He saved lives (as many as a hundred during one particular battle) behind enemy lines under heavy fire wearing a red cross on his helmet that might as well have been a “shoot here” sign when one takes into account the fact that Japanese snipers were specifically instructed to target medics in order to bring down enemy morale.

Yes indeed he did in fact try to kick a live grenade, only to find out the hard way that human flesh and shrapnel cannot occupy the same space at the same time. The film version decided to add a bit of flair to the real Desmond’s comparatively pedestrian kick, a slight revision of history that didn’t go over entirely well when the trailer hit, with many considering it a hypocritical glorification of war in a movie about a noncombatant. I’d contest that he didn’t actually kick it in the trailer, just sort of backhanded it away and was thrown from the explosion in a way that looked like something resembling a kick but that would be missing the point. The real criticism being presented here is that the movie is trying to turn Desmond Doss into an action hero.

Now I’m not here to comment on the quality of the movie, as it hasn’t been released at the time of writing, nor on Mel Gibson’s well-documented violence fetish. Rather, I’d like to talk about whether or not it is possible to have a pacifist action hero. A common misconception is that action/war heroes are by necessity, violent, or that action/war movies are pro-violence in nature. If anything, modern war movies have trended towards a distinctly anti-war stance. War after all, is far less attractive once stripped of it’s dignified luster and shown as the horrifying affair it really is, and there are several subgenres of action movies that don’t explicitly require violence. Action movies tend to be violent because violence is the easiest and cheapest way to create suspense, but it’s suspense itself that makes action movies what they really are.

Heist, parkour, car racing and superhero movies, for example, are all action genres that, while they may involve violence, typically don’t revolve around or depend upon it. Fiction serves not only to entertain but to enlighten, and different genres accomplish this in different ways. Dramas give us insight into the nature of human character and relationships, comedies lend us new perspectives on life, and action movies can empower a certain group of people, whether they be a disadvantaged minority, a relatable everyman, or most commonly, the audience. We filmgoers like to be challenged but we also like to be rewarded, and action movies, when done well provide an escapist fantasy that satisfies our inner desire for physical, tangible progress. They give us a character who is confronted with an immediate problem and have the character
overcome the problem through strength, ingenuity or willpower. The idea that any problem can be solved so long as you’re capable or persistent enough is an optimistic one and one reason action movies are as popular as they are. Action movies encourage us to...well...act.

Of course, that isn’t necessarily a good thing seeing as the action genre overwhelmingly centers around characters committing acts of violence or crime, but that doesn’t make the action genre itself necessarily violent or pro-violence. I’ve never been a big fan of the militaristic “hoo-rah” mentality that the media and entertainment industry often try to pass it off as heroism but that shouldn’t be conflated with a celebration of genuine heroism. Doss is one of the most unambiguously heroic men in human history. You don’t have to like the war he participated in, the religion he practiced or the military he served to concede that point. If ever there was a philosophy to champion with a raised fist, why not the philosophy of pacifism? Desmond may have been a pacifist but he was anything but passive. Acts of heroism are rarely done from the comfort of the sidelines. They are physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, and never accomplished without a great deal of resistance. To portray heroism any other way is disingenuous. That is what separates heroism from generic altruism. Heroism is fast, loud and uncomfortable. It cannot be captured from behind a respectful, inoffensive viewing case. It cannot be adequately portrayed through obligatory lip-service to selfless servitude. It must be experienced, in all its grenade-kicking glory.