Any recommendation of The Conscientious Objector has to come with the caveat that the movie is essentially an ad for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Director/producer/co-writer Terry L. Benedict is a follower; as his documentary subject, he's taken one Desmond Doss, a member of the flock who rose to the rank of a World War II hero without wavering from his religious belief that he should never carry a gun. The film leans a little too heavily on the "miraculous" occurrences that trailed Doss along his unlikely path, selling that and other points with conspicuous close-ups of Bibles. Yet it's not until one hour and 22 minutes into the story that we learn which particular denomination Benedict's hero belongs to. You can't help suspecting that the filmmaker is trying to pull a fast one: Anyone who pushes a product that hard and for that long without naming it has learned a lesson or two about mass manipulation.
Every now and again, we're reminded that this is a movie assembled by people who are not like us. The hints are there in the Ned Flanders-ish tone of Benedict's narration, and in the swelling strings and delicate acoustic guitar that invade the soundtrack whenever possible. They make a jarring contrast with the remembrances of a score of Doss' fellow soldiers, many of whom throw the slur "Jap" around without compunction (or censure from Benedict's editing bay). As for the segment about Doss' clash with a Jewish superior, who wouldn't let him rest on the same Sabbath both faiths purportedly share well, you don't have to be Mel Gibson to know who the villain is in that one.
It's important to raise those qualms, because The Conscientious Objector is nonetheless a proficient piece of work with a hugely pertinent message. As the homily "I support our troops" keeps getting twisted into ever-more-humiliating permutations, we could all stand to be reminded that love of country and eagerness to kill are separated by a chasm of intent. Affected at an early age by the story of Cain and Abel, Doss spent the rest of his life adhering to the Sixth Commandment a route the movie cannily illustrates (literally) as a wartime comic strip titled "Hero Without a Gun." This clever framing device sets up a series of interviews with Doss, now an emaciated old man left "100 percent disabled" by his service and able only to spit out morsels of his personal history in a weakened, Forrest Gumpian dialect. No wonder Benedict has to pick up the storytelling slack with voice-overs.
The rest of the reminiscing duty goes to Doss' old wartime buddies, and to the adversaries he found on our own side. Seemingly every grunt he ever met is called upon to explain how Doss' refusal to pack heat got him persecuted by his peers and nearly thrown out of the army. Still, he managed to overcome those considerable challenges, going on to distinguish himself as a combat medic. If even half of his pals' stories of Doss' heroism are accurate and given his ultimate receipt of the Medal of Honor, a good deal of them must be then he's a remarkable character to base a documentary around indeed.
Benedict does Doss a huge favor by shooting his story with a new high-definition camera that, as wielded by a team of three cinematographers, yields an endless stream of picturesque images. Typically found in the midst of some lovingly composed shot overhung by an exquisitely tinted sky, Doss has the perfect, pastoral platform to spout observations that hold the key to his philosophy. Given today's context, his statement, "If you can compromise once, you can compromise again," has particular torque. The one that hit me hardest, though, was his explanation of the mind-set that kept him from copping out on his principles in the first place. "I couldn't picture Christ with a gun up there killing people," he says. And if you can't picture it, it's probably because ... well, you know.