• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Hacksaw Ridge: A Hackneyed Tune

March 2017

“Hacksaw Ridge” is in the running for this year’s Best Picture award, but the nomination seems to me misplaced. While the title might evoke a cautious feeling that this is another teen slasher flick, nothing could be further from the truth; any WWII aficionado would be quick to recognize this and put your Jason and Freddie nightmares to rest. This film is based on the true events and circumstances of one, perhaps hitherto unknown and obscure American soldier embroiled in the tumult that was the Pacific theater.

Auspicious though the subject matter is for cinematic success, the film’s first sixty minutes are underwhelming and boring. Andrew Garfield’s character (who later ages into the film’s protagonist) and his brother find themselves in a fraternal tussle—a brotherly fisticuffs. There’s nothing abnormal about it, until the fight escalates to a Cain and Able-esque fever pitch and young Desmond Doss (Garfield’s character) acquaints his brother’s skull with the soft side of a cinderblock. From that point on, as young Desmond gapes at the family Decalogue and its proscription to kill, we’re expected to infer this is Desmond’s damascene moment. It’s not explicitly revealed, but the implication is that our character has begun a life of incorruptible Gandhian-style pacifism. This epiphany is cursory and not altogether clear.

Doss holds fast to his pacifistic ways, which are admittedly unusual for a young Southern man in a world at war. He’s sworn an oath, however, to tread a non-violent path. Much to the consternation of the other cadets and commanding officers, from this oath, Doss won’t budge. His stance is unchanged, even after he sustains a crepuscular beating by fellows in the cadre.

He’s eventually court-martialed and made to stand before the military camp’s court. Being that these legal and physical troubles occur before the film’s mid-point, it’s no spoiler to say our hero trumps the brutes. He earns his place as a bona fide soldier, but without a scabbard or sword. Nonetheless, without a weapon Doss wants to be with the boys on the front line.

Macabre verisimilitude describes well the film’s second half. If its antebellum period was a bit of a bore, the second half overcompensates. As the film shifts from North Carolina to Nagasaki and beyond, the violence never stops. You’re led to an exciting mélange of combat scenes, but the path to arrival is not so smooth. The transition lacks continuity and care. Nonetheless, as the American soldiers charge forth through the sluiceway atop the namesake ridge, the action is immediate and inexhaustible. The many combat scenes were filmed well, so much so that the flamethrower’s penumbra nearly scorched my own forearm hairs.

The pugilist scratching and seething to expose itself from Gibson’s bowels overplays its hand. The first fighting scenes are overindulgent and I had a feeling of being force-fed. I waited for an hour during the preprandial character development, and my gullet wasn’t prepared for the brouhaha that rushed out at me too quickly. Horrific shots of limbs torn asunder, explosions, and crumbling ramparts might have been more deftly depicted and steadily paced. The change from the bucolic alpenglow on the Virginian mountains to the precarious southern Japanese precipices was too much to take.

A consistent theme throughout the film was a general reliance on that which is objectionably cliché. It came in many forms. It was only a matter of time before the un-armed and therefore vulnerable Doss engaged in a bare-knuckled throw down with a Jap. Sans-rifle, he struggled to the brink of death, and was only saved courtesy of a fellow G.I.’s good aim. Pacifism has its place on the pulpit, but its practicality is a question. One pacifist makes for a hero, but only insofar as the thousands supporting him are shooting to kill. More than one pacifist, and you leave quick work for an enemy.

Other compulsory clichés pop up, including the time Doss gazes with longanimity at his pocket-sized photo of his young bride’s face. It would hardly be an American war flick without the stifled but fledgling love affair between the native son and his beloved. Their relationship is somewhat hastily strewn together, but the two surely make for a comely couple. Garfield’s boyish infatuation with his lady back home receives in return a bat of the eyelashes. At first reserved, she succumbs to his gentle charm. This sub-plot is incomplete, and leaves the viewer wanting a bit more depth. The relationship seems only to serve the purpose of resurfacing amidst the inevitable toil to come. She gives Doss a pretty face upon which he might rest his war-wearied eyes. Otherwise, their love is one implemented solely for another cliché.

As an act of perhaps unintended omission, there was a noticeable dearth of ethnic diversity. I’m slow to even bring this up, but ever since the “#OscarsSoWhite” outrage, it’s an unavoidable theme. As director, Mel Gibson might’ve immunized himself from the cudgels of the “PC” police by including in the film a few more skin tones. Perhaps he was trying for authenticity and North Carolina’s 1940 barracks simply didn’t have a black face to boot. In this case, if historicity was the hand that drew the scene, there’s no outrage to be had.

Two other examples show Gibson’s heavy-handed symbolism and analogism. The first is executed more adeptly and with an artist’s touch. Garfield begins the film ascending the Virginia Blue Ridge mountains with ease, so much so that he’s able to reach down and assist his brother and later his spouse to meet him where he alone stands. He does much the same on the precipice of Hacksaw Ridge only, during the later occasion, by lowering his brothers-in-arms to the buttressed reinforcements below. By lowering them, he effectively raises them with symbolic vigor and spirit that they desperately need.

The second example of heavy-handedness is the literary Christ figure. Christ’s inclusion has become a contractual obligation for any Hollywood hoping to have Gibson star or direct. That said, it would’ve been quite a revisionist’s account if his previously directed film lacked a literary Christ figure of the same sort; I’d love to know what end would be in store for The Passion of the Christ.

In the case that Garfield’s parallels to Christ are at all unclear throughout the film, the final scene leaves very little to the imagination. It’s at this point we witness our supine hero descending from the heavens toward his earth-bound glory. The literary Christ figure is thus complete with his talismanic bloodied good book held in his ethereal clutch. The metaphor is laid with a heavy hand, where perhaps more nuance might have sufficed.

All said, this is a blue-blooded film rife with the sounds and scenes of a proudly patriotic and conservative America since passed. In the times such as we find ourselves, these themes are a welcome change of pace. Heavy-handed and over-compensatory at times though it may be, this film is easy to enjoy and ideal for those needing a re-affirmation of America’s splendid men and her splendid past.

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