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Five Cent Cine (At Home): Hacksaw Ridge

Ordinary hero

The cult of the ordinary hero has long been a central ingredient of American culture. In the Ronald Reagan years, the political right used it to lure white, working-class men into the Republican Party. The typical definition of ordinary hero excludes the military, but it applies to director Mel Gibson’s epic “Hacksaw Ridge” because its hero, Desmond Doss (a low-key and charismatic performance by Andrew Garfield) is a soft-spoken, geeky Army medic who — because he’s a Seventh Day Adventist — won’t carry a weapon.

Yet Doss will prove his many Army macho mockers wrong by single-handedly saving the lives of some 75 wounded soldiers stranded on the Maeda escarpment (Hacksaw Ridge) during the ferocious 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Gibson’s conservative values are stamped on the story throughout. Male bonding is paramount. Women are loving but stoic. Duty meets obligation and patriotism. Christianity and faith are fundamental to all. Combat, while gruesome, is ultimately worthwhile.

It takes a while to get to the combat scenes. Gibson picks up Doss as a boy in rural Virginia; introduces his alcoholic father (deftly portrayed by Hugo Weaving), a World War I veteran who suffers from survivor guilt. He finds Desmond a girlfriend and future wife (Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte), who is a trifle too perfect — more a beatific vision than flesh-and-blood woman. In the process, we learn how Doss’ faith has led him to choose conscientious objector status. Boot camp — a series of torments for Doss, including a less-than-credible court martial — follows (“I am being treated like a criminal because I won’t kill.”)

Doss was a real person and a Medal of Honor winner who in fact saved the lives of dozens of wounded soldiers by lowering them down from the contested ridge. But Gibson takes liberties. The daunting sheer cliff seen in the movie — filmed in Australia — bears little resemblance to the real Maeda, a rocky slope that turned vertical only toward the top (the Army first used 50-foot ladders). 

Gibson also overdoes the flame-thrower — screaming, immolated soldiers appear frequently — perhaps to emphasize the battle’s apocalyptic, literally infernal side. And he lacks Clint Eastwood’s interest in the battlefield as seen from the other side (“Letters from Iwo Jima”); the wounded Japanese soldiers Doss lowers down the escarpment “didn’t make it,” a smirking G.I. tells Doss. There’s also a dose of mawkish religion: Doss inspiring the company through prayer or, Christ-like, with the clouds of heaven above him as the camera sweeps below his stretcher as he’s lowered from the ridge.

But hey, it’s Mel “Braveheart” Gibson, and God, country and violence run in his cinematic blood.

Date: 2016

Director: Mel Gibson

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Dennis Kreusler, Teresa Palmer.

Oscars: Won: Best Achievement in Film Editing (John Gilbert); Best Achievement in Sound Mixing (Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie, Peter Grace); Nominated: Best Picture (Bill Mechanic, David Permut); Best Actor (Andrew Garfield); Best Director (Mel Gibson); Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Robert Mackenzie, Andy Wright).

Hacksaw Ridge ★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Originally published February 24, 2017

Availability: For purchase, rental, or streaming on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, Redbox, and many others; see JustWatch here.

Other Awards: Another 51 wins and 115 nominations

Runtime: 139 minutes

Originally published in theAmerican/in Italia, here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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