A Few Thoughts on Defamiliarization in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge

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Mel Gibson's films often utilize strategies and techniques of defamiliarization in order to revitalize the generic, narrative, and filmic conventions they employ. For instance, Braveheart (1995) dresses the heightened, even exaggerated, elements of chivalric romance—namely, the revenge, adultery, and other betrayals that the demands and conflicts of oaths and loyalties generate—in the more serious, sober garb of a prestigious Hollywood historical drama. (This in part explains why the film's historical inaccuracies can be read as minor, not damning, defects.)

The Passion of the Christ (2004) emphasizes the violence of the Christ story, namely his torture and execution, in exacting detail and to an extreme degree in order to chasten the familiar viewer's flagging attention to the traditional Passion narrative, a tale recited countless times.[1] (This helps explain why the film often simply repels viewers not deeply familiar with, or already attached to, the story.) Likewise, Apocalypto (2006) recasts jungle adventure tropes in the unusual action film setting of pre-Colombian Mayan America.

Gibson's latest work, Hacksaw Ridge, released last fall and nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, takes many of the most familiar elements of the war story—such as training camp, the lover left at home, and the impossible mission—and welds them around a unique centre: a pacifist protagonist. The approach, in my experience, did nothing less than renew my appreciation for war movie heroics.

While some viewers and critics have complained that Hacksaw Ridge is contradictory, with its combination of extreme violence and a presumed message about non-violence, I would say that the disjunction is part of the point. The strange disjunction defamiliarizes both the pacifist themes as well as the war movie tropes, and it is meant to bring attention to the contradictions between those different elements. In fact, the film's tensions are the very tensions that the protagonist, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), must navigate: How does one hold to non-violent principles in the midst of the violence of war, whether in actuality or art? How does a pacifist participate in combat, and how should one represent that visually?

Furthermore, the film's approach to violence places a notable emphasis not on action but on consequence. This startling emphasis on the bodily destruction that violent actions (such as shooting a gun or throwing a grenade) inflict functions as not only a visual reminder of the motivations behind Doss's pacifism, but also of the messiness of life and death, of killing and survival. Hacksaw Ridge complicates Doss's living out of his firm principles and high ideals.

In doing so, Hacksaw Ridge is not saying that one cannot hold firmly to principles and ideals, but rather that the choices we make will always appear contradictory to others. Doss himself struggles inwardly with his decisions while openly holding firm to his beliefs about killing. For instance, he will train for combat and go onto the battlefield, but not carry a weapon, not even for self-defence. It is notable that everyone around Doss views his approach to his principles with incomprehension at some point, seeing them as a set of contradictions, whether it is his military superiors, his comrades in training and combat, his family, or even the girl who becomes his wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). Gibson consistently renders Doss’s beliefs and actions as strange, in the eyes of other characters and also in the eyes of viewers.

Making Doss's beliefs appear strange, however, is related to the film's interest in flipping the viewer's perceptions. I want to focus on one example. The opening juxtaposition between gruesome war imagery and Doss, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, declaring the wonders of God at first strikes the viewer as ironic and perhaps even cynically critical. The viewer might well be prompted to ask, where is God in all this carnage? It is no accident that Hacksaw Ridge returns to the same images of the same battle in the second half. Making the viewer see these now-familiar images in a new way, Hacksaw Ridge presents its own inverted answer to such questions. God is present in the carnage, in and through the actions of people like Desmond Doss, who explicitly lives out the command on the battlefield that he repeats earlier in the movie: "a new Commandment I give unto you, that you love one another."[2]

Using various techniques of defamiliarization, Gibson has crafted a war film that is both conventional and original, and, ultimately, deeply affecting.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016, Australia/USA)

Directed by Mel Gibson; screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight; starring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, and Vince Vaughn.

[1] My wording in the sentence above is indebted to Tony Bennett's description of the effect of defamiliarization: "What is achieved . . .  is a transformation of the sentence . . . in such a way that one’s flagging perceptions are chastened into a renewed attentiveness" (Formalism and Marxism, 17).

[2] The larger exchange in which Doss quotes from John's Gospel also reveals the film's interest in flipping perspectives:

Desmond Doss: God says not to kill. That’s one of his most important commandments.

Colonel Stelzer: Most people take that to mean, Don’t commit murder. War is a completely different set of circumstances.

Doss: I don’t see it that way.

Stelzer: King David was a warrior king and much loved by God.

Doss: That’s the Old Testament! Jesus said, “a new Commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.