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The Conscientious Objector

Worthy subject -- the true story of a WWII G.I. who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite his refusal to bear arms -- gets pedestrian treatment. Terry Benedict's docu is guaranteed some years as a public broadcast perennial, but plodding pace and heavy-handedly inspirational treatment make it an earnest bore.

A worthy subject — the true story of a WWII G.I. who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite his refusal to bear arms — gets pedestrian treatment in Terry Benedict’s “The Conscientious Objector.” Docu is guaranteed some years as a public broadcast perennial, but plodding pace and heavy-handedly inspirational treatment make it an earnest bore.

Now in his 80s, Virginian Desmond Doss grew up heavily impressed by the Cain and Abel tale, as well as the sixth commandment — in part, no doubt, because his no-good father had nearly killed a relative in a fight. When war was declared, he refused deferment as well as placement in a conscientious-objector camp (he considered himself a “conscientious cooperator”). He preferred to serve but insisted he would not carry a gun or otherwise risk taking another life. This won him ridicule from fellow soldiers and hostility from superiors.

Finally he was allowed the job he’d wanted all along, that of combat medic, accompanying his Army unit through brutal altercations on Guam and the Japanese isle Okinawa. On the latter, he heroically — and more or less single-handedly — pulled 75 wounded men from the line of fire, lowering them down a 70-foot cliff to safety.

Unfortunately, Benedict lends every incident the same ponderous weight, so by the time Doss’ bravest deeds are told, pic has already dispelled much suspense and viewer involvement.

One problem he can’t be held responsible for is Doss’ own less-than-charismatic presence. Stiff, speaking with a heavy Southern accent (he’s often hard to understand), he’s an odd bird whom one can imagine alienated comrades-in-arms as much for his humorless manner as his religious/moral convictions. Notably, the many surviving fellow grunts interviewed here — all of whom make for more ingratiating company –speak of him in terms that are formally admiring but omit any hint of personal friendship.

Well within helmer’s control, however, are several crudely manipulative aspects. Most notable is strained device of posing Doss, totem-like, against filter-assisted sunsets or backlit monuments. Helmer’s gushing first-person narration doesn’t help, either, nor his questionable decision to frequently put himself onscreen. (Surely viewers don’t need to hear his confession that visiting Mr. and Mrs. Doss became “like visiting grandpa and grandma’s house.”)

Thick wash of generic uplift provided by composer Bob Christianson’s score completes an air of shameless, yet hapless, reaching for “God Bless America” sentimentality. Doss’ story is unique and laudable enough to have come across without such pandering effects.

Feature is billed as first docu shot using Panasonic’s VariCam Cinema High-Def camera; otherwise, package is conventionally assembled.

The Conscientious Objector

Production: A Chaparral West production. Produced by Terry Benedict. Executive producer, Gabe Videla. Directed by Terry Benedict.

Crew: Camera (color, DVC Pro), Darko Suvak, Suki Medencevic, Francis Kenny, Ryan Sheridan; editors, Jeff Wood, Christopher Cibelli, Sean McCulley; music, Bob Christianson; sound, Greg Gerlic. Reviewed at Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose, Calif., March 14, 2004. Running time: 101 MIN.

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