Friday, November 5, 2010

Life or limb

James Franco in 127 Hours
With the opening today of 127 Hours, a movie based on the true-life story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who cut off his right forearm to free himself from a stuck boulder, audiences will be treated to a purportedly faint-inducingly graphic amputation scene. To commemorate this occasion, I present three similarly hard-to-watch scenes from other films. None have the graphic reputation of 127 Hours, though they are all painfully uncomfortable just the same.


Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) forces a socially diverse collection of passengers into the tight confines of a lifeboat after their ship is sunk by a German submarine during the Second World War. The situation becomes further uncomfortable when a German sailor from the U-boat, which was also sunk in the battle, is pulled on board. Swearing he is not the officer who ordered the attack, the German is spared execution, though as the film goes on suspicion about the man increases. When one of the passengers' legs becomes gangrenous, the German convinces the others that it should be amputated — and that the he should perform the operation. Ill-equipped for such a procedure, the other passengers can offer the man only a few sips of alcohol as anesthetic before his leg is cut off with a knife. Adding to the discomfort is an irksome suspicion that the German is acting not because he truly believes the amputation is necessary, but in order to literally chip away at the enemy.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

1944 was a banner year for cinematic limb-cutting, with Lifeboat followed by another film set during World War Two, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. During the famous Doolittle Raid of 1942, Lieutenant Ted Lawson and his crew are forced to crash their plane in occupied China after flying a bombing mission over Japan. Aided by sympathetic Chinese, the men are helped to a nearby town, where doctors agree that Ted's left leg needs to be removed. Ted is given a spinal injection, which he is told will numb feeling below the waist, but leave him conscious during the operation. But when the doctor starts cutting, Ted begins to regain feeling, first in his toes, then in his ankle. As he screams for the doctor to hurry, he falls into hallucination. Inside a cabin at winter time, a cheerful and intact Ted tells his wife over the phone that he's calling from a lumber camp, everything is fine, but he had to make an unexpected landing. He asks her about Christmas preparations and to describe the presents under the tree. Through the window in back of Ted, two men can be seen using a large saw to cut down a tall tree. As Ted banters happily with his wife, the men keep sawing, quickly, steadily, cutting further and further into the trunk. The tree falls, and a startled Ted turns to see it hit the ground just as he comes to in the Chinese hospital...

Mad Max

One of the most disturbing amputation scenes doesn't even depict an amputation. In the grim future of Mad Max (1979), Max Rockatansky is a vengeful cop tracking down and killing members of a gang who murdered his wife and infant son. He finds the last surviving thug on a rural stretch of road near an overturned car. Max handcuffs the man by the ankle to the wrecked vehicle, which is leaking gas profusely. He then rigs the car to eventually explode by positioning a flaming cigarette lighter near the fuel leak. Max picks up a hack saw and tells the hysterical criminal, "The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes." He drops the saw next to the man and walks to his car. As Max drives away, we see an explosion through his rear window. Though we never know what choice the handcuffed man makes, we are left contemplating his horrific options, the image of the hack saw still in our minds.