By Gina Harkins, MOAA Senior Staff Writer
The story behind Desmond Doss' Medal of Honor is hitting the big screen more than 70 years after the Army medic charged into the fray - weaponless - to save dozens of his comrades.
Mel Gibson's “Hacksaw Ridge,” which debuts in theaters Friday, gives moviegoers a look at the heroism then-Pfc. Doss displayed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. The Seventh-day Adventist declined to carry a weapon into combat for religious reasons - but that didn't keep him on the sidelines.
Doss, a medic with the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, is credited with saving 75 men over a three-week period when he repeatedly braved enemy fire to reach wounded troops.
When filmmaker Terry Benedict read about Doss as a kid, he was fascinated.
“The story had always stayed with me and really helped set my moral compass,” says Benedict, who directed a 2004 documentary about Doss called “The Conscientious Objector.”
The filmmaker and his subject grew close as they worked on the documentary, and when Doss died in 2006 at the age of 87, Benedict remained committed to telling his story. He served as a producer on “Hacksaw Ridge” and is thrilled to finally see Doss' story hit the silver screen.
Q. Why was Desmond Doss' story an important one to tell in 2016?
A. The reason this story is still relevant today is because it's about standing up for your convictions. Too many times, when we see people go up against a major institution, like Desmond did with the military, we call them unpatriotic or question their convictions.
In today's world, compassion and unconditional service is unusual. I think we could all ask, “What would the world look like if everyone behaved like a Desmond Doss?” I think the world would be a much better place.
Q. Is that what you hope viewers take away from this movie, to think more like Doss?
A. Absolutely, because if they are touched and impacted by Desmond's story like I have been basically my whole life, you look at the world through a different lens. I think everybody has the capability to be like Desmond, but it's a matter of accepting and embracing the way he took care of his fellow man. If we were all willing to do the same, we could impact and change the world in a very positive way.
Q. You were the only person on the set of “Hacksaw Ridge” who knew Doss. How did you make sure they got his character right?
A. Mel Gibson was great about this and one of the first things he did was have the cast and crew watch the documentary. When I got to the set, they had all seen it and were incredibly appreciative of Desmond's story. They were all working toward the same end, and that's why the film's having a huge impact on people. Some are even saying it's making them take another look at the way they're living their lives.
Q. There are some intense battle scenes in “Hacksaw Ridge.” What kind of preparation went into that? Did you work with military consultants?
A. The actors went through a mini boot camp so they could become more educated and feel more comfortable in these roles. There were advisers, but Mel certainly brought a lot of experience.
Everything in this film is deliberate. One of the veterans I took back to the site in the documentary said, “It was simply a case of kill or be killed.” That's why you see hand-to-hand combat in the film. When people think about World War II, that might not come to mind. But on that ridge, people were in each other's faces.
Q. You helped Andrew Garfield, the American-British actor who plays Doss and starred in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” prep for his role. How'd you help him do that?
A. Andrew wanted to crawl into Desmond's skin, so one of the first places I took him was to Desmond's gravesite in a national cemetery in Tennessee. Then I took him to some of Desmond's favorite spots where he grew up in Lynchburg, Va., and to the place where he spent his adult life.
Because I had such an intimate relationship with Desmond, it gave Andrew a chance to just ask whatever questions came to mind about him. He was able to utilize me as a resource to give him the best possible frame of reference because he wanted to be able to honor Desmond.
Q. The movie has gotten standing ovations at numerous premieres. How are veterans responding to it?
A. Having worked with the veteran community now since the beginning of my journey with Desmond, it has always moved me to see how they react. Most of them say it's one of the most realistic portrayals of battle they've seen. To them, it hit on both the total lack of humanity they experienced on the battlefield and the amazing acts of heroism.
The veteran reaction was important to us because we wanted to get it right. To have their support now is very gratifying. It's an honor to have the chance to tell their story and share it with the world.
Q. With just 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform today, how do you hope this movie helps bridge the gap between the civilian and military communities?
A. There can definitely be a disconnect, especially with the perception of the way wars are fought today. I think people forget that it's not all drones and aerial warfare. When you're on that battlefield, it's like nothing else.
We can't afford to forget our combat veterans' stories. That's why I hope “Hacksaw” will stay in our library of films that are pivotal to protecting important moments in time so we don't forget.
Q. What will you remember most about Doss?
A. He was just a simple man not only standing up for his beliefs, but putting them into practice in a way that saved people's lives. That included those who were abusive toward him or didn't understand him.
It's a great reminder that we shouldn't judge people, and that we should have a little more faith in people's beliefs - even if they're based on something we might not understand.