The True Story Behind the Hero of 'Hacksaw Ridge'

Mel Gibson's latest film centers on war hero Desmond Doss who saved 75 men in WWII. Here's his story from a man who knew him. 

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- Posted on Nov 2, 2016

Andrew Garfield in "Hacksaw Ridge"

The new critically acclaimed film Hacksaw Ridge tells the incredible true story of World War II hero Desmond Doss, who saved lives without ever firing a gun. Directed by Mel Gibson, the film stars Andrew Garfield as Doss. It's the latest film from producer and documentary filmmaker Terry Benedict.

Benedict was just 10 years old when he first read about Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist and a conscientious objector to the war. Although his principles kept him from using a weapon, Doss voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army out of a sense of duty to serve.  Doss saved 75 men in one of the bloodiest battles with Japan and became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

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When Benedict was a child, Doss spoke at his church camp. “He was unlike any hero I had been reading about,” Benedict tells Guideposts.org.

“He was telling his story and we were just sitting there mesmerized,” Benedict says. “He was a very humble man and very understated, yet he exuded a lot of love.”

Doss’s courage stayed with Benedict, and after Benedict became a successful filmmaker, he approached Doss about telling his story.

Hollywood had been knocking on Doss’s door for 60 years, but Doss wasn’t interested.

“He wanted all the honor and the glory to go to God,” the producer explains. Benedict was insistent on making a documentary about Doss’s life. “So I told him, ‘Look, your story only works if we keep true to the purity of it. Otherwise it’s just another war story and who cares?’”

Doss finally agreed, and Benedict spent the next 3 and a half years interviewing Doss and his fellow soldiers for the award-winning documentary The Conscientious Objector.

While often labeled a conscientious objector and a pacifist, Doss said he was neither of those things.

“He volunteered, he wanted to go to war, he wanted to support the war effort,” Benedict argues. “That’s why when people threw that label at him he said, ‘No, I’m a conscientious cooperator. I want to be here. I want to help.’”

The term "conscientious objector" is one the military used to describe Doss, so that is why it was used in the documentary.

During the making of the documentary, Doss became something of a surrogate grandfather to Benedict. Doss passed away in 2006 at 87.

Not long after the documentary film's debut, Benedict met with then-20th Century Fox president Bill Mechanic. The two wanted to make Doss's story into a feature film.

“I just felt like his story could be of great value to humanity,” Benedict says.

When Gibson signed on to direct, Benedict knew the film was in capable hands.

“He understood the importance of the story and the necessity to protect the essence of Desmond’s character,” the producer says of Gibson.

Benedict worked closely with Gibson, sharing his knowledge of Doss with the director and with Garfield who was charged with playing the remarkable young man.

The producer took Garfield on a road trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee where Doss lived most of his adult life.

“He wanted to find any way possible to create an honorable performance, to make Desmond proud,” he says of Garfield’s commitment to the role.

Doss’s devotion to his fellow soldiers plays out in harrowing detail in Hacksaw Ridge. In a hard fought battle in Okinawa, Doss lowers 75 wounded men 100 feet down a cliff to safety.

While his peers traded bullets with the enemy, Doss fearlessly ran into the fray, tying tourniquets, hauling men on stretchers, administering morphine and offering encouragement to the troops.

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He did this again and again, praying to God to just help him “get one more” as he ventured into enemy territory to rescue friends and lower them down the cliff to safety. Even when the rest of his regiment abandoned the battlefield, Doss remained, searching for survivors, bloodying his hands and straining his tired body to get as many of his men home as he physically could.

“He told me it felt like he was having a nervous breakdown,” Benedict says when describing that experience. “He was totally exhausted. He had no gas left in the tank. He was hanging on by a thread with his faith and trusting that God was going to get him through the day and to me, that’s the most inspirational part of his story. Whether you’re a believer or not, there are spiritual options available and there are ways for us to live a good life and to serve others. Those are some of the principles Desmond wanted to share with people.”

Benedict thinks the timing of Doss’ story may be even more powerful than its message. Hacksaw Ridge opens against Marvel’s superhero flick Dr. Strange. In a time when comic book movies are a dime a dozen, the producer think Doss’ real-life tale makes even more of an impact.

“Desmond was a hero,” Benedict says. “You could make the case that he was a superhero. God empowered him in ways that we still can’t comprehend. It’s physically impossible to have done what he did without some sort of miraculous help.”

He hopes his film makes his friend proud, and makes an impact on those who see it.

“[Desmond] was just a very consistent man of faith. He was a rock,” Benedict says. “He was the same in war. He was the same all the way up until the day he died. That, to me, made his story all the more worth telling.” 

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