The producer promised to put God first and Hollywood second
by MATTHEW GAULT
Hacksaw Ridge blasted into theaters and took audiences by surprise. The story of World War II Army medic Desmond Doss saving the lives of 75 men achieved something rare. It’s a hyper violent, heavily religious story that uses the gory effects of an exploitation film and the straight-forward lessons of Sunday school to make an incredible movie.
That it manages to earn its R rating without condescending to its Christian roots is a testament to director Mel Gibson.
It’s also by design. Hacksaw Ridge languished in development hell for decades while producer, documentary filmmaker and friend of the subject Terry Benedict fought to preserve the integrity of Doss’ story in the face of Hollywood’s desire to water it down.
I caught up with Benedict the day he flew out to Los Angeles for the Oscars. We spoke on the phone and he explained to me how he got the story made and how he kept a 20 year old promise to the man who inspired the movie.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on Benedict’s 2004 documentary Conscientious Objector. It tells the story of Doss — a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry a weapon yet went on to receive the Medal of Honor. In the span of 12 hours, he pulled 75 wounded American soldiers off a ridge in Okinawa, Japan.
It’s a story Benedict has known almost his entire life.
“I first read his story when I was 10 years old,” Benedict said. “I grew up without a television because my parents didn’t want us to be unduly influenced. So we had to figure out something to do, so I read a lot. Like a lot of boys, I was attracted to war stories … so I read a lot of World War II books.”
Benedict first learned about Doss in The Unlikeliest Hero, a pulpy boy’s-own-adventure version of Doss’ service published in 1964. “It was this amazing story of a guy who wouldn’t carry a gun [and] wouldn’t work on his Sabbath day,” he said. “The guys hated him and then he ended up saving them up on this cliff called Hacksaw Ridge … 75 of them who were wounded.”
Even little Terry had trouble believing it. “I was just trying to wrap my little brain around that idea. How could that happen? How could he actually let down, physically, all these men with a rope. Especially in a 12 hour period? That’s a one-every-10-minutes kind of thing.”
Just two years later, a young Benedict met Doss at a church summer camp. At 12, Benedict found one of his heroes to be even more impressive than the story. That’s rare.
“Here he was,” Benedict said. “This slightly built, humble man who weighed about 150, 155 pounds — what he weighed during the war. He just had this authentic passion for teaching kids a moral compass and wanting them to know it would be great if they had … a faith that they could count on through thick and thin like he did.”
The meeting never left Benedict. It shaped the way he looked at life and faith. He reconnected with Doss at a Medal of Honor reunion in the late ’90s and started to push for the former medic to talk about his extraordinary life on camera.
“That’s where my relationship started with him in earnest. I wanted to do a documentary. He had said no to everybody since 1945. He was worried about him being glorified and he wanted that to go to God. He was concerned his character might be compromised, spiced up like Hollywood likes to do.”
It took Benedict years to convince Doss to let him make the documentary. Finally, he made a promise that eased Doss’ mind. “One day we were standing outside a grocery store in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I told him, ‘Listen, I know you’re really concerned about this, but here’s the promise I can make to you — I’ll answer to God first, you second and everybody else can get in line.’”
“He got a big grin and laughed and said, ‘OK, you can do it.’”
Benedict’s ultimate goal was a major motion picture, but he knew he needed to make the documentary first because, “his Medal of Honor citation reads like a big fish story.” He’s right, the two-page paper describing Doss’ feats on the battlefield seems like the ramblings of an old-timer embellishing the past to get people to listen. But it’s true.
“I used to joke around with him, saying, ‘Look, you’re not going to live forever.’ And he’d throw his shoulders back and say, ‘What? What do you mean?’ and I’d say, ‘Your sands of time are getting pretty thin and nobody’s going to believe this story. We need to do a documentary and find whoever’s left who actually spent time with you in the war.’”
And they did. Benedict spent four years tracking down people who had survived the war and remember Doss’ heroics. The film did well enough in the festival circuit to attract Hollywood producers and get the ball rolling on a Hollywood movie. He hooked up with former 20th Century Fox head Bill Mechanic who shepherded the project through a decade of development hell.
Mechanic wanted Mel Gibson to direct the movie, but Gibson kept turning them down. Once Andrew Garfield signed on to play Doss, Gibson finally relented and agreed to direct. It was a great choice. Few people could have handled both the extreme violence and extreme faith of the story.
I asked Benedict if either had ever been a problem in pre-production. Surprisingly, Hollywood had more problems with the violence than it did the faith.
“There was this chatter about PG-13 versus R,” Benedict said. “The thing about Desmond’s story is that it’s about a medic. A medic’s job is to clean up the carnage that happens to a human body on the battlefield. There’s not a great way to sanitize that and still have it be believable.”
“Mel threaded a very tiny needle of making the film as graphic as it needed to be without being gratuitous. [The violence put into] context the heroics that Desmond went through. The things he did up on that ridge are unexplainable. That brings in the faith aspect of the story. There’s no denying that something very special, something miraculous, happened. There’s no way a 155 pound soldier could lower 75 men down in 12 hours on a rope and live to tell about it.”
Along with Gibson, Benedict also praised Garfield’s performance. Benedict knew Doss well and he thinks the British actor nailed it. “Before filming started, I brought him to Chattanooga and we spent time together. I took him to where Desmond had lived his whole adult life on Lookout Mountain and we did a roadtrip up to Lynchburg, Virginia where Desmond grew up,” Benedict said.
“I was able to transfer a lot of information to Andrew,” he continued. “Not just the accent and the gestures and the nuances, that was all really important, but there were a lot of things that don’t show up in the documentary that had to do with Desmond’s way of thinking. His ideas and philosophies and how he would react to different things in life, whether it was taking out the garbage or something more important.”
“[Garfield was] absolutely confident in being able to unpeel Desmond’s onion. He showed the various layers and depths. Desmond wasn’t just a simplistic, simple minded man. He had reasons for his beliefs and they were all very sound reasons if we don’t agree with them. If you watch the documentary and then you watch Hacksaw, you will see such an uncanny, seamless performance between the real Desmond and the performance that Andrew laid.”
Garfield is great in the movie, but I found myself drawn to Hugo Weaving’s depiction as Doss’ hard-drinking and battle-scarred father. The relationship between Doss and his father is so complex and toxic, but the movie handles it with grace and nuance. It was surprising and I wanted to know how true to life the move dad was compared to Doss’ real father.
“He definitely was a drinker and he was very very tough on the boys. Very hard on them,” Benedict said. “There was some poetic license taken in terms of the things that happened. But the point that needed to get made about Desmond’s father was that the boys grew up in a very tough home. It was a very difficult relationship. Desmond’s inspiration and core parenting came from his mother.”
“His mother was able to imbue in him and instill in him that in order to have a proper relationship with God and serve God, you had to be able to altruistically love and serve your fellow man,” Benedict continued. “She was able to do that and accomplish that with Desmond. That’s why everyone was so shocked and surprised at what happened on that battlefield. He was just doing what came naturally.”
Faith is the bedrock of Hacksaw Ridge. Doss is a man who had a conviction and stuck to it through the absolute worst. Again, Benedict praised Gibson for helping him keep his promise to Doss to put God first and the man second.
“Mel had the sensitivity,” he said. “And being a faith-based person himself understood the faith-based implications of the story and what that meant if you started to compromise on those things. We were in really good hands with Mel.”
For Benedict and many others, Doss’ faith is the most amazing part of the story — both that he held onto it during the worst of times, and that he was able to bend the will of the U.S. Army. “One of the biggest things that came out of Desmond’s story … was that it helped the military community understand that just doing the cookie-cutter thing is not always the best thing,” Benedict said.
“It’s important, but having somebody that believes a little bit differently doesn’t necessarily doom them to be the weakest link in the chain. He turned out to be the biggest and strongest link in their chain. Especially at Hacksaw.”
“We live in a world where everyone is so quick to judge everyone else based on how they measure up to ourselves. We obliterate, too often, tolerance for somebody thinking and doing a little differently than you. Maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe they are bringing something really great to the table. Maybe I should pay attention to this. That’s why I think this story is relevant today.”
For Benedict, that’s the ultimate message of Hacksaw Ridge and Doss’ life — service to others glorifies God and makes the world a better place.
“The one thing that was super important to [Doss] was that he wanted everybody to know, that even though we go through trials and tribulations in life — the good, bad and ugly — that living a faith walk and having a belief in God, could and would always carry the day.”
“What would the world be like if everyone behaved like Desmond?” Benedict asked as our conversation wound down. “Serving each other first before serving ourselves. I think we all know what the real true answer is, not the alternative truth. Desmond’s role model is so needed today. If we all behaved like Desmond and served others before we served ourselves the world would be a better place.”