The History Behind Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge

When the Oscar nominations were announced today, Hacksaw Ridge  — about Adventist World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss  — landed six. The film has been nominated for best picture and Mel Gibson for best director. Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, got a best actor nomination. The film also has nominations for film editing, sound mixing and sound editing. Last month, retired U.S. Army colonel Charles Knapp, chair of the Desmond Doss Council, talked to Spectrum about how the movie got made. He explained the stringent agreement Mel Gibson and the producers signed up to, promising to stick to the facts of Desmond Doss's life and describe his faith accurately.

You are chair of the Desmond Doss Council. What is that?

The Desmond Doss Council has been in existence since 2000. It was formed specifically at the request of Desmond Doss when he was arranging to have his estate taken care of upon his death. [Desmond Doss died in 2006.] Because he was a public figure and Medal of Honour recipient, one of the elements of that estate was the intellectual property rights to his story. 

The idea of creating a documentary about Desmond Doss was discussed for a long time. But Doss had very specific requirements that he wanted any documentary to adhere to. He actually had signed agreements on at least two, and maybe three, occasions in the 1970s and early 1980s with production companies and directors to make a story, but he backed out of those agreements because of fictionalization and dramatic license writers wanted to take that he did not agree to. One of his requirements was that the story be told factually and truthfully as much as possible. 

To do this, the Georgia-Cumberland Conference formed the Desmond Doss Council as a nonprofit charter, started with about 15 members. Now we have 11 members and 15 to 20 consultants who advise us in highly specialized areas. I joined the Council soon after. The Council was formed specifically to explore the possibility of making a documentary. 

After interviewing a number of directors and producers, Terry Benedict was hired. All the money for the production was raised by the Council, and the rights to the film belong to the Council. 

Terry did a really good job and produced a very well-received documentary, called The Conscientious Objector, that earned him several awards when it was premiered in 2004 at the Cinequest Film Festival in California. The film has been in distribution since, and the Council has been involved primarily for many years in just making certain that his other intellectual properties — memorabilia and collections — were assembled, properly archived, and preserved.

The mission of the Desmond Doss Council is very precise: to preserve, protect, and manage the Doss life story, his intellectual property, collections, and memorabilia. We own/hold copyrights on most of the materials that are published with one exception: the Frances Doss (his second wife) book that is currently available from Pacific Press.

The Doss collections are extensive, with the major portion of his collection housed in the heritage room of the Loma Linda University library. Though Doss died in 2006, the collection is still not fully digitized. There are filing cabinets full of things, available for researchers. There are significant pieces of correspondence, including some that he wrote, invitations to him, and hundreds of photographs. Anyone can access the best of these at desmonddoss.com

In 1967, a Desmond Doss biography, The Unlikeliest Hero, was written by Booton Herndon. It is now now out of print. The Herndon book and Terry Benedict’s documentary form the basis for Robert Schenkkan’s script for Hacksaw Ridge.

We have republished the book, and it came off the presses a few weeks ago. We hired an accomplished book editor, expanded the original book, tripled the number of pictures, fact checked everything, and added a new forward and new epilogue. We retitled it Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge. It has already sold some 30,000 or 40,000 copies and five or six foreign language licenses.

Did you think it was important to have another film about Doss?

The documentary is a completely different film than Hacksaw Ridge. It is the back story. Terry Benedict was able to find half a dozen men who had served with Doss or whose lives Doss had saved. They tell the story, and it is very poignant. It even made it to the final ten out of 300 for the Oscar that year. (March of the Penguins won.)

We have just completed a remastering of the documentary. It was filmed in high definition, but we did not have the money to release it in high definition at the time. Now we have gone back and cleaned up the color. It really sparkles. 

Do you expect Oscar nominations?

I will just say that the critics continue to laud Hacksaw Ridge. It is being called one of the best war movies ever produced. It got a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes after the first weekend. When it was shown to the Academy, [director] Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield [who played Desmond Doss] both received standing ovations. The movie got a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival where it had its international premiere. I was with the cast and producers and Mel Gibson when it was shown at the World War II museum in New Orleans, where again it got a standing ovation. We are hopeful. 

Doss's Adventist faith is positively portrayed in Hacksaw Ridge. Did Mel Gibson and the other makers of the film agree to that kind of portrayal beforehand? How much influence did the Desmond Doss Council over the final cut?

The making of Hacksaw Ridge was a long process. We started with Terry Benedict’s assistance. We approached Bill Mechanic at Pandemonium Films (he used to be president of 20th Century Fox) and spent almost a year-and-a-half negotiating the rights for Desmond Doss’s life story. The reason it took so long was because of the specificity of the language about what the filmmaker could and could not do in portraying his life. 

Among the requirements were these: writers could not fictionalize the facts; Doss's beliefs had to be correctly represented; the church had to be properly represented. Basically, Bill Mechanic could not find a studio that wanted to sign such an agreement because they thought it was too religious or that  the director would not have enough leeway.

Desmond Doss knew about the rights agreement although it was not signed until after he died. Bill Mechanic began the process of developing a script, but Mel Gibson declined to direct. Then the economy went into a recession, and one of the media partners backed out of the agreement.

We had a lot of discussions with Bill Mechanic. We decided to put together another rights agreement although the requirements would be the same. Finally, in February 2015, I was sitting in Mechanic’s office, and he told me that Fox Australia was onboard and would put up the money as long as the movie was filmed in Australia. The Australians love Mel Gibson, and he eventually agreed to direct. They started shooting in September 2015 with a huge cast and crew — only a week after getting the final green light. 

I had the privilege of being on site for filming lots of the battle scenes.

I am one of two people who reviewed all the scripts. We made little tweaks or suggestions, and Mechanic passed them on to the screenwriter. Some changes were made even after the final production. Lionsgate, the U.S. distributor, began to hold  focus groups around the country, the first one at Liberty University in Virginia. I went to screenings at Southern Adventist University and Loma Linda University. Lots of people commented on the profanity — including a lot that was not even in the script. I passed those comments on to Mechanic, and it disappeared — was edited out. This helped to make the movie more acceptable to faith communities. 

I had no creative input on the movie. But I was not denied access to anyone or anything and could talk to anyone I wanted to. That is the kind of relationship we had with Bill Mechanic.There would not have been a movie without him. I could not imagine anyone better to work with.

What has Mel Gibson said about the movie?

Mel was quite changed by this story. He says he set out to make a war movie and ended up making a love story. Mel says: "We didn’t film everything that happened. People who know the story know very well what happened. I set out to chronicle the bloodiest days of World War II, but I couldn’t put it all in because people wouldn’t believe it had actually happened." 

I know that Bill Mechanic and Mel Gibson spent hours and hours together. They were both very involved in the editing. I know some scenes filmed never made it into the final movie. 

I know that everyone on the production team had either read Doss’s biography or seen the documentary — they knew the story.

What have people said about Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Desmond Doss?

He does such a good job. I have talked to Desmond Doss’s family — they say that Garfield’s portrayal is so good that they could be twin brothers.

What about the complaints of excessive violence in the film?

Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ got criticism. We do not want to see the horror of torture or the horror of war. But there is no gratuitous violence here. We talked to survivors. People in their 90s now who saw the movie say: “Yes, that is exactly the way it was.”

I personally had to make the decision, sitting in Bill Mechanic’s office. The rights agreement did not say the film had to have a PG-13 rating although that was preferred. Mel Gibson said it was going to have to be an R rating for violence. They asked me, and I said yes, and the Desmond Doss Council endorsed it.

I arranged for Adventist leaders and influencers to see it, and we hosted General Conference administrators, North American Division leaders, union and conference presidents, before the film was officially released on November 4. We showed Hacksaw Ridge to 640 invited attendees in my local theatre. Well over 10,000 attended screenings in Adventist buyouts across the country. It was an incredible witnessing opportunity, exactly as we had hoped. 

The message of the film is powerful. During the production of the film, writing of the script, adapting, and shooting, I probably mentioned a half dozen times to Mr Mechanic: “Please don’t let the film preach, teach, judge, or moralize.” And it does not. It lets the story be told, and people will come away from the theater either liking or not liking the film. But that is not important. It is not a film they will soon forget. It will start lots of conversations about faith, personal conscience, bullying, and redemption. The guy who bullied Doss dies in his arms on the battlefield. And there is a redemption scene between Doss and his father. It is that theme of redemption that goes all through the film. 

I have watched Hacksaw Ridge with top military brass, leaders of Veterans Associations, the American Legion, and military chaplains. They say the movie is a poster child for PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. The film does not use the word, but you can see acute PTSD on the screen. This makes Desmond’s character stand out.

It is graphic; there is no question. But it would not have the same impact if it did not show what the fighting was like. The American public needs to understand that war is hell.

I am a 30-year veteran. I am a doctor. I was in Operation Desert Storm and in Vietnam. 

This movie shows what these guys went through, just like it was. 

Did Desmond Doss really enlist as a conscientious objector or was he drafted?

Many people have said that Desmond was drafted — that seems to have become a myth in church lore. But the facts are that Desmond qualified with his draft board to be a conscientious objector. Then Desmond went down to the recruiter and said he had conscientious objector status. Recruiters are like salesmen — they promise whatever you want to hear. So Desmond enlisted, but he was naive. His draft certification as a conscientious objector did not follow him, and he was assigned to a rifle company. He told them that he had enlisted as a medic. But the army just does what it does. This is correctly portrayed in the movie. Desmond went through stuff he would not have had to go through if he had just waited to be drafted. 

Was this a film that could really only be made after Doss's death? Or would he have liked to see it?

Yes, he would have liked to see it. Desmond’s son says that his father would be very happy with the accuracy of the film. That means we have done our job. We tried to be faithful.

I am not certain that Desmond ever went to a movie, but yes, he would have gone to this one. 

Is Hacksaw Ridge nothing but positive for the Adventist Church today? Any negatives?

The church does not endorse seeing the film, but that actually puts the church in a bit of quandary. This film is probably the most effective, evocative witnessing opportunity and experience that the church has ever had in its history. Over a million documents the Desmond Doss Council have made available have been shared already. 

I did some interviews with John Bradshaw of It is Written, filmed at some of the sites that feature the Doss exploits, including the escarpment where the major battle was fought. Every church in America has received those interviews on a DVD, underwritten by the Desmond Doss Council. Bradshaw also wrote a little booklet called The Faith of Desmond Doss. 

This is not preaching or traditional evangelism, but it is getting people to talk about the themes in the film. 

I do not see any negatives personally, and I am very sensitive to them! Adventists all over Europe and Asia are getting very positive feedback.

Despite the rise of the religious right in America, the idea of a conscientious objector is not big in the public imagination these days as gun ownership is at its highest ever and many citizens sport "God and Guns" bumper stickers. How does the message of this movie speak to U.S. politics in 2016?

We have to remember that non-combatancy is not a test of faith. One is not subject to judgement from church. It is like vegetarianism: a personal choice. But young people have to understand the circumstances. If you go into service in any country, and then later decide you do not want to complete your duties, that can be a problem.

Doss was a patriot. He bristled when people called him a conscientious objector because that is someone who refuses to participate in military duties or anything that supports military duties. And that was not him. He called himself a “conscientious cooperator.” Unfortunately, there is no such official classification. 

I was a military commander for 11 years.  I had Adventists, Muslims, Mormons, Catholics — all types of beliefs  — under my command.

People have to remember that when you enlist, you volunteer — that means the military owns you. If you have an objection of conscience, it needs to be developed. Unfortunately ,a typical 18-year-old has not given it that much thought.

Today a person who enlists can enlist for an an occupational speciality: cook, electrician, whatever. But you cannot wait until after boot camp to decide.

All the laws and rules are in place so that if the president sees a national emergency, the draft can be reinstated. And the status of conscientious objector still exists. When a young person registers, he/she can register as a conscientious objector under a variety of classifications which kick in if he/she is drafted. But if he/she enlists, those classifications are not available. How one will serve is the prerogative of the commanding officer, who will look at how it affects accomplishment of mission and cohesiveness of group.

There are thousands of Adventist men and women in uniform now. 

What is next? How can you and the Council continue to keep Doss's legend alive? What other projects might be in the works? What doors has Hacksaw Ridge opened for you?

I have already gotten an invitation to the Oscars!

Now the Desmond Doss Council is looking for the best way of maximizing the distribution of the documentary. We have done the book. The focus in the next year will be establishing the strategy for the promotion of Doss’s legacy.

Two Pathfinder badges are under development at our request. 

We are working with the Medal of Honor Society for a major push on the legacy. I am visiting military colleges — many of them use the Doss story to teach character to senior officers: integrity, loyalty, fidelity, and selflessness.  The movie Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates these characteristics.


Dr. Charles Knapp is chair of the Desmond Doss Council. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in the military for 29 years, including in the Middle East and Vietnam. He is a medical doctor who holds many additional degrees and certifications. 

Title photo: Desmond Doss on Okinawa. Courtesy of the Desmond Doss Council.

Hacksaw Ridge will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray on February 21. The Digital HD release is February 7.

 

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