The Seventh-day Adventist faith will be making one of its rare forays into popular culture on November 4, when the new feature film Hacksaw Ridge opens in theaters everywhere. The movie tells the story of Adventist Desmond Doss, a World War II soldier who served as a medic and refused to carry a weapon as a matter of conscience. Doss showed stunning heroism in the war, saving 75 men in one battle while under intense fire and having no way to defend himself – and he deservedly received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.
As an Adventist Peace Church, we at Manhattan’s Church of the Advent Hope use our Peace Ministry to facilitate conversations on social justice issues, so we feel that the release of Hacksaw Ridge offers a great opportunity to address the challenges that Doss and other would-be healers and helpers face in a violent world. So prior to the movie’s release, we decided to do a screening of an earlier film about Doss, the documentary The Conscientious Objector. Although it doesn’t have the star power and recreated battle scenes of its counterpart, this movie gets to the heart of Doss’s story, which is one of unshakable belief in a personal duty to save lives, even as others are taking them.
The Conscientious Cooperator
Released in 2004 by director/producer Terry Benedict (who is also a producer on Hacksaw Ridge), The Conscientious Objector features Doss himself telling his story, from his home in Georgia and even on location in places ranging from training grounds in Arizona to the Maeda Escarpment (known as Hacksaw Ridge) in Japan. The film starts out relaying anecdotes of the young Doss that reveal his developing character. For instance, the horror of the Cain and Abel story, contemplated side by side with the biblical commandment not to kill, convinced him at an early age that he would never use a weapon to hurt another person. A story about how the young man walked six miles roundtrip (twice!) to donate blood after hearing about a nearby accident on the radio foreshadowed that he had the makings of a battlefield rescuer.
When World War II broke out, Doss was determined to serve as a medic, but the army did not make it easy. The movie details his many skirmishes with superiors who did not appreciate his refusal to touch or carry a weapon. Doss disliked the designation of a “conscientious objector,” the status that ultimately allowed him to serve without a gun – he preferred to think of himself as a “conscientious cooperator.” The military didn’t always see it that way. His insistence on keeping the Sabbath made him an even bigger “pest,” as another soldier put it. Once shipped to Okinawa, though, Doss had the chance to demonstrate his faith in action, fearlessly risking his life by tending to the injured and dragging them to safety under enemy fire.
The film uses some harrowing images and video footage that illustrates what Doss and his fellow soldiers were up against in battle, but The Conscientious Objector most movingly recreates the war through testimony. Benedict tracked down a number of men that Doss served with, and their vivid remembrances are deeply affecting. They provide some really honest talk about the complex moral calculations soldiers must often make and share experiences that continued to haunt their dreams years later.
Directing Desmond Doss
We were thrilled to be able to welcome Terry Benedict as a guest to Advent Hope for the screening. After the audience finished watching the film, Lincoln Alabaster (who hosts our church’s faith and film podcast, "Evidence of Things Screened") conducted an illuminating interview with Benedict, who described his early fascination with Desmond Doss. When, years later, he was able to convince Doss to tell his tale on film, Benedict discovered that decades of talks and presentations meant that he was used to telling it by rote. The director had to employ all his skills (including literally shaking the old war hero by the lapels) to get him to relate it in a fresh and authentic way. His efforts were well worth it.
Although Doss’s story hearkens to a time when many Adventists took a stand as conscientious objectors and non-combatants, Benedict’s aim with his documentary – and now with Hacksaw Ridge – is not so much about promoting Doss’s particular stand as it is about encouraging viewers to consider their own beliefs. He hopes viewers will be inspired to think about their own core values and ask difficult questions about where they are (and are not) willing to compromise themselves. Ultimately, he would like to know that people have been changed by Desmond Doss’s story, just as he was.
Continuing the Conversation
On November 5, Church of the Advent Hope will be welcoming Adventist Peace Fellowship co-founder Ron Osborn to preach during our morning services then lead a discussion on how we can practice peacemaking in our daily lives in the afternoon. That evening, we will meet at a movie theater to view Hacksaw Ridge and see how Hollywood handles Doss’s incredible true story. Join us for our next Peace Ministry meeting on November 12, when we will continue the discussion. And be on the lookout for the next episode of "Evidence of Things Screened," which will feature more from director Terry Benedict.
Brooke Pierce studied Dramatic Writing at NYU and works as a freelance writer/editor in New York City. She serves as the Communications Coordinator at Church of the Advent Hope and is actively involved in the church’s Peace Ministry.
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