Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson’s Tale of a Most Extraordinary Soldier

HACKSAW RIDGE, nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Film, Director and Actor, is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When the order came to retreat, one man stayed

In the Spring of 1945 – as the war in the Pacific entered its final, most deadly days, and U.S. forces in Okinawa encountered some of the most ferocious fighting ever witnessed – a single soldier stood out from the rest. This was Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector, who despite vowing to never kill, served boldly as an unarmed medic in the infantry … and went on to single-handedly save the lives of dozens of his fallen fellow soldiers under lethal fire without firing a single bullet.

An unwavering Seventh Day Adventist, Doss was living in Virginia when he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army. He had no interest in fighting, but rather Doss wanted to serve as a “non- combatant” medic. It was not a path with which the military was familiar, but Doss persisted. Skinny, vegetarian and unwilling to train on Saturdays let alone carry a gun, Doss was initially ridiculed and abused by his compatriots – who, convinced he would be a dangerous liability in the foxholes with them, tried every which way they could to drive him out of the army. But Doss persisted all the way to Okinawa, where his unit was ordered to take part in the near-impossible capture of the massive Maeda Escarpment – aka Hacksaw Ridge. Atop this steep, looming 400-foot cliff lay heavily fortified machine- gun nests, booby traps and Japanese soldiers in caves who vowed to fight to the end.

It was there that Doss demonstrated that he was made not only of principle but also rare courage. Facing a desperate assault of heavy fire, Doss refused to seek cover. When his battalion was ordered to retreat, he alone remained behind and ran repeatedly into the kill zone, with nothing but his convictions, to drag to safety an estimated 75 badly injured men who were destined to die had he not intervened.

Doss would go on to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman in October of 1945, with a citation that drew attention to “outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions.” It was then that the journey to bring Doss’s story to the screen began. Those who heard what Doss had achieved and understood how unusual it was (there have since been only two other conscientious objectors awarded the Medal of Honor) immediately saw that that it was a potent and provocative story. But it would be another half century before it became a reality – in part because Doss chose to lead a quiet, humble life without the notoriety a film would bring.

Mel Gibson Takes the Helm

But now with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (Kentucky Cycle, All the Way) and Australian writer Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner), as well as a highly accomplished team led by Academy Award®-winning director Mel Gibson, Doss’s unsung story would at last be told as only 21st century filmmaking could. It would be not only a story of what men endured on Okinawa, but of the loved ones back home who shaped and bolstered Desmond Doss’s belief.

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Producer Bill Mechanic, explains: “Desmond never wanted to sell his life rights, he didn’t want to popularize himself, feeling that that would be a contradiction to who he was. It wasn’t until late in his life that people convinced him that it was time to tell the story so that it would live on.”

Doss passed away at the age of 87 in March 2006. Several years before that, filmmaker Terry Benedict had received his blessing to begin producing a documentary about Doss, “The Conscientious Objector,” and secured the life rights to his story. Feeling the time was also right to explore bringing Doss’s story to motion picture audiences as a multi-layered drama, Benedict approached producer David Permut.

Permut says “For the most part, Desmond has been a forgotten hero by the general public and I’m very proud that we had the opportunity to immortalize his legend in a film that presents a truly unique perspective of war, conviction and a man who stands by his beliefs at all costs.”

Permut approached Mechanic, who was thrilled to become involved in the film.

Mechanic says: “I always saw this story as being about a man who has very strong beliefs – which are then tested in an absolute hell that he comes out of even stronger.”

In search of a screenwriter who could navigate all the historical, biographical and spiritual territory of Desmond Doss’s story, producers David Permut and Bill Mechanic hired Robert Schenkkan— who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his Kentucky Cycle plays, an epic story of Western history and mythology told through the intersecting stories of three Kentucky families. In 2014, Shenkkan won the Outstanding Play Tony Award® for All The Way, as well as numerous other awards, for its mesmerizing take on President Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. Schenkkan’s passion for humanizing large historical events seemed a unique match with the material.

It was certainly not a story that lent itself to a conventional structure – combining seemingly disparate elements of romance, family struggles, probing of faith and the brutal realities of war. But by utilizing Doss’s own verbal accounts of what happened, and accounts from Army records, Schenkkan honed in on exploring how Doss’s steadfast belief that it was wrong to kill, even in a war he believed was just, emerged.

Mechanic explains: “We both felt you have to understand where Desmond comes from to understand the decisions he makes. We discussed at one point starting in Okinawa, but it was just too important to explain the impact of Doss’s parents, of his meeting his wife Dorothy, and the formation of his rudimentary belief system as a young man.”

Schenkkan played with some of the early chronology to craft a tight structure. He carved secondary characters from amalgams of real people, and streamlined events from Doss’s early life. But when it came to Doss’s incredible feats on HACKSAW RIDGE, the screenplay hewed as close to the factual record as possible. That meant the film needed a director who could both expose the intimate inner life of the Doss family and also re-create the epic combat in Okinawa with a mesmerizing realism.

That specific combination is why Mechanic began doggedly pursuing Mel Gibson. With films that span from the classic, Academy Award® Best Picture-winning Braveheart to The Patriot, We Were Soldiers, The Passion of the Christ and his most recently directed film, the Mayan civilization epic APOCALYPTO, Gibson has become known for meshing big themes with atmospheric style that takes audiences into revealing worlds. Mechanic had previously worked with Gibson on Braveheart and has watched as Gibson has continued to expand creatively.

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“I first sent Mel the script for HACKSAW RIDGE in 2002, and in 2010, and then again in 2014,” recalls Mechanic. “His people had read it earlier, but up until the third time I sent it, Mel had been more interested in directing projects that he’d developed himself. In 2014, he read it overnight and by the morning he was essentially in.”

For Mechanic, Gibson was always the ultimate choice. “HACKSAW RIDGE felt to me almost like a companion piece to Braveheart,” comments the producer. “It pulls together the same themes of faith, violence and war, though it’s a very different story about a man from a very different time and background. To me, what also sets Mel apart as a contemporary filmmaker is how experiential his filmmaking is, how visceral the storytelling is in his films. He’s become a consummate director. He’s equally great with characters, with actors, with the camera and the editing process and with giving audiences a new experience.”

Gibson saw in HACKSAW RIDGE a chance to bring into the light a forgotten hero – and he was drawn to Desmond Doss as man who determined to find a way to live by the values that meant everything to him, even when they seemed in conflict with the whole world around him.

Says Gibson: “Desmond Doss abhorred violence, it was against his principles, his religious beliefs, but he wanted to serve his country in World War II as a medic. How does somebody go into the worst place on earth without a weapon? It was all the more compelling to me, because it was a true story, and I thought I could bring my visual language to it.”

Gibson notes that Doss never called himself a conscientious objector. That was the army’s term. Instead, he called himself a “conscientious co-operator,” believing with unflagging tenacity that he had plenty to contribute without having to kill other human beings.

“He was a co-operator in the sense that he passionately wanted to join the war effort, but he wanted to enter it as someone aiming not to take life but to save it,” says Gibson. “Still, you have to ask, what kind of madman goes into that kind of a conflagration seen on Okinawa without being armed? Doss defied what anyone could have expected from that situation. Somebody mentioned to me that the Congressional Medal of Honor is usually given to people who have a singular moment where they make a snap decision and do one heroic thing. One of the things that stood out to me about Desmond is that in Okinawa, this guy was heroic 24/7, for a whole month. He took heroism to another level not often seen.”

“Once Gibson came aboard, we brought on Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) to help build upon the incredible screenplay that Schenkkan had written several years earlier,” says Mechanic.

Gibson looked to weight the balance between the home-front – where Desmond became the man he was – and the battlefield – where Desmond had to put his beliefs into action amid utter frenzy. “The first part of the film is a story of Desmond coming to grips with the difficult relationship with his father and his father’s demons, and of finding his true love, who keeps him thinking of home,” says the director.

Mechanic notes that when it came to the battle sequences, Gibson zeroed right in on the most essential and creative details. “Mel has such an eye for war action, I feel he was the real creator of all the battle sequences, regardless of who wrote the scenes,” says the producer.

Yet even in the most frenetic action, Gibson wanted the humanity of the character to hold sway. He says of the battle sequences: “The important part was to give you the sense that this is the worst place anyone has ever seen, which it was for these men. And here’s Desmond, this guy you’ve hopefully come to know and to love, thrown into this terrible place where he will finally see how measures up to the standards he has set for himself.”

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss

Finding the actor who could encapsulate the distinctive man who was Desmond  Doss – humble, comedically romantic, peaceful yet full of unexpected depths of bravery — would be key.

Bill Mechanic explains: “It was 14 years for me making the film, so I looked at many actors over that time to play Desmond Doss. He’s a difficult character to portray because he’s so inward, he’s not going to explain himself a lot of times in the movie, so it had to be somebody who could inhabit his persona so fully that you could see who he was.

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Mechanic knew that physicality was not the heart of the role, although it would take the lead actor into searing action. “Even if he was a Superman with a body built like The Rock, you still wouldn’t believe that a person still could do what Desmond did,” the producer muses. “It would take something else to believe in Desmond and that’s what Andrew Garfield brought.”

The Golden Globe® and Tony Award®-nominated actor known for his roles as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spiderman and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, immediately jumped at the role.

“There wasn’t any hesitation when I read the script” says Garfield. “I think it’s rare in this world to have someone like Desmond, who is so tuned into themselves, so tuned into what that still, small voice inside is saying, that no matter what is thrown at them, they know what they can do, and what they will not do.”

Doss’s rare respect for the enemy and the sanctity of all human life also awed Garfield, who says it gave him pause. “Desmond treated the enemy with as much care as he would treat his fellow Americans. That’s hard to wrap your mind around, but I wanted to try to understand it more, and to learn from his perspective on life and on the world — this beautiful perspective he had that we’re all one. Even though I believe this is a story that transcends any specific religion, it’s a very spiritual story,” says Garfield.

Despite the fact that Doss is now deceased, Garfield says he felt a heavy responsibility to honor his life and achievements. He spent three months prior to production devoted solely to exploring Doss and his surroundings in depth.

“The preparation was extensive,” Garfield comments. “I visited Desmond’s hometown, the place where he retired, the home he grew up in and the home where he passed away. I walked the walks that he walked. I read all the books about him, absorbing as much as I possibly could. But that was just scratching the surface, really. One of the joys of doing a story like this is attempting to dive into someone else’s being, the time in which they were alive, which is endlessly fascinating. You get to be an historian and a researcher.”

Mel Gibson was gratified to see Garfield cut to the heart of the character he so wanted audiences to get to know. “Andrew is an amazing actor. He’s not your typical looking action hero  but he has those qualities inside him,” Gibson observes. “He’s a guy who, like Desmond Doss, has real convictions and so he was able to portray Desmond in a real and moving way. The film is so focused on his character, he really had to be our quarterback and he was.”

Garfield was equally exhilarated by the working rapport with Gibson. “Working with Mel as a director has been a real highlight of my time being an actor so far,” he says. “Mel tells a story in  such a beautiful, compelling way. He’s a bit like Desmond Doss in that he’s got this real innocence and purity to him.  With Mel, everything is on the surface, and you know exactly what he’s feeling at all times even if he doesn’t want you to know he can’t help himself. He’s sincere and passionate, and it’s infectious.”

HACKSAW RIDGE, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn and Rachel Griffiths, is in cinemas now across the UK.

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