From the beginning, the incredible true story of Desmond Doss seemed destined for a big-screen retelling. The heroic actions of Doss, the subject of the new war film Hacksaw Ridge, first captured public attention in 1945. That’s when the WWII medic, who refused to carry a firearm yet ultimately saved the lives of 75 soldiers on the ferocious frontlines of Okinawa, became the first conscientious objector ever awarded the Medal of Honor.
Hollywood quickly came calling. Casablanca producer Hal B. Wallis approached Doss in 1946. Audie Murphy, a fellow decorated war vet who had become a cinema star, was dispatched to convince Doss to give in to Tinseltown’s pursuit. Iconic mogul Darryl F. Zanuck wanted in on the story, too. “Hollywood was at his doorstep,” Hacksaw producer David Permut told Yahoo Movies. “But he was a very humble, very modest man, and never considered himself a hero.” According to producer Bill Mechanic, Doss “didn’t really believe in movies or publicizing himself.” Terry Benedict, who, along with Permut and Mechanic was instrumental in starting work on a Doss film more than a half-century later, added: “He was very concerned about his character being impugned or compromised. And he didn’t want to be glorified. He wanted all that to go to God.”
Doss, portrayed by Andrew Garfield in the Mel Gibson-directed film, was a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which during WWII forebode its followers to take up arms. Benedict, himself a member of the church, discovered Doss’s story when reading the 1967 book The Unlikeliest Hero as a young boy. Benedict was 12 when he met Doss at a summer camp, and in the late ’90s Benedict struck up a friendship with Doss after attending Medal of Honor reunions. One year the pair were standing outside a grocery store in a small town not far from Doss’s residence in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Benedict, who had recently made his directorial debut with the Dwight Yoakam-starring thriller Painted Hero, broached the matter of a biopic again. “I said to him, ‘Look, I will do everything I can to protect the essence of your character,” Benedict recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll answer to God first, you second, and everybody else can get in line.’ He laughed, got a big grin on his face, and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.'”
Their first collaboration was the documentary The Conscientious Objector, which Benedict began in 2000 and which followed Doss and fellow survivors back to Okinawa. Doss had never been to a movie theater until he attended the doc’s opening night premiere. Long before that film’s release, though, Benedict had begun reaching out to production companies in Los Angeles about a narrative version of Doss’s story. He ultimately paired with David Permut, a veteran producer whose credits include Dragnet, Face/Off, and Youth in Revolt, and who happened to be in separate conversations about a Doss story with stunt coordinator Joel Kramer and writer Gregory Crosby (grandson of Bing Crosby). Permut brought the project to Mechanic, a producer and studio exec who had recently and abruptly left his post as CEO of 20th Century Fox. They enlisted Emmy-nominated scribe Robert Schenkkan (The Pacific) to pen a first draft. Gibson was approached to direct. A power squad was being assembled, but they had no idea it would be another 15 years before the film became a reality.
Hacksaw Ridge got stuck in “development hell.” Doss, whose affairs have been handled by the church-directed Desmond Doss Council since 2000, passed away in 2006. Mechanic had acquired the rights to Doss’s story, but the biggest obstacle came when the producers sold the project to Walden Media, the studio known for kid-friendly releases like The Chronicles of Narnia and Bridge to Terabithia. First there were budgetary discrepancies to address, but, more divisively, Walden wanted a PG-13-rated film. “It’s their right, but it’s not this movie,” Mechanic said. “Desmond had to be defined by the crucible he goes through on the battlefield. You have to, in metaphorical terms, send him to hell.”
It took Mechanic years to buy the film’s rights back from Walden, and once he did, he still couldn’t find a major studio to touch it. But on his third attempt, he was able to lure the Gibson, who hadn’t made a film since 2006’s Apocalypto and whose 1995 Best Picture winner, Braveheart, was distributed internationally by Mechanic at Fox. “It was always to me a different form of Braveheart,” Mechanic said. “William Wallace and Desmond Doss, as much as they seem dissimilar — one’s violent, one’s non-violent, they’re the same person in that their convictions were so strong they were prepared to die for what they believed in.”
Gibson also, of course, directed the 2004 faith-based phenomenon The Passion of the Christ. Despite his personal problems that had pushed him to the margins of Hollywood, Gibson’s involvement was a major plus for the church. Although the church’s agreement with Mechanic was crafted in broad terms and did not grant any editorial or storytelling authority, church administrators still provided feedback on different versions of the script. “You want to see it handled delicately and carefully,” said Benedict, who, like Doss, views the events at Okinawa as a religious miracle. “So it doesn’t become preachy, so the underpinnings are there.”
Once Gibson came on board, the team had to find their leading man. “It was a very sought-after role, there were actors campaigning for the role,” Permut noted. The gig went to Social Network and Amazing Spider-Man star Garfield, who stayed in character throughout filming. “Every pore in his body, every hair on his head was Desmond Doss,” Permut said. “I never met Andrew again throughout the process, because I only knew Desmond Doss.”
The independently financed $40 million film moved production to Australia for economic incentives, which helps explain why, aside from the British-born Garfield and American co-star Vince Vaughn, so much of the supporting cast (Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths) hails from Down Under. Lionsgate acquired the film for distribution in early 2015.
Hacksaw Ridge has been greeted with acclaim since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, with critics praising the film’s stunning battle scenes and pundits predicting this could be the project that heralds Gibson’s Hollywood comeback.
And Hacksaw Ridge‘s producers aren’t shy to take pride in a film that took more than a decade and a half to realize. “I’ve made 200-odd movies as an executive or a producer and I’ve only had this [feeling] three times, I think,” Mechanic said. “Titanic and Fight Club being the other two.”
That’s an accomplishment worth waiting for.
Hacksaw Ridge is now in theaters.