A decade after his last film and being shunned by most of Hollywood for his off-screen behavior, Mel Gibson is back with another directing effort. Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Thomas Doss, a Medal of Honor recipient who served in World War II.
Like most of Gibson’s work, including the box office smash hit The Passion of the Christ, there is an element of faith, as Doss was a conscientious objector. He refused to raise a weapon against his fellow man, he became a medic and saved the lives of over 50 soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. Doss died in 2006 at age 87.
Hacksaw Ridge is earning mostly positive reviews and could be an awards season player. Here’s a look at the real story at the center of the film, which is now in theaters.
1. Doss Refused to Use a Weapon Against His Fellow Man Because of His Beliefs as a Seventh-Day Adventist
That’s because Doss was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Although the church is known for considering Saturday the Sabbath, rather than Sunday, its members are also knwon for not taking part in war. In a statement on the Church’s website, the Church states that its members “desire to be known as peacemakers and work for worldwide justice and peace under Christ as the head of a new humanity.”
In an interview for the AMEDD Medal of Honor Oral History Interviews project in 1987, Doss explained that he could have obtained a deferment, but he “felt like it would be an honor to serve God and country.” He explained why he refused to use a weapon:
I didn’t believe in taking a life.; I felt like God gave life, it wasn’t for me to take. When I was growing up I was the [unclear] child. My mother had a picture of the ten commandments illustrated and showed a picture of Cain, and Cain killed his brother Able and I wondered how in the world could a brother do such a thing. That had some impression.
2. Doss Was Credited With Saving the Lives of 75 Men During the Battle of Okinawa
Doss’ Medal of Honor citation was for his actions between April 29 and May 21, 1945 with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division.
Doss is credited with saving 75 men who were injured by artillery, mortar and machine gun fire from the Japanese during the war. Doss, a Private First Class at the time, carried all 75 men one-by-one to the edge of an escarpment and lowering them down a rope to get them out of harm’s way. Again, during all the action, Doss never carried a weapon himself.
His citation reads:
Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.
In his 1987 interview, he credited god with helping him save those men. “If the Lord hadn’t performed on my behalf I don’t know how I ever got the men off that escarpment,” he said.
3. Doss Is 1 of Only 3 Conscientious Objectors to Receive the Medal of Honor
Doss was the first Medal of Honor recipient who served as a conscientious objector and remains the only one from World War II. Two other soldiers followed in his footsteps.
Thomas W. Bennett served in Vietnam and was drafted after losing his academic deferment. Although the West Virginia native was patriotic, he refused to kill for religious reasons. So, he trained as a field medic. He was killed in action in February 1969. He received a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Joseph LaPointe Jr. also received a Medal of Honor for his actions as a medic in Vietnam. He died in action in June 1969 and received the medal posthumously.
4. Stretches of Highway in Georgia & Alabama are Named in Honor of Doss
Doss’ heroism has been honored several times before and after his death. In 1990, Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris dedicated a section of Georgia Highway 2 as the “Desmond T. Doss Medal of Honor Highway.” Harris said Doss didn’t use his religious beliefs as an excuse to get out of fighting, but “he used it as an opportunity to serve,” the Los Angeles Times notes.
In September 2008, two years after Doss’ death, a section of Alabama Highway 9 was named “Desmond T. Doss Memorial Highway.”
Doss spent the last days of his life in Piedmont, Alabama with his wife, Frances Doss. Frances Doss died in February 2009.
5. Mel Gibson Says Doss’ Story Is Inspirational and ‘Worth Telling’
Gibson has said that he found Doss’ story an inspiration and told the Christian Post that he found that it was “as story worth telling” after reading the screenplay. The film was written by Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (HBO’s All The Way).
“Desmond was operating on another realm. In a theater or another situation where men go to war and conflict and most are reduced to the level of animals. He managed to maintain his higher self and his purpose and he was able to explore his virtue. He molded himself in that experience. It’s a strange juxtaposition,” Gibson explained to the Christian Post. “He would say himself, it wasn’t him doing it, something greater than him was doing it. He said he was praying the whole time.”
Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson’s first film as a director since 2006’s Apocalypto. But critics have noted that the film picks up right where Gibson’s career left off. It’s a mix of inspirational story with the kind of violent battle scenes Gibson is known for. After all, his other films as director were Braveheart (which won him the Oscar for Best Director) and The Passion of the Christ.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Garfield said he would only do the film if its message was the “Christianity is the only way” and Gibson agreed. Garfield explained:
One of the main reasons I was drawn to doing it and to playing him was his awareness of his own ego and humanity, but his faith was the strongest part of him. He was empty enough to be in touch with spirit, to be in touch with his own deep inner-self, to be in touch with God—insert whatever word you, personally, feel closest to here. For me, every day it’s a different word. God, true self, deep self, spirit, soul, cosmos, community, whatever.
Hacksaw Ridge is now in theaters.