Having been away from the director’s chair since 2006, Mel Gibson steps behind the camera again with Hacksaw Ridge, in theaters November 4. The biopic tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Medal of Honor recipient and Seventh-day Adventist who rejected the use of weapons and instead served as an unarmed medic in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Hacksaw Ridge dramatizes his life leading up to his enlistment in the war effort, his refusal to break from his convictions against the use of violence, and his heroism as a medic during the battle of Okinawa. The film places Doss’ Christ-inspired moral convictions front and center in some of the most grueling depictions of war.
As an actor, Gibson is known for starring in war films such as We Were Soldiers, Braveheart, and The Patriot. He is also a director whose filmmaking is recognized for its aestheticizing of violence, most notably in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. But Hacksaw Ridge’s theme of compassion amidst brutality is something unique for the returning director. “I want you to feel appalled by it,” Gibson said at a media event for Hacksaw Ridge, speaking about the film’s graphic war violence. “But I also wanted to accentuate the other side, too; in the midst of it, some good can be extracted.”
Doss’ story has been of interest to Hollywood for some time but remained in development hell for years. Producer David Permut heard an account of the Doss biography from a friend. “I couldn’t believe it,” Permut said. “It’s one of the most heroic, miraculous stories I’d ever heard. I thought it was made up.”
Permut learned that efforts to bring Doss to the big screen had been made by Hollywood legends such as Hal Wallis and Darryl Zanuck. Actor Audie Murphy even met with Doss to discuss a potential film. “Desmond had Hollywood at his doorstep,” Permut said. “He had no real interest in exploiting his story. He was a very modest, humble man—never considered himself a hero.”
Finally, after fellow producer Terry Benedict managed to establish a relationship with Doss and the Seventh-day Adventist community during production of a 2004 documentary about the decorated hero, rights to a feature film were secured. But the project was stalled for more than 10 years, as financiers, who already believed World War II films to be out of vogue, also shied away from the script’s unique structure and religious themes.
“To me we’re in the worst of times in the movie business,” says Bill Mechanic, who co-produced Hacksaw Ridge. “All anybody cares about is if it’s a sequel, and everything else is thrown away. When you’re making a movie with scale, you can make really small movies, but you can’t make those middle-level pictures, and so it’s not development hell, it’s Hollywood hell.”
Intrigued by The Passion of the Christ’s combination of violence and faith, Mechanic approached Gibson twice about taking on the project. Nearly a decade later, Gibson finally agreed. “Real superheroes don’t wear spandex tights,” joked Gibson, referring not only to the superhero films that dominate the big screen today, but to his lead star, Andrew Garfield, who portrayed Spiderman in two recent films and now plays Doss for Hacksaw Ridge.
“Christ was Desmond Doss’ hero,” Gibson explains, “and [Doss] actually lived right through the greatest act of love as it was proclaimed: a greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Garfield was eager to portray Desmond, and his involvement was officially announced not long after Gibson became attached to the project.
“It’s very rare that you read a script that, as an actor, you go, oh God, I have to do this,” said Garfield. In researching for the part, the actor travelled to Doss’ Chattanooga home where the decorated veteran resided up until his death.
Moved by Doss’ commitments to non-violence while he remained at the same time an active presence on the battlefield, Garfield sited as particularly inspirational a moment in the film where Doss stops to help a dying Japanese solider. “He doesn’t see skin color, he doesn’t see a uniform, he sees another brother. This is a transcendent act and a rare thing for us to witness in our culture.”
Desmond Doss carried 75 injured combatants off the battlefield one-by-one and single-handedly lowered them down a cliff-side to safety. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman, becoming the first of three conscientious objectors to receive the award. Doss remains an icon within the Seventh-day Adventist community. He passed away in March of 2006.
Hacksaw Ridge opens November 4.