Terry Benedict is a California boy who studied at Pepperdine University before working on the second unit shooting stunts for feature films like The Terminator and filming commercials. After discovering he loved to work on narrative films, like the one he shot with Dwight Yoakum and Peter Fonda (Painted Hero), he realized he was called to tell stories, not just depict the action. Now, on the eve of the release of Hacksaw Ridge which he produced, Benedict looked back at how Desmond Doss has impacted his life and why Doss’ life is incredibly important today.
Benedict told me that his parents were opposed to the undue influence of media and television, so he read voraciously. The Unlikeliest Hero, the story of Doss’ heroic military career, captured him as it talked about Doss’ deep faith in God and his refusal to carry a gun.
Doss was not a pacifist; he joined the United States’ efforts in World War II to be a combat medic, but the United States was still wrestling with how to handle conscientious objectors. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Select Training and Service Act, allowing for service by those who were compelled not to carry a weapon by their faith. Doss’ story captured Benedict’s heart on paper, but he could not have known how much it would mean to him later.
“Then I met Desmond at age twelve at a summer church camp,” Benedict remembered. “He was real, humble, and super nice. He cared about the boys and the girls there.”
Later in the mid-1990s, Benedict reconnected with Doss and realized that this was a narrative story he had to tell. “Desmond trusted what I wanted to do with the story, to tell it through a documentary,” Benedict explained. “It was an exploratory journey to find the other guys, and the process took three and a half years.”
Benedict found himself diving into the life of a man who “believed that God had impressed on him not to kill but neither to evangelize or convert anyone,” he said. How could a man be abused and mistreated for two and a half years by his fellow soldiers, and then find himself nominated by them for the Medal of Honor after the war? The documentary explored those questions.
The documentary was successfully released, and people still ask Benedict how they could have never heard of Doss. He finds himself pleasantly amused and grateful that they would have accessed the story, but he remained focused on getting the broader release through a feature film.
After meeting with the former president of Fox, Bill Mechanic, Benedict felt encouraged to continue, protecting the essence of the story. While Benedict was the resident expert on Doss, Mechanic championed the project’s value for ten years, and finally, Mel Gibson came on board with the same desire to protect the project. Now, millions of people will hear the story of a young man from Lynchburg, Virginia, who believed that God had called him to serve without carrying a weapon, thanks to his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs.
“We were all on the same page,” Benedict told me. “I couldn’t be happier that Mel is the filmmaker to tell this story, because he balanced the way Desmond was a medic and the graphic nature of war. Truly, a medic cleans up the carnage of war.”
“Hacksaw Ridge hits the emotional beats and allows people to have different perspectives. Is it antiwar or not antiwar? The truth is that Desmond’s story is relevant regardless of where we are in the world. He was a deep man of faith who practiced it by serving others.”
Benedict, director Gibson, and star Andrew Garfield worked to craft how the film would tell the story, and how Doss would be represented. “One of my favorite scenes is in the trailer,” Benedict recounted. “The men are asked, ‘What the hell are you waiting for?’ And they respond, ‘We’re waiting for Desmond; he’s praying.’”
“Andrew and I talked about how to present it. Would it be overtly religious? Would it be a traditional position of Desmond on his knees? Instead, we settled on him standing there with his back to the men, in a very understated way. Of course, he did kneel by his bunk and pray sometimes, but his faith was internalized and not dogmatic.”
Doss’ story can still teach us something today, in the questions we ask ourselves about applying our faith to real life. Benedict sees that in the way that he hopes the film will challenge people to think about their own lives, and consider the example of Doss.
“My dad used to ask me, ‘What would the world be like if everyone behaved like me?’ Would the world be a better place if we all acted like Desmond Doss?”
“We hope that people will walk out and start examining themselves. ‘Would I stand up to my faith being challenged? There’s a lot of confusion in the world because we don’t understand where people are coming from. We’ve got to learn to work together.”
Ultimately, Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie about a person unwilling to kill, but willing to save. It’s a movie that Benedict is sure that Doss would be proud of, and one that Benedict says accomplished his number one priority:
“The most important thing is that it shares Desmond’s heart.”
Hacksaw Ridge releases in theaters nationwide on November 4.