The new film from director Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge, is already being talked up as a potential Oscar contender prior to its Nov. 4 release date and currently hold a 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The historical war drama, starring Andrew Garfield, follows an American soldier in World War II who, on religious grounds, identifies strictly as a pacifist and refuses to carry a weapon. He's ostracized by fellow soldiers but ends up saving many lives despite refusing to bear arms. It's a remarkable tale that looks at World War II and the struggles of life as a soldier from an original and though-provoking angle. But is Hacksaw Ridge a true story?
Incredibly, yes. The character played by Garfield is based on the real Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, who according to an obituary profile in The New York Times was drafted in 1942 and served, unarmed, in the U.S. Army (307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division) during World War II up through the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Doss was a devout Seventh-day Adventist, and he took his belief in the sin of killing so seriously that he refused to bear arms in the military. He chose to become a medic so that he could heal soldiers and would not have to take a life, but his status as a weaponless conscientious objector brought him harassment and mistreatment from other soldiers. "They would throw shoes at me while I was praying over night and make all kinds of sarcastic remarks," Doss told an interviewer with the U.S. Army Medical Department in a 1986 Army oral history.
But Doss, who revealed in the oral history that he could have been deferred during the war but chose to be drafted because he was in good health, preferred to consider himself a "conscientious cooperator," and performed unimaginable feats of bravery during his time in the army to save his fellow soldiers: most notably the events at the Battle of Okinawa.
An L.A. Times obituary described how he worked for almost a month straight, from April 29 to May 21, to rescue and treat an estimated 75 wounded soldiers after his battalion's assault was driven back and left many of his fellow soldiers dead or dying on a dangerous slope. While under enemy fire, Doss dragged each soldier, one by one, across the slope and lowered them down a steep cliff to safety using a rope pulley mechanism he devised himself. The L.A. Times cited a previous interview in which he described his thoughts during those days: "Dear God, let me get just one more."
One remarkable detail from the New York Times profile is that the closest Doss came to a weapon during his time as a soldier was when he used the barrel of a rifle as a splint for his broken arm after he was struck by enemy fire on May 21.
After the war, in October of 1945, Doss was awarded a Medal of Honor from the president at that time, Harry Truman, for the bravery he showed and the lives he saved during the Battle of Okinawa. According to the Times, Doss was the very first conscientious objector to receive a Meal of Honor, and there has been only one other since: Cpl. Thomas W Bennett, also a medic, who died in the Vietnam War tending to wounded soldiers.
Doss had consistent health struggles throughout his life and could not work regularly, receiving a military pension and, according to The New York Times, spending his time working with youths in church programs until his death in 2006. But Gibson isn't the first storyteller to be drawn to Doss's amazing life: During his life, Doss was also the subject of both a 1967 book called The Unlikeliest Hero and a 2004 documentary titled The Conscientious Objector, in which Doss himself is interviewed.
For Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield was committed to delivering a true and convincing performance as Doss, and told The Fresno Bee that he visited Doss's final home before he died in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because he wanted to experience the world as Doss had experienced it. "For me," Garfield said, "with a man like Desmond, I don’t think I could have gone too far in terms of getting to know who he was." He even carried the same type of Bible Doss carried, with a photograph of the character of Doss's wife Dorothy inside.
Garfield's reverent performance as Doss reveals a unique kind of war hero with a story almost too unbelievable to be true, making it all the more incredible that it is.
Images: Summit Entertainment; Wikimedia Commons