NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When Desmond Doss climbed up Hacksaw Ridge — a 400-foot high escarpment on the island of Okinawa with a wall of dug-in Japanese soldiers at the top — he carried his Bible, his combat medic supplies and the weight of his moral convictions, but no weapon.
When the wounded American Army private eventually came back down for good, he was credited with repeatedly braving harsh enemy fire to treat fellow troops, carry them to the cliff’s edge and lower them to safety. For his heroics, he was awarded the Medal of Honor — a rarity for a conscientious objector.
Now his exploits on Okinawa and his struggles to serve both his country and his conscience have been made into a film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” directed by Mel Gibson. For Gibson, telling the story of a man whose Medal of Honor citation goes on for two full pages and includes a wounded Doss giving up his stretcher to another wounded man, the challenge was almost having too heroic of a story to work with.
“You couldn’t even tell everything the guy did because it becomes almost unbelievable,” said Gibson, speaking Wednesday before a screening at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “You’re talking about a man here who really stuck by his conviction and his faith and he went into a situation like hell on earth, an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things.”
Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, felt his beliefs barred him from even carrying a weapon, let alone killing. But he wanted to serve his country and ended up in a combat infantry unit, tending to the wounded under some of the war’s most dangerous conditions. The movie details how his fellow troops — initially extremely suspicious of Doss — came to admire his moral and physical courage.
In Europe, the war with Germany was all but over when Doss’ unit arrived on Okinawa in late April. But in the Pacific, it was a bloody slog against the Japanese to capture island after island.
His unit was trying to take Hacksaw Ridge — formally called the Maeda Escarpment — and push out dug in Japanese troops. Doss’ Medal of Honor citation describes how his unit was driven back down the cliff by a barrage of mortar, artillery and machine gun fire but Doss voluntarily stayed behind, evacuating the wounded by rope over the cliff, all under intense enemy fire. While the movie focuses mostly on that one event where Doss is credited with rescuing 75, the citation notes how he repeatedly risked his life until he was wounded nearly a month later.
For Gibson, another challenge was making the movie realistic without being ghoulish.
Referring to the audience, he said: “I don’t want them running out screaming. You want them to stay in there with you, so you have to find a way to temper it, but keep it real.”
The title character of Desmond Doss is played by Andrew Garfield. Vince Vaughn plays the tough Sgt. Howell tasked with bringing the new recruits up to snuff and leading them into battle. As Gibson puts it: “This is not ‘Wedding Crashers Vince.’ This is ‘Sgt. Howell Vince.’ Different man, tougher.”
“It was nice to really just be in a movie that’s about something,” Vaughn said. “You don’t really get those a lot. I’ve made some really fun movies but it was definitely great for me to get a chance to work with such a great story teller as Mel and then also have a purpose behind the movie that’s actually about people and something that’s inspiring.”
At the beginning of the movie, the tough sergeant he portrays is openly skeptical of Doss and questions whether anyone would “want to be in the foxhole with him.”
“As a sergeant you’re there for the unit, and ... it’s a very odd thing to come across ... someone (who) would want to go into a war without a gun,” Vaughn said. But like the other troops in the movie, Vaughn’s character comes to respect Doss’ moral courage even before his brave feats on Okinawa.
Vaughn, who has made repeated visits to Afghanistan and Iraq to visit American troops stationed there, said they screened the movie for some veterans who found it “very cathartic” and praised it for bringing awareness to post-traumatic stress disorder through the character of Doss’ father, playing by Hugo Weaving. Weaving’s character is a troubled, heavy-drinking World War I vet who frequently visits the graves of men he served with in France.
Doss’ son, Desmond Doss Jr., was in New Orleans for the movie screening. Growing up he said he heard his father’s story hundreds of times as the elder Doss, who died in 2006, went to various functions to share it. The younger Doss said his father — like many others who perform heroic feats — often said he was just doing his job. But the son said his father also felt it was for the glory of his God and he needed to share his story.
For Doss Jr., the movie is an “incredible love story” wrapped in carnage.
“It’s about a man that loved his mother. He loved his church. He loved his wife. He loved the men that he worked with even when they often times didn’t much care for him. He never wavered in coming from this place of compassion, love and forgiveness,” he said.