Mel Gibson is staging a comeback in directing yet another ambitious movie. The R-rated war film “Hacksaw Ridge,” which hits theaters this week, is full of gore and grit, but the World War II hero it portrays never touched a gun. Army medic Desmond T. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.
But to Doss, he was a conscientious cooperator, not objector, and he used his stance to save lives.
While American soldiers fought the Japanese for the Okinawa cliff of Hacksaw Ridge, Doss devised a way to lower around 50 wounded soldiers to safety. Doss was guided by his Seventh Day Adventist faith and a deeper meaning of observing sabbath.
Doss passed away at the age of 87 in 2006, not long after being featured in an award-winning documentary, “The Conscientious Objector.” He was not alive to consult “Hacksaw Ridge,” but the Desmond Doss Council who oversees Doss’ public image, was on hand.
The movie was a surprise to Doss’ Frederick-based niece, Jeannie Foss, and her daughter, Jodi Anderson. If Foss had not been notified by a friend, and Anderson by an ad for the movie’s trailer, they would not have known the film existed. Soon after Anderson attempted to contact the film’s screenwriter, Foss received a Virginia Beach premiere invitation. Anderson preferred a private screening among family and decided not to join her mother, who went.
WAR AT HOME
The film is “extremely graphic,” Foss said, “because they used veterans from the most recent war that we were in. They used amputees who lost their legs.”
Gibson’s portrayal of war trauma answered some of Foss’ childhood questions about not just Doss but Doss’ father. “A lot of my life fell into place after watching it because Grandaddy died a very mean drunk — Desmond and my dad’s father,” Foss said. “So I remember when we were little and we would visit. You can’t be in a room alone with him. You were watched like a hawk,” Foss said. “One of the things they talked about in the beginning of the pre-screening is that he had PTSD from the first war. World War I. He lost all his friends which is addressed if you know about it in the movie. ... I had no idea.”
Despite Doss’ serene and spiritual demeanor, he survived a violent childhood in Lynchburg, Virginia. His soft spoken Southern drawl, which Foss said is nailed in the film, belied the chaos he endured. Doss’ father was known as a violent man who once attacked Doss’ mother to the point where a young Doss had to intervene.
In another incident, Doss got the gun his father, in a drunken rage, was brandishing and hid it from the police.
Doss decided as a young boy that he would never use a gun after he threw a heavy object at his brother, Harold. The family said the object might have been a brick, but whatever it was, his brother was rendered defenseless. “After he was laying there, I guess still unconscious,” Foss said of her father, Doss looked at an illustrated Ten Commandments picture on the wall that included ‘Thou shall not kill.’ The principle crystallized for him.
A MISUNDERSTOOD SON
As a teenager confused by the Seventh Day Adventist religion, Foss could always find a patient ear in Doss. She learned that his love for the Ten Commandments came out of a desire to live free from the guilt of taking someone’s life.
Doss’ beliefs were not echoed by some members of his family.
“Poppy was a fighter,” Anderson said of her grandfather and Doss’ brother, Harold. “He said, give me the biggest gun you have.”
Doss’ brother, who was also a World War II soldier, respected Doss’ viewpoint, but the rift between father and son remained. “I don’t think it was ever fixed,” Foss said.
FRIENDLY FIRE BEFORE AN AWAKENING
Before Doss faced the enemy, he had to overcome his fellow soldiers first. “They really downplay him getting beat up,” Foss said about the movie. “They only show him get beat up once. It happened every day. It wasn’t just one or two doing it, it was his entire company. [In the film], they had someone friending him. In reality, nobody friended him.”
Anderson sympathized with Doss’ solitary road but also understood the fear of his military division. “If I wanted to be safe, if you’re going to be beside me, I want you to have a gun. But in God’s world, he did keep them safe, in more ways than one, in giving them Uncle Desmond.”
Doss’ Saturday sabbath displeased his higher ranking officers until he had a spiritual awakening before the Hacksaw Ridge battle. “There was a moment, I don’t remember when, when Uncle Desmond was praying and the Lord told him that it says [in the Bible], basically, it’s not about the sabbath, it’s about seeking me and my will,” Anderson said.
Foss emphasized however that “Hacksaw Ridge” is not a Seventh Day Adventist film. “There’s only one time where he says he won’t go in on the sabbath.”
NO FIGHTING WITHOUT DOSS
When Doss’ heroism became known, soldiers refused to fight without Doss praying for them. This was depicted in the movie quite differently. Foss explained that in the film, “he’s over by the cliff, praying by the cliff like a little idol or something. And all the men are quietly waiting for him to come back.” In reality, Foss said, “he was praying with them.”
One general who despised Doss’ religious stance later needed him on the battlefield. Asked about this, Foss said that in real life the general “absolutely detested him, and they really minimized his hatred [in the film]. They just had him snickering at him after a while — the only time he got beaten up by his friends, by his roommates in the movie — and he just kind of snickered.”
“Desmond had to leave [the general] to take a more wounded guy. I’ll be back for you. And I bet the guy’s thinking, yeah right.” Foss laughed at the irony.
Doss did come back, despite being targeted by Japanese soldiers because they knew killing medics like Doss would destroy the soldiers’ morale. According to the Doss’ documentary, when Japanese soldiers pulled the trigger to kill Doss, their guns jammed.
SPIRITUALITY & SURVIVAL
Foss believes “a woman to be reckoned with” was behind the reason why the guns did not fire. This woman was Doss’ statuesque mother who had Native American ancestry. “The movie did not show Mamaw as the praying mother she was.”
Foss’ father also survived a near death experience that became a frequently shared family story. Harold was thrown by a kamikaze and escaped with merely a damaged helmet. He was so near to death, that his demise was announced when a soldier haphazardly put on Harold’s jacket before being killed in the blast.
In the Doss family, spirituality and survival can be synonymous. Doss placed a photo of his wife Dorothy inside of his pocket Bible that he brought with him to the battlefield. When he lost that Bible during combat, soldiers thought so highly of Doss that they sacrificed their lives to find it. Foss can remember the “crunchy” Bible that she held during childhood. “What I did like is the pictures [Dorothy] gave to him that he put in his Bible. That is what it said on the back. Something like, she said, I love you Desmond. Always come back to me,” Foss said. “They did get that right.”
When asked if Doss and Dorothy’s love affair in “Hacksaw Ridge” was accurate, Foss said yes before mentioning a missing detail. “You don’t get, almost the gagging feeling you had when you’re around, and like, ‘Get a bed!’ As a child, you didn’t know what it meant. You kind of had a feeling you were always intruding on them. She would sit on his lap, they would have their arms around each other, and it wasn’t so much sexual as they were one person. They weren’t two separate people. I’ve never seen another relationship quite like that.”
Dorothy, who was a nurse, helped Doss manage the battlefield wounds that impaired him for the rest of his life. Doss suffered from tuberculosis and hearing loss that made him physically unable to have a job after the war. “Because of his health,” Foss said, “she stayed on top of him. She prolonged everything.” She always made sure they ate well and really took care of themselves.
Doss’ story, filled with calm and chaos, sensitivity and toughness, can often be confused as a mission against guns. “But that is an incorrect, incomplete, simplistic understanding of his beautiful convictions. Uncle Desmond was FOR loving and obeying Christ and serving and saving life to the best of his God-given abilities,” said Anderson in a text message to 72 Hours. “He refused to kill, but he also refused to stay still.”
Frederick showtimes for “Hacksaw Ridge” begin tonight at 7:15 p.m. at Regal Cinemas Westview 16 & IMAX.