The 17-year project

What would Desmond Doss have thought of the new Hacksaw Ridge movie? Nathan Brown sits down with film producer and Doss's close friend Terry Benedict to find out.

Desmond Doss with Terry Benedict.

In 1999, filmmaker Terry Benedict began working with long-time Adventist hero Desmond Doss. Seventeen years later, he has worked as a producer on Hacksaw Ridge, the Mel Gibson-directed theatrical retelling of Doss’s remarkable story. Along the way was Benedict’s award-winning documentary The Conscientious Objector—and also a deep friendship that Benedict says greatly influenced his life, even now, 10 years after Doss’s death. Based in Tennessee, Benedict talked with Signs Publishing Company book editor Nathan Brown about the new film, Doss’s faith and his 17-year project to share this Adventist story with a much wider audience.

What has been your involvement in the making of Hacksaw Ridge?

One of the reasons Desmond never wanted to let Hollywood do his story was because he was concerned about how he would be portrayed. I had given him assurances that I would do my best to always protect the essence of his character. So when Andrew Garfield came on board to play Desmond—he wanted to portray him as transparently and as honestly as he could—we thought it would be a good idea if he came down to Tennessee and visit the pivotal geographical places in Desmond’s life. It gave Andrew the chance to see the very humble environment that Desmond grew up in, as well as connecting with me who had got to know Desmond closely. We talked a lot about Desmond, the man and his faith. I think that translated incredibly well to the screen. If you watch the documentary and then Hacksaw, Andrew’s performance is pretty amazing in how seamlessly he represented Desmond. He really did a terrific job.

"God convicted me not to kill or carry a weapon. I’m not passing judgement on anybody else as to how God convicted them, but it’s just how God convicted me.

Why have you committed so much of your time and energy to this story?

I first read Desmond’s story as a kid and it stuck with me my whole life. When it came back around in 1999, I remembered just how much that story affected me as far as Desmond standing up for his belief system and having faith that God would carry him through whatever he faced. And when I met Desmond, I realised that really was who he was and it made me want to tell his story even more. Hollywood had been chasing him to tell his story for 55 years and he kept saying no. So one day we were standing in front of a grocery store in Tennessee and I told him that I really felt that his story would be valuable and inspirational to the whole world, not just one particular community (meaning Adventists), and my commitment to him was that I would answer to God first, him second—and everyone else could get in line. I really meant that because we would get one chance to tell his story and it is such an inspirational story that we had to tell it in a way that was very clear, compelling and authentically straightforward. He got a big smile and agreed on the spot then and there that we would do it.

Why is Doss’s faith so important to his story?

If you compromise his character and take out the fact that he was a deeply faith-based man committed to honouring God while serving his fellow soldiers, then you don’t have a uniquely powerful and inspirational story. That is the core of why Hollywood was interested. Desmond stood up to the military system but was a paradox because he also wanted to be part of the system in his own helpful way. You see this played out in both the documentary and in Hacksaw Ridge. I wanted people to come to know the man, to understand his belief system, why he valued his relationship and his faith in God. He wasn’t perfect but he gives us a frame of reference so when we get in a tight spot, we can really believe that our faith can carry us through—and that we don’t have to worry about the consequences.

Does this story have anything else to say about war?

There’s always going to be a tug-of-war about whether this is an anti-war or pro-war movie. There’s already that discussion going on. The funny thing is that Desmond thought of himself as a conscientious cooperator. He was an enigma who fell into a crack between two traditional beliefs. He was determined to serve his country but was against killing anyone in that service. When I was doing the documentary, one of the things I looked forward to was having an “intellectual” discussion with Desmond about the God-sanctioned killing that happened in the Old Testament. I wanted to know how was he going to reconcile that. But there really wasn’t a discussion. Desmond simply said, “Terry, God convicted me not to kill or carry a weapon. I’m not passing judgement on anybody else as to how God convicted them, but it’s just how God convicted me.” And that was it.

What will people come away from the film thinking about the faith of Desmond Doss?

Adventists can be satisfied that Desmond represented his faith in a way that respected the Sabbath. However, his example goes way beyond one denomination and will surely inspire members of various faith communities. While he was an Adventist, Desmond was a Christian first and his personal relationship with God was the most important thing to him. This is what his men misunderstood in the beginning when he wouldn’t work on Sabbath. But then he did perform on the Sabbath as medic when needed, because as Jesus said, “It is right to do good on the Sabbath.” Desmond applied this by being of service to mankind in his battlefield situation. This was the great epiphany for his men on the battlefield. It affected them well after the war and changed many a mindset—you see that by their own testimonies in The Conscientious Objector. Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about? Making a positive impact in people’s lives? Serving?

Tell us about your relationship with Desmond and why you admire him so much.

As I got to know Desmond and became part of his family—and he became part of my family—he rubbed off on me in a way that made me want to be a better person. At times it was almost imperceptible but at other times it was really obvious. Desmond seemed to have the ability to go through life in an unconcerned way. It didn’t mean he didn’t care about what was happening. He shed tears many times with me about the pain he had endured, the pain that is expressed in the documentary and Hacksawwith his prayer, “Lord, please help me get one more.” He absorbed the hits and took on the burden, much like Christ did, on that battlefield. Yet he was able to put on his armour of faith in God to carry the day, so he just singularly focused on that relationship. That’s the part that I loved him dearly for and admired. He was a man of principle and he shared those principles with my kids in a way that, even 10 years later, they remember him vividly though they were only four and six when he passed away. It just goes to show what an indelible mark a person can make when they demonstrate Christ-like characteristics.

What do you think Desmond would have thought of the new film?

Knowing that his primary concern was that he would not be glorified, that he wanted to see his God glorified and that he didn’t want to see his character compromised, there is no doubt in my mind that he would be happy with the finished product. I think his concerns were well founded if you compromise along the way. Every film is a collaborative effort and after settling on Bill Mechanic as the primary producer, he put together the right team for the right story and the right commitment to that story. Desmond would have had a big smile on his face at the end of the film—as he did at the end of the documentary. I’ll never forget that grin—it was ear to ear.