Dan Weber, communication director of the North American Division, sat down with Charles Knapp, retired U.S. Army colonel and chair of the Desmond Doss Council, to talk about the new film “Hacksaw Ridge,” the council’s role in the film’s production, and what significant impact the telling of the Doss story might have on Seventh-day Adventists and the church.
Knapp served for 29 years in the military as a doctor, spending most of his time with combat units. He has been chair of the Doss Council, which was chartered in 2000, for the past 11 years.
Q: Who was Desmond T. Doss?
A: Desmond was a patriot. He was a Seventh-day Adventist serviceman and a hero for his exploits and valorous service during World War II. Among many awards, he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945 for service, heroism, bravery, and courage beyond any expectation — and was the first conscientious objector to be given that honor. He will soon become a world legend.
You knew him personally.
I did. I met him in 1952. He was a slight man. About 5’8 [177 centimeters], quite slender. Probably never weighed more than 145 pounds [66 kilograms]. But he was wiry, and he was strong. As a boy, he liked to run. He worked hard in the shipyard and was used to handling big timbers. Desmond had good endurance and felt that he could do everything the combat soldier could do.
What specifically earned him the Medal of Honor?
Desmond saved the lives of at least 75 men singlehandedly in one day on the battlefield in Okinawa, Japan. He actually saved many more lives than that on the Maeda Escarpment before that one fateful day. The Maeda Escarpment was the last defensive stronghold for the Japanese. During the battle, entire companies would be wiped out as they climbed over the escarpment edge. Desmond went up with the 77th Infantry Division, and, as a medic, he was busy rescuing wounded soldiers.
What makes the Doss story a story of faith?
Desmond was an Adventist who lived his faith. He often read the Bible, and he believed in peace. He valued human life.
He was assigned to a rifle platoon and said, "No, I can't train with a weapon." He excelled in all the physical requirements. In fact, repeatedly he did better than the other soldiers. And he knew how to handle a gun. As a boy he had fired weapons in target practice. He never used a weapon in anger and never so much as at anyone. He knew how to handle a weapon.
But he refused to bear arms. And he was badly abused by other servicemen during training because they're trying to build a combat team, and the fear was that they couldn’t depend on him.
For Desmond, it was a matter of conscience: He couldn't and wouldn't violate his beliefs. He was eventually given a direct order to pick up a weapon. He refused and was brought up on court martial charges. He continually told them: “I want to serve. I want to care for you. I want to be on the battlefield.” Desmond stayed firm and was not indicted.
Desmond also ran into difficulty with the Sabbath. It was such a problem for him that he pleaded, “I’ll do whatever we normally do on Saturday, my Sabbath, on Sunday,” and had to work much longer hours. He tells his first sergeant, Sergeant Howell, played by Vince Vaughn in the movie, that he can't drill and do elective things on Sabbath. And though he says “can’t,” the clear implication is that this is his choice. He’s thought it through, and this is what he chose.
He wanted to serve his country. And serve in the most dangerous place, out on the battlefield. And that was a theme that he expressed throughout his life, until his death.
Desmond was always a humble man. He only had an eighth-grade education. But he had a lot of street smarts, and a strong, strong will. Most of all, Desmond had a simple faith. It was a faith that you could not break. In that regard he became exemplary, not only to his fellow soldiers, but to those of us who served.
Some people wonder why Hollywood gets to tell the story. What's your response?
I don't think that the Adventist Church could ever tell this story in the manner that Hollywood does. Hollywood movies, Hollywood music, and, as some observers and futurists say, the Internet and virtual reality are the three greatest transformers of American culture.
This is a transformational film. The film has been shown to focus groups, both secular and faith-based. The faith-based groups have been universally positive about the film. And there are five words that they repeatedly use in their surveys: powerful, evocative, inspirational, transformational, and faith.
“Hacksaw Ridge” producer Bill Mechanic told me when I was invited to be on the set to meet Mel Gibson, who directs the film, and all of the other cast and crew, that “this may be the most transformational film that Hollywood has made, certainly in the past 50 years.” He’s not prone to hyperbole. He knows the potential of the film.
Would Desmond Doss be happy with the film?
Yes, he would. It would be very difficult for him to watch it because Desmond, like a lot of our young men and women who serve now, came home with what we now know as PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Back then, it was called “shellshock.” There's no question that Desmond suffered from it. He dealt with PTSD partly by talking about it, which is effective.
How do you feel the Adventist Church is portrayed in the film?
Well. In fact, the Adventist Church is mentioned several times. Desmond publicly indicates that he is a Seventh-day Adventist.
But Desmond does not stand behind the church. He stands as a Daniel. He stands alone and says, “This is what I believe.” Desmond believed, as I do, that salvation is individual and personal. My church does not save me. It’s God who saves me.
That comes through in “simplistic magnificence,” in Desmond's own words. That’s what makes it so powerful. Desmond never wavered, and the elements of his character and faith come through in the film.
He has integrity, honesty, and the Ten Commandments. He chooses not to kill. And at the end of the film, the Sabbath plays a major part.
Explain what the Desmond Doss Council is.
The Doss Council was formed at Desmond’s request in the late 1990s. He wanted to see that his life story was protected, preserved. He was also a collector and had collected much about World War II and about his life. We were given the challenge of preserving that memorabilia and protecting his intellectual property.
The first activity of the Desmond Doss Council was to seek a director and a producer who could capture the essence of Desmond’s service. “The Conscientious Objector,” a 2004 documentary by Terry Benedict, was the first film. This film was well-received and garnered multiple awards. It was of socially redeeming value in a number of film festivals. It's been shown more than 12 times on national television. And it’s been an inspirational documentary for churches.
I’ve shown it to thousands of veterans in public theaters and in church auditoriums. The U.S. Department of Defense asked if they could show it on Armed Forces Network, which goes out all around the world. On two different occasions it was shown on Armed Forces Day, and another time on Veterans Day. It’s also been on the Pentagon Channel.
The Doss story has been told through a variety of ways. Why Mel Gibson, why now?
After the documentary was released in 2004, premiering at the international Pathfinder camporee in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, Desmond said that he no longer had the energy and he didn't feel that he had the understanding or the trust of the movie industry. He authorized the Doss Council to allow his story to be told if a trustworthy producer could be found with the ability to accurately portray his story, and through which the Doss Council had opportunity to influence the script.
Terry Benedict and a lot of other people, including Fred Knopper, who was, at the time, the chair of the Doss Council, myself, and Gabe Videla, a co-owner of the largest physical special effects company in the United States — and a Seventh-day Adventist in Hollywood who knows the scene very well — started searching. Eventually we found Bill Mechanic. Mr. Mechanic, former president and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox, immediately caught the vision of this story.
He then took it to various studios, and in the early years there were a lot of struggles. Some studios thought it was too religious. The timing wasn’t right. Then when the economy tanked [ in 2007 and 2008], a lot of things went away. We started all over again. Finally in February 2015, Mechanic was able to obtain financing from Fox Studios, an Australian film company, and a couple of large film financing companies here in the United States. We learned that they were going to make the film and that Mel Gibson would be the director.
This isn’t an Adventist film. But what should the average church member know?
This film was not made for the Adventist Church. We did not have any creative input. I’m not even advocating that anyone go see the film.
But our neighbors will. I'm absolutely convinced. Opening in 3,000 theaters in the U.S., the film is optioned to be shown in every major movie distribution area of the world. Forty-six areas have already paid millions of dollars for the options to show this movie. It will be captioned in who knows how many languages.
The film will be released Nov. 4, but the trailers are out there now. And people have been asking me: “Aren't you a Seventh-day Adventist? And I know you go to church on Saturday. Tell me about your Sabbath."
It is going to be a conversation starter for Seventh-day Adventists like nothing we’ve ever experienced.
What can Adventists do to be prepared for questions?
In Adventist evangelism, when we have a major cultural event as a church, we often end up in react mode. We react to the conversation that gets started. We know this movie will create a conversation.
The question we have to ask is: Are we prepared to enter into that conversation and keep it going?
These are not conversations that are immediate bridges to baptism. They are conversations about the things that make, we hope, each member tick and what they believe.
It's going to be interesting that Adventists will, for better or for worse, be measured and judged against the representation of the Adventist that Desmond Doss was.
During one of our meetings, Mr. Mechanic asked me if the church was prepared for Desmond to no longer be a story within the church. Were we prepared now that he is going to become a world legend?
Mel Gibson told me personally that he watched the documentary several times, that he had read the book. They were very serious about doing this right and emphasizing what book authors often say: Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction. This time it’s not strange. It’s magnificent. And it’s an opportunity.