As writers, it’s very easy to get lost in [writing]...But I also think that, as a human being, you need to keep yourself open, you need to make time for family and friends and to expose yourself to all the other art that’s taking place around you and to the world in which we live.
With national morale withered by a historically nasty political season, the true story of Desmond Doss, recounted in the new film Hacksaw Ridge, gives one heart. The first conscientious objector to ever win the Medal of Honor, Doss repeatedly flung himself into the breach during World War II while also refusing to carry a gun or harm another human being.
War movies fire the blood of Americans and Hacksaw Ridge, with a screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, honors this bellicose tradition with more visceral bluntness than ever under the direction of Mel Gibson, an auteur of human brutality who’s right at home amid the body-rending carnage of the title ridge. Yet, the film also exalts the transcendent story of Doss and his profound individual moral courage without rigid judgment, a foundational American quality elusive during polarized times.
Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to take a life based both on his religion—the 6th commandment, thou shall not kill—and his own personal experience with human violence as a child at the hands of his drunken father, and, in one crucial scene, within himself. The script wisely does not beatify Doss. It shows his human complexity and depth, making his valor even more extraordinary.
After voluntarily enlisting, Doss was made a medic and sent to the Pacific theater for the brutal Battle of Okinawa. In one of several acts that won him the Medal of Honor, Doss refused to take cover during a Japanese bombardment on a jagged escarpment, carrying 75 wounded American servicemen from harm and lowering them down a cliff face to friendly hands on an impromptu pulley system he made from a log and spare length of rope.
Schenkkan, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Emmy-nominated scripter, and actor, began work on this screenplay a decade ago. He says what made Doss so remarkable was that while he was devoutly religious, his own moral compass guided him to compromise on dogmatic orthodoxy, like working on Sabbath, in the name of a greater principle: love for his fellow man. “Because, yes, he’s a man of faith, he’s a man of principle,” says Schenkkan, “But he’s not stiff-necked and judgmental. He’s not an ideologue. He’s a very complicated human being.”
Schenkkan spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about how he became aware of Doss’ story, the long road to production, and how, whatever disappointment the delay caused him, this story could not be told at a better time than now.
How did the story of Desmond Doss come to you?
In 2006, the producer Bill Mechanic reached out to me. He had just acquired the life rights and was looking to make a feature and needed a screenwriter. I had never met Bill before, but I guess he was familiar with my work—probably The Quiet American, among other things. So Bill sent me all he really had at the moment, which was a very modest black and white documentary. I had never heard of Desmond Doss before this, and I was just knocked out by his story, completely knocked out, and said yes immediately. Thus began a 10-year odyssey to get this thing made.
This is obviously an incredible story, but what specifically grabbed you by the heart?
It’s the dichotomy of this individual who was a conscientious objector who willingly puts himself in harm’s way—in the middle of this extraordinary conflict—in an attempt to reconcile both his religious faith and his patriotic principles, and the extraordinary heroism that he displays in those conditions. It’s outstanding. As a consequence, it’s a story that’s well worth putting out there right now.
You had a long sojourn to getting this thing made. Do you feel that there’s some divine hand involved in how incredibly apropos this story is at this juncture?
I wish I felt that in the entertainment business and Hollywood that the hand of God operated—I’m not sure if I’m willing to go that far. I will say the story of Desmond Doss is even more relevant today in 2016 then it was in 2006. I mean, just to put it succinctly, here we are in the age of Trump, where there’s a certain image of masculinity being modeled that’s all about domination, aggression, and self, and Desmond Doss is the antithesis of that. Desmond is all about service to others, compassion, modesty and humility. Frankly, that’s a really great masculine model to be putting out there right now.
He wasn’t typical even in his day, but do you think that type of individual is more or less rare in today’s environment?
That’s a tough question. People like [him], who are both highly principled, morally centered individuals, but who are flexible, who do not wield their principles like a baseball bat and sit in judgment of others, that individual remains pretty rare. Towards the end of the film Desmond is faced with one final challenge when he’s asked to compromise his Sabbath. This is a doctrinal belief that he holds very dear, and we’ve see him suffer grievously for adhering to it, but in this final instance he compromises. Why does he do that? Because he is compromising on a greater principle, which is his love for his fellow man, which is the fundamental core of his belief. That to me is another really extraordinary, and quite frankly thrilling aspect about this character. Because, yes he’s a man of faith, he’s a man of principle, but he’s not stiff-necked and not judgmental, and not an ideologue. He’s a very, very complicated human being.
As much as we have evolved, we’re living in an era of even more rampant fundamentalism in our own country, and obviously international fundamentalism of an incredibly virulent and dangerous stripe. How important to you was the exploration of his religious morality actually being a key to pacifism rather than extremism?
It was very much at the forefront of my thinking. You can’t be true to the story of Desmond Doss—and that was certainly something we felt strongly about—without responding to and sharing his belief system, his faith. Which in this case, he was a Christian Seventh Day Adventist. But as you point out, he’s just an idiosyncratic character. He’s truly unique, such an anti-hero’s anti-hero. And you’re absolutely right, here we are in 2016 where a good many—maybe even the majority—of conflicts around the world are generated by doctrinal disputes and religious differences. The terrible irony of that is, of course, that all the major religions profess a respect for life and a love for his fellow human beings at their core, regardless of what they are. When it comes to war, there always seems to be a reason not to observe that. Here in Desmond Doss we see someone who adheres to that, even in this most, by most people’s standards, black-and-white conflict, World War II—the fight against fascism, the fight against Japanese imperialism. That seemed to be a pretty strong reason to go to war.
Do you consider the finished script you wrote an anti-war piece or in any way pro-war?
Oh it’s definitely not a pro-war. I don’t see how you can experience any part of the Battle of the Okinawa and think, Yeah, this is a good idea. I wish I was there. But the terrible irony of the war, baleful and unforgiving as it is, is that in these moments of extremity, there is the opportunity for genuine heroism and self-sacrifice, for qualities that we do admire and laud and wish to instill in our children. So, there is that. But by no means do I think either my script or the movie is a pro-war statement, entirely the opposite.
How much change went on between your script and the final film?
For starters, there was another writer who came on at the end. As I alluded to earlier, I spent almost 10 years on this and in one of those terrible Hollywood ironies, just as they actually started to put it together and were about to go into production, I was not available because I was writing and co-executive producing All The Way for HBO with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Cranston. So I was not able to participate. Fortunately, they brought in Andrew Knight, this wonderful Australian writer who came in and did a bang-up job. So, to get to your question of how did it change, by and large only in good ways, richer and deeper and more complex. I’m very pleased with it. I certainly feel a pride of ownership in the finished product, absolutely. I also think that Andrew contributed and, of course, Mel is a wonderful filmmaker. He did a terrific job and brought a lot to the script as well. It’s a real collaborative effort in that regard.
From a screenwriting standpoint, what was the most challenging part about translating the real-life story into a compelling, workable movie script?
The principal challenge here was to avoid the trap of turning Desmond into a secular saint. Desmond rarely talked about his experiences in the war afterwards. [He was] a very, very modest man. When he did, it was mostly to give credit to other people. He used to say the real heroes are buried over there in Okinawa. As a consequence, he never really opened up about his personal feelings of the experience. So there’s an easy trap to fall into of, “Oh, this is a story about a man of incredible faith, and it’s that faith that gives him the courage to achieve this extraordinary event. My gosh, isn’t that amazing.” That would be a very dull movie in my opinion, and also would do a grave injustice to the actual achievement of Desmond Doss. We’re so used to spandex-clad heroes now with superpowers that it’s a little harder to really imagine ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and how they rise to those circumstances.
For me, the challenge and the goal was always to get at the very real human heart of Desmond, and that meant his doubts and his confusion and his fear. My focus then became this kind of bizarre and idiosyncratic principle of Desmond, the notion that he wouldn’t pick up a gun. I made that a central part of the screenplay. It’s not, in fact, a Seventh Day Adventist rule or necessarily that of a contentious objector. Desmond literally refused to touch a gun. He raises this up not at the beginning of the screenplay, but fairly late in the first act when he’s aroused in the army. He doesn’t explain it—in fact he refuses to explain it. He’s put under considerable pressure by his captain, his commanding officer, and then by the army’s psychiatrist.
It’s not until we get into the battlefield in Okinawa in this night scene with Smitty, who, heretofore has been his principal tormentor…They spend a day in combat, both of them have lost their virginity in this horrific battle and both of them have seen the other in combat, and now have a somewhat surprisingly different view. So in this lovely, intimate scene between the two of them they open up to one another and Desmond reveals why he doesn’t touch a gun. It’s not because of what you think—it’s not because he sits in judgment of everyone else. It’s because he’s so acutely aware of his own heart of darkness, he’s so acutely aware of his own impulse to violence, and his ability to kill. That’s why he won’t touch a gun. That’s the thing that really opens Desmond up to the audience and makes him human. We can relate to him.
That technique, from the scripting standpoint of leaving the audience to their own assumptions for that length of time, how deliberate was that?
It’s absolutely deliberate and conscious. What you do is you create a mystery at the heart of the character that keeps the audience leaning forward and asking why. They sense something is amiss here, they sense that something is being withheld—withheld secrets are always very compelling dramatically. Then the revelation, particularly into the way that I’ve handled it, does a lot of things: a) it satisfies us as to the mystery of this, and b) it ties Desmond into the violence of his father and his father’s violence is tied into the war, so there’s a kind of wonderful aesthetic satisfaction from the realization. It’s a realization that happens visually—the moment that Desmond tears the gun away from his father and almost kills him but doesn’t—the realization that the violence of a war is like a virus and you bring it home. You carry it with you afterwards and you bring it into your family and you pass it onto your children. And finally, the moment of the revelation is this extraordinary moment of bonding between these two characters, who up until this point have been oppositional. Smitty is Desmond's chief adversary and this moment bonds them. For me a really great dramatic solution is one that answers multiple questions, not just one question, and that’s how I’ve tried to construct this moment.
And it not only answers multiple questions, it shatters multiple assumptions, both held by the audience and the characters.
Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it. Yes, it’s surprising. It cuts against the grain, and surprise is always to be looked for, wherever you can create that.
When, where, and how do you write? What is your ritual? Are you very fluid, or do you have a very regimented ritual?
I’m actually very regimented and disciplined about it. I rise early—6, 6:30. I have a quick breakfast, I go to the gym, I work out, I come home, I’m at my desk by 7:30, 8 and I write. I try to write without paying any attention to the computer, which is a tough temptation to resist—or pick up the phone. I try to really stay focused. Mornings are my time. That’s when I feel most creative. And so that’s the focus of my writing, and I write ‘til 12,12:30. I’ll have a light lunch, a nap and the afternoons are usually then devoted to the business side of the writing—correspondence, etc., unless I’m under deadline, in which case, I’ll be back at it in the afternoon. I try to not write more then five days a week—at one point I was writing seven days a week. I don’t think that’s helpful.
It fatigues you?
No, it’s not that. I don’t think it’s healthy for me as a human being. It narrows your world too much. As writers, it’s very easy to get lost in there and a certain amount of that is essential to the process. But I also think that, as a human being, you need to keep yourself open, you need to make time for family and friends and to expose yourself to all the other art that’s taking place around you and to the world in which we live. We’re living in very dangerous political times. You need to pay attention to that. You need to be alive to that for those reasons.
Unfortunately, yes. But there you are. It’s the only world we have, so we just have to get in there and do what needs doing.
© 2016 Writers Guild of America West