How can a book so inspire a man that he will spend the next 40 years trying to turn it into a movie? The Unlikeliest Hero is the simple courageous story of a war hero who refused to fight, but, as a war medic, saved hundreds of lives. That story somehow caught the imagination of a young Canadian, Stan Jensen. Although he had no experience in publishing or media, he determined that his life passion would be to help tell what he saw as a life-changing story. He even moved to LA to be close to Hollywood, hoping to make contact with someone who could help him fulfil his dream.
The name of the medic: Desmond Doss. And after many convoluted twists and turns, and 10 years after Doss’s own death in 2006, a major blockbuster movie, Hacksaw Ridge, has transformed Jensen’s 1970s read of The Unlikeliest Hero into a cinema release [November] that takes a very different look at the battlefield. Hacksaw Ridge covers the war experience of a principled young man who was willing to serve his country—but unwilling to do so with a weapon in his hand!
Doss took scorn and bullying from those fellow soldiers who despised his Christian pacifist principles. Nevertheless, when the time came, he saved their lives. He served on the bloody battlefields of the Pacific theatre of World War II, becoming the first conscientious objector to be awarded the American Congressional Medal of Honor. In one of the most famous battles—the one which gives the film its title—Doss carried 75 injured men, one by one, over the edge of a 120-m-high escarpment to safety below. Similar valour continued in subsequent days as Doss repeatedly put himself directly in the line of fire to help the wounded. Not even his own wounds stopped him, and he continued to treat the casualties even as others applied first aid to him.
His citation reads, “Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”
Exciting reading—but how do you transform that tale into a blockbuster movie—particularly when you discover that Doss doesn’t watch movies himself and doesn’t like the theatre?
That is where providence—or fortune—led Jensen into the path of screenwriter-producer, Gregory Crosby, grandson of legendary singer and actor, Bing Crosby. By this time Jensen was store manager of a Christian bookshop in Glendale, California and Crosby was there for an in-store demonstration.
Jensen, recognising an opportunity, approached him with a copy of the book, asking him to read it because, as he said, “I always thought it would make a great idea for a movie.”
Crosby recalls that Jensen seemed like a really nice guy, so he said, “Sure”—but that was about it. Such requests come with the territory for those in the movie business. “I get infinite people approaching me to read their scripts or story ideas, so I didn’t think too much of it at the time—although, I must admit that the concept of Desmond Doss being the first conscientious objector in history to win the Congressional Medal of Honor intrigued me, so indeed, I did take the book home and put it on my already overly-cluttered desk.”
And that is where the book stayed for many months until, one Sunday, Crosby decided to tidy that desk and discovered the book buried under paperwork, notes and other submissions. “Two hours later,” he recalls, “I was literally reading the last paragraph as my wife and son returned home and walked into my office, alarmed that I had tears in my eyes, goosebumps all over my arms. Concerned, my wife asked, ‘What’s wrong? Are you alright?’ I said, ‘I just read one of the greatest stories of all time—and it’s true, every word of it!’ ”
From then on the project should have been easy—except for one major hurdle: Doss himself did not believe in attending the movies. Indeed, he had no interest in anyone making a movie about his life, Jensen recalls. “Desmond didn’t believe in Hollywood or even going to the movies for that matter. He felt it was an evil and irresponsible industry that promoted immoral and unhealthy lifestyles, and all that Tinseltown really cared about was making money at the expense of the common man.”
Interestingly, as a long-time movie-maker, Crosby identified with Doss’s viewpoint—at least to an extent. Crosby is interested in what he calls “movies that wake up the sheep.” He saw the Doss story as exactly that: a film that would make the viewer ponder what is really important in life. He says, “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always loved watching Frank Capra movies, and I only ever wanted to make features and TV shows about real people and events that made a difference in the world—stories throughout history that have shown how to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Hacksaw Ridge had my name on it, and I was determined to make it happen.”
After many weeks of research, including what it was about Doss’s religion that made him tick, Jensen and Crosby finally met with the man himself—at an annual get-together with fellow war veterans and Medal of Honor recipients in Los Angeles.
Entering a lobby packed with hundreds of veterans and their families, Crosby and Jensen spotted “this humble, gentle hero” talking with a young soldier. “Then, seemingly led by some higher power, Desmond shook the young man’s hand with a big smile, then looked my way, and made his way over to me and Stan as though he recognised us as lifelong friends,” Crosby recalled. “We had never met him, yet Desmond somehow knew it was us, as if he was being divinely guided. It was a goosebump moment for sure, and I’ll never forget it.”
That led to a long and fruitful meeting including deep discussions on life, family, morals, religion and eventually the big question, “Could we make a movie of his life?”
Doss gave the standard reply that he had given to many other movie-makers over the decades. “I don’t want to be glorified for what I did in World War II.” Then added, “For me, it is between me and God, and duty to my country.”
For Crosby it was time to take the plunge, heading back into Seventh-day Adventist Church history. “I told him I understood, then I asked him what was one of the first things his church bought way back in the day. He looked at me kind of funny and said, ‘A printing press—is that what you mean?’ I said, ‘Exactly! And why did pioneer Adventist Hiram Edson loan the church money to buy that printing press?’ ”
Doss explained that the Adventists wanted to tell their message to the world and that a printing press was a great way of reaching people through newsletters and publications. That led to a discussion on the value of books—both those great Christian publications, but also “dark, negative, satanic books” that Doss would clearly never read.
“I think you’re blaming the medium, instead of what’s being produced in the medium,” Crosby argued. “We have a chance here to bring a story to humanity that can make a real difference in the world—to share the powerful message, especially for kids, that it’s okay to be who you are, to walk your own path and that it doesn’t matter what other people think as long as you’re doing what’s right in your heart.”
The rest is now history. The movie has been made: Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield as Doss.
What makes this film different to other war movies out there? Talking to the Hollywood Reporter1, Gibson said he found the story of the army medic who wouldn’t touch a weapon but yet who wanted to be part of saving lives in the worst place on earth to be “inspirational.” He added, “To walk into the worst place on earth and not have a weapon and walk amongst it and do his job as a Corps medic and save so many lives, it’s remarkable.”
For Jensen, seeing the movie is a dream come true—but he wishes it had come earlier, even before the Iraq War. “It is counter culture. A film like this can give people hope that it’s OK to take a stand. You can be a hero and still stand by principle.”
He concludes with the dilemma of all those opposed to war and violence, but who recognise that we live in a less-than-perfect world. “If you are a citizen of a country you may have to fight for that country. If you are a citizen of a heavenly kingdom you should be a warrior of that country. Sometimes you have to be both.”
Jensen leaves an open question. Doss provides a possible answer.
Reproduced, with permission, from Focus, Great Britain