Lynchburg’s War Hero

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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Hacksaw Ridge

It’s been said heroes are made, not born. His birthplace of Lynchburg, however, set the first scene in the heroic true story of Private First Class Desmond T. Doss. His story is now told by Hollywood in the major motion picture Hacksaw Ridge, in theaters November 4.

“I thought it was just a faith-based war story,” Randall Wallace told Lynchburg Living in a phone interview from California. “I read it and couldn’t believe it said Lynchburg, Virginia.”

The moment that a screenplay titled The C.O. (Conscientious Objector) came to famed Hollywood screenwriter Randall Wallace was every bit as serendipitous as years before, when a trip to Scotland to learn more about his Scottish-American roots led Wallace to discover the legend of a medieval Scottish patriot. That journey inspired his first produced screenplay, Braveheart. In The C.O. Wallace found another compelling true story of patriotism and sacrifice, but this time he and the patriot shared roots in common ground.

“I had grown up in Lynchburg and never heard of Desmond Doss. He was remarkable to me,” said Wallace. “Commitment to God and country, for him it was not either or, it was both and.”

At age 21 Doss became a deacon at Lynchburg’s Park Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church. Within five years he would become the first Conscientious Objector to receive our nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Doss felt compelled to serve his country in World War II, but he had to reconcile that with serving God and upholding His Sixth commandment–Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Doss concluded he could do both by serving as an Army medic. He would not carry a rifle because of his deeply held Christian beliefs, drawing the disdain of fellow soldiers. Nevertheless, he saved the lives of as many as 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa, by carrying or dragging them one-by-one to the edge of a cliff and lowering them down the jagged face to friendly hands waiting below.
Wallace committed to the script’s re-write, deciding it should be called Hacksaw Ridge, the name Americans gave the portion of the Maeda Escarpment on the island of Okinawa, Japan. It’s where Doss found himself under unrelenting enemy fire while working to save his fellow soldiers. Wallace took his screenplay draft to friend and colleague Mel Gibson, who directed and starred in Wallace’s Braveheart. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson’s directorial comeback, after a ten-year hiatus.

The distance to cross the White House lawn, the shaky feeling one might have preparing to stand face to face with President Harry S. Truman—the events of October 12, 1945, the day Pfc. Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor, pale in comparison to what Doss had endured to get to that day. Two weeks after receiving the Medal of Honor Doss unceremoniously caught a bus home to Lynchburg. His hometown threw a parade in his honor.

Today drivers make their way from one end of Lynchburg on the Pfc. Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway. Lynchburg City Council named the portion of highway for Doss in 2007, the year after his death. The night before their surprise appearance at Liberty University’s commencement in May, Wallace, Gibson, and actor Vince Vaughn, who plays Doss’ sergeant in the film, wanted to see Lynchburg, to get a better appreciation for where Doss came from, according to Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. Falwell said their driving tour included a trip down the expressway named for Doss and to see Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy.

Following commencement select guests gathered with the screenwriter, director, and star for an intimate screening of a yet to be finished or promoted Hacksaw Ridge at the university’s Cinematic Arts school. The local audience felt as if they’d been taken back to 1940s Lynchburg, despite the film having been shot on location in Australia. An Australian mental hospital was used to represent “Lynchburg Hospital” in the film. Becki Falwell, wife of Jerry Falwell, Jr., said moviegoers with connections to our area should watch with a keen eye to spot what would seem to be familiar sites in the film.

“There’s a scene where Desmond and his girlfriend are running through the woods,” said Becki Falwell. “The rocks, it looked Virginia. It looked Lynchburg. It looked real.”

“There were a number of discussions about what Lynchburg was really like,” said Wallace.

Wallace was just the person for filmmakers to ask. He moved with his family from Tennessee to Lynchburg at the age of 11 and graduated from E.C. Glass High School.

“Lynchburg became home to us,” said Wallace.

Wallace said financial considerations kept filming in his adopted hometown off the table, but the filmmakers still wanted it to feel authentic. They hoped to capture the essence and beauty of the area.

“They found locations that looked remarkably like Lynchburg and surrounding areas,” said Wallace. “The mountain scenes looked like the Peaks.”

Location was everything, and while getting the sights right was important, sound adds another layer of authenticity to the film. Wallace suggested filmmakers talk to people with real local accents, then Hollywood came calling Lynchburg. Locals found themselves chatting on the phone with a dialect coach.
“They were trying to get the native accent,” said Lynchburg Museum Director Douglas Harvey, who answered a cold call from the coach. “How do people in Lynchburg say house?”

Cindy Childress, who works in the Lynchburg College Admissions Office, responded to an email filmmakers sent to the office’s inbox. The dialect coach was wanting to chat with a local female, over age 50. Just shy of her 50th birthday and having been in the Lynchburg area since third grade, Childress was perfect for the role.

“She just asked me to talk,” said Childress. “Tell me about your family. Tell me about your last vacation, just broad things that would get me talking for a while.”

At a private screening for about 75 Seventh-day Adventists near Washington D.C. in August, producer Bill Mechanic told of another secret visit.

“Andrew Garfield had come to Lynchburg sometime back to see all the places associated with Desmond,” said Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy Principal Steve Doss, who attended the screening.

Garfield is best known for portraying the skyscraper scaling superhero in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel. Desmond Doss, coincidentally, was the subject of a comic book published in 1946. Wallace said Garfield was well suited to take on the identity of a real-life hero.

“The young man who plays Desmond is absolutely committed to accuracy,” said Wallace. Desmond Doss moved to Georgia in the 1950s where he built a home with his wife and raised a son. There under the authority of the Georgia Cumberland Association of Seventh-day Adventists, the Desmond Doss Council was created to preserve, protect and manage the intellectual rights to Desmond Doss’ life story. Steve Doss, who has no known familial relationship to Desmond Doss, had a chance meeting about three years ago with Dr. Charles Knapp, chairman of the council.

“If my memory serves, Dr. Knapp told me they had held on to his story for some 12 years to find the one that would stay true to who Desmond was and what he did,” said Steve Doss. “He told me then they had just gotten the story to someone who would stay true to it. I felt confident the story was going to be done right.”

On one visit to the school that bears his name, Desmond wore his Army uniform and Medal of Honor. He showed the students how he tied the bowline knot he used to lower wounded soldiers to safety. Another time he talked to young people about where faith could take them in life. For Steve, the movie’s portrayal of Desmond Doss did not disappoint.

“He was very humble when he spoke. Desmond seemed to be the opposite of what one would think a war hero would be. At the end of the movie, they have actual footage of an aged Desmond telling one of his stories. I felt like that was the confirming point for the audience, to know the man in the movie was a real man telling the story,” said Steve Doss. “He never seemed to represent what he did with his words because the words didn’t match his small 150-pound frame. For me, the movie makes the two now match.”


By Angela Hatcher

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