BY STEPHEN CHAVEZ
N MARCH OF THIS YEAR A DOCUMENTARY FILM TELLING THE STORY OF
Desmond T. Doss was quietly making history at the Cinequest Film Festival in
San Jose, California. The Conscientious Objector, by Adventist filmmaker
Terry L. Benedict, won awards for best feature in a digital format and the Audience
Choice Award (selected by festival attendees).
Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor during World War II, was present at the screening and received
the Maverick Spirit Award, given to a person whose life epitomizes the maverick
spirit through his or her life endeavors (California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
was this year's other recipient).
The story of Doss's heroism during the Battle of Okinawa is
well-known to many Adventists: how as a conscientious objector he refused to
carry weapons, how his commanding officers tried to break his will, and how
many of his fellow soldiers who formerly derided him had their lives saved by
him during the fierce fighting on Hacksaw Ridge, when he risked his life to
lower at least 75 wounded men down a 100-foot cliff under withering enemy fire.
But the story behind the story--the story of an Adventist filmmaker,
his spiritual quest, and how he came to film Doss's story--is equally fascinating.
The Road Less Traveled
Terry Benedict grew up in a "good Adventist home," meaning that there
wasn't a television in the home until he was 10 years old. While he was growing
up filmmaking wasn't part of Benedict's conscious development. "I love
photography," he says. "I used to take my dad's camera, and I'd go
shoot all his film. The pictures would come back, and everybody loved them,
but I really didn't connect that to a career."
What did he consider by way of a career? "I thought I
wanted to be an archaeologist; then I was going to be a doctor." Then providence
stepped in. "Somehow God just stuck His finger in my life and made me detour
into something I thought . . . I mean, my parents were freaked out when I told
them I was going to Hollywood."
With the help of some contacts in the film industry, Benedict
interviewed at Pepperdine University, the University of Southern California,
and the University of California at Los Angeles before accepting a full scholarship
to Pepperdine. "I wasn't in the church at that point. I believed in God,
but I wasn't living the walk I'm living now. But something was driving me."
Benedict's first job after graduation was lifeguarding at Malibu
Colony, where a lot of Hollywood insiders live. He met a woman who introduced
him to Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who happened to be shooting
television commercials. Wexler brought Benedict in as a production coordinator.
"My very first job was on a Tree Top apple juice commercial in Yakima,
Washington," he remembers.
Eventually, as he became better known, Benedict moved into
film production. On the film The Terminator he was the assistant director
of the second unit (the stunt unit). After several years of working in a variety
of production roles, he decided to change course and do more writing.
Benedict tells about standing next to a camera operator just
before shooting a stunt sequence and saying, "This is my last show. I'm
tired of crashing cars and all that stuff."
Benedict tried his hand at writing, producing, and directing
his own film, to some critical acclaim. But after a falling out with the producers
he decided to walk away from the filmmaking industry. "I was so unhappy
that I went to Ireland," he recalls. "I basically pulled a 'Jonah'
and said, 'That's it; I'm running away.'"
Looking for Purpose
For several weeks Benedict wandered Ireland in a rented car, staying in little
bed-and-breakfast inns, visiting castle ruins, and staring out to sea. "I
knew I could do a lot of things," he says. But he just wasn't sure how
he should be using his talents.
At a small café, while studying a map of Ireland and
trying to decide where to go next, he struck up a conversation with a couple
at a nearby table. The woman asked, "What are you doing here?"
He said, "I'm a writer and film director.'"
She said, "Really! Erik, here, is a writer."
Erik Christian Haugaard is a Danish writer responsible for
translating many of Hans Christian Andersen's stories. Haugaard invited Benedict
to his home, a 600-year-old boat house on the bay, and they spent the afternoon
talking. "All of a sudden," he says, "I could feel this little
fire in my belly start to burn." A few days later, while visiting an island
off Ireland's northwest coast, Benedict realized, "I had a job to do; I
had a gift I was given. If I didn't use the gift, I was going to be held accountable
for it. I knew I was supposed to be in the film business."
Some 18 months later, just after finishing a screenplay called
Learning to Fly, Benedict got a call from Fred Knopper, then communication
director for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference and chair of the Desmond Doss
Council, about directing a theatrical treatment of Doss's story. After meeting
with the council, Benedict pitched them the idea of filming a documentary instead.
"His story is so utterly fantastic," he observes. "Once he passes
away, it just becomes like a big fish story."
Suddenly Benedict's life came into focus. "For 13 years
there was a lot of unrest in me. I knew I was supposed to be in the business,
but I didn't know why. Now I know why."
Something to Live For
Benedict likes to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: "If a man hasn't discovered
something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."
"There are a lot of people out there who don't know why
they're here," he says. "They're floundering about; they don't really
know why they're doing what they're doing." For the past three years Benedict's
focus has been telling the story of Desmond Doss.
The usual way to film a documentary is to start with research,
write the script, and film the interviews. Realizing that most of the characters
in the film were in their 80s, some approaching 90, Benedict decided to start
by filming the interviews he conducted with Doss and the surviving veterans
from his unit. He thought that the process would take six to nine months, but
it has now been more than three years since filming began. "There's been
one thing after another," Benedict observes.
Filming began in the spring, 2001. Benedict spent several weeks
filming Doss talking about his life, before and after his military service.
During a road trip to film other interviews in the fall, terrorist attacks on
New York City and Washington, D.C., turned the crew's travel schedule into chaos.
A trip to Okinawa scheduled for October had to be postponed
when one of the principal characters in the story, Doss's former commanding
officer, fell deathly ill. "When I talked to him, he was on a ventilator,"
Benedict remembers. "He said, 'Terry, please, I'm going to go; I'm going
to pull through." And he did--although the trip had to be postponed until
the following spring.
"We saved an incredible part of history for this country
and for our denomination," says Benedict. "The melancholy part of
that whole idea fell on me while I was out there [on the battlefield in Okinawa]
realizing, These men are never going to see this again. Desmond's never
going to go back there again. This great wave of sadness came over me. Everyday
we lose so much history in this world, really important history."
The Conscientious Objector was filmed in a digital format
(the cutting edge of film production) and can be viewed in cities throughout
the United States throughout the summer (see the Web site: www.desmonddoss.com).
Benedict hopes to see the film broadcast on cable television networks such as
The History Channel and HBO, and on Public Television. Given a high enough profile,
it's possible that the film will be considered for an Academy Award in the documentary
The Film's Legacy
"Desmond's a true enigma," Benedict remarks. "'Hawks' love him
because he takes away the excuse not to serve your country patriotically. 'Doves'
love him because he stood up against the institution for what he believed in.
"What struck me most powerfully is how Desmond changed
these men's lives. He did it in a passive way. He didn't try to convert them.
He didn't say, 'You're going to church on the wrong day.' He just lived by his
own convictions, by example. These men have been forever changed."
And so far, through the screenings of The Conscientious
Objector, audiences around the country are responding to the quiet witness
of a soldier whose primary allegiance has been to the service of God and others.
Doss received a standing ovation at the Cinequest Film Festival when he received
the Maverick Spirit Award, and people often approach Benedict after screenings
and say, "We wish this would have happened 20 or 30 years ago."
"My reaction is, 'Maybe the timing wasn't right. God has
His own timing.'"
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review. Delyse
Steyn and Melchizedek M. Ponniah in Berrien Springs, Michigan, contributed to