Congressional Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss had refused for 60 years to allow his story to be told on film. Then, he met Terry Benedict.
Benedict, a filmmaker and Seventh-Day Adventist, met Doss's family at the right time. Desmond Doss was looking for a way to tell his story to Seventh-Day Adventist youth, and Benedict had a vision for the story he'd heard so often as a child.
The final result is "The Conscientious Objector," a Crystal Heart Award winning documentary based upon the life of Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his outstanding service, bravery and selfless contributions during his World War II military service.
That's right. It is often believed that those who become conscientious objectors do not serve their country. Indeed, many do not. Many conscientious objectors are so opposed to war that they could not possibly fathom serving in one. However, there are a select few who are different. Some, especially during World War II, served in non-violent ways specifically organized by the government to address the needs of the historic peace churches. Some individuals would obtain a special exemption to their military service eliminating the requirement that they carry a gun and/or serve by violent means.
These individuals who would choose to serve anyway with a special exemption, as Doss did, had a variety of backgrounds. The vast majority came from religious backgrounds that simply would not allow them to carry a weapon, but they also possessed a strong national identity that refused to allow them to withhold their service to their country. The risks were many, and as Doss so eloquently shared in the film the potential for failure was astronomical. One minor slip-up...as simple as holding a weapon, grabbing a weapon in a moment of fear OR merely self-defense, or even just caving in to the monumental peer pressure and participating in gun training would result immediate removal of the conscientious objector's exemption and the soldier would then be required to carry a gun.
Doss's story, shared vividly in this historical documentary, is one of a simple man who chose time and time again to honor the strict biblical teachings of his faith. Yet, this same faith taught Doss to serve God and humanity without fear. Doss, with just as much conviction, would honor this call to service in ways foreign to most conscientious objectors by his serving on the front lines of World War II as a medic who, without EVER carrying a weapon of any kind, single-handedly saved the lives of dozens of men by repeatedly risking his life to attend to wounded men, retrieve wounded and killed men, and his absolute refusal to leave any men behind.
Doss was recognized by President Harry S. Truman with the Congressional Medal of Honor, and remains the ONLY Army soldier ever memorialized on a Marine base by the naming of a street in his honor, Desmond Doss Boulevard.
Doss, who passed away on March 23, 2006, cooperated extensively with the filming of "The Conscientious Objector" and writer/director Terry Benedict. At the film's film festival premiere at Cinequest, Doss would step into a movie theatre for the very first time. The film received the Director's Award and Audience Award at Cinequest, and has received awards in 65% of the film festivals in which it has participated.
The historical documentary genre is a challenging one. The vision for a historical documentary is typically one of educating, not always an easy task within the context of a feature film. "The Conscientious Objector" is the first feature documentary film to be recorded on Panasonic HDTV, a fact that may give some hint into the focus on cinematography of its director. Benedict, who worked early in his career with Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall, clearly has an eye for interesting camera work and graphics. His eye for the unusual helps to elevate a film that primarily utilizes graphics and veteran interviews, along with archive war footage.
Benedict's approach is faithful to Doss's own belief in simplicity. The power of "The Conscientious Objector", and the secret to its popularity with festival audiences, likely lies in its overwhelming reliance on truth over tricks. Whereas many documentary filmmakers resort to well edited comments and manipulated research to support their opinions, Benedict takes a more patient approach. The conversations that occur on camera during "The Conscientious Objector" don't feel edited or quickly spliced...in fact, they almost feel overly focused on the speaking subject. They often linger for a few seconds of silence so that the viewer can see the impact of the comment on the speaking subject. This is particularly powerful as we hear time after time from a variety of military figures, including many who tried to pressure Doss, punish Doss, abuse Doss, and, at times, even get him court-martialed. They speak now with a reverence for Doss, an awareness that they misjudged him.
Benedict's film is a graphic one, and is not one I would recommend for small children. The use of historical war footage is often graphic, and repeated shots of death, destruction, wounded bodies and other war scenes are best seen by older children and/or those accompanied by a parent. Even the most diehard pacifist would have a hard time watching "The Conscientious Objector" without having a deep respect for the men who served in World War II. It is heartbreaking to see these men, their eyes obviously filled with pain, as they revisit many of the locations where they served for the very first time.
"The Conscientious Objector" is a powerful film about an inspirational man who managed to somehow honor his own convictions while also remaining loyal to the call of his country. It is a historical documentary that manages to be educational, entertaining and heartfelt. While it is certainly bound by the inevitable constraints of its genre, "The Conscientious Objector" is an example of the power of film to teach, inspire, motivate and entertain simultaneously. Among historical documentaries, "The Conscientious Objector" is one of the best.