Grade: *** 1/2 [3.5 stars out of 4]
A great war movie, made in Utah on a tiny budget.
Rated PG-13 for war violence and related images; 90 minutes.
The made-in-Utah World War II drama Saints and Soldiers proves, on a budget of under $1 million, that there are things money can't buy: brains, heart, sharp screenwriting, a director who can make a little look like a lot, and young, hungry acting talent.
Director/cinematographer Ryan Little begins with the brutally poetic images of blood on snow. The moment is the Malmedy Massacre, a horrific point in the Battle of the Bulge in which German soldiers shot 72 Allied P.O.W.s dead and left their bodies to freeze in the Ardennes woods.
The story begins with four survivors of that tragedy, G.I.s trying to hide out behind enemy lines. The quartet seems, at first, like your typical war-movie foxhole - Gunderson (Peter Holden), a tough-talking sergeant; Gould (Alexander Niver), a Brooklyn medic; Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby), a Louisiana redneck; and Greer (Corbin Allred), a soft-spoken sharpshooter whose religious devotion earns him the nickname Deacon.
The four are content to lay low until the battle's over, until they find a British paratrooper, Winley (Kirby Heyborne), who has intelligence data that may help the Allies win the battle. But getting Winley's information back to Allied territory is complicated because Deacon, the most reliable shot in the group, is sleep-deprived and suffering a spiritual crisis because of a tragic combat incident. Deacon's command of the German language (he was a missionary in Berlin before the war) also raises the suspicions of the cynical athiest Gould.
Little, who directed the small-but-sweet LDS romance Out of Step, makes his mini-budgeted film feel like a solid Hollywood production. Shooting in snowy woods near Alpine, Utah, primarily with handheld cameras, Little achieves a gritty realism in the war images and a sharp intimacy with his characters. The wartime atmosphere is impressive in its authenticity, thanks to an array of World War II buffs - collectors who let the filmmakers use vintage military vehicles, and dozens of World War II re-enactors came to Utah at their own expense for the chance to pretend-fight for the cameras.
The script, by historian Geoffrey Panos and documentarian Matt Whitaker, is unflinching in its portrayal of war and subtle in handling the religious themes without reference to a particular denomination. Allred (a Salt Lake native who co-starred with Kirk Douglas in Diamonds) is strong as the tormented but gentle Deacon, and the rest of the cast is powerful - notably Heyborne (The R.M.), who graduates from his Mormon Cinema roots with a solid dramatic performance (and a jolly good English accent).
Saints and Soldiers finds a small story within the massive undertaking of World War II - and, miraculously, never shortchanges the human scale or the heroic scope.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
"Saints and Soldiers" represents a significant step forward for LDS filmmaking. Not only is this World War II drama the best locally produced film in quite some time, it may be the first that actually advances the form since the 2000 arrival of "God's Army."
"Saints and Soldiers" may also be the first of this current crop of LDS-centric filmmaking to really appeal to an audience outside of its obvious target demographic. While it does delve into matters of faith under trying circumstances, it's quite subtle about doing so, and it never pushes an agenda at the expense of the story or characters.
Admittedly, there are moments where the movie betrays its relatively low-budget roots. And there's some very convenient plotting that strains credibility just a tad. But the film is so well-acted and so effective that those are minor complaints. (It should also be mentioned that, despite its initial R rating from the MPAA, the film is quite restrained in its depiction of wartime violence. The changes that were made to get the a PG-13 rating are minimal.)
"Saints and Soldiers" follows four American GIs who manage to escape from German captivity during 1944's Malmedy Massacre in Belgium. Among them is Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred), a sharpshooter who's suffering from shell shock.
So he and the others -- Gordon "Gundy" Gunderson (Peter Holden), Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby), and medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver) -- try to make their way through the Ardennes Forest and stay alive, hoping to find shelter and food.
However, their efforts to do so become complicated when they stumble across Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), an RAF spy bearing critical information regarding enemy positions. Now they'll have to find a way to sneak him past Nazi patrols to find an Allied camp at the risk of their own safety.
Ryan Little's direction of this material is quite confident, especially when you consider that this is just his second film as a director (after the 2002 romantic drama "Out of Step").
Thanks to the often tense and suspenseful action, the film moves along at a rapid clip. And it's really an acting piece, relying heavily on the actors, whose performances are up to the task. They're all solid, though the standout is Allred, who is believable and sympathetic. Even some of the sketchier aspects (particularly Heyborne's too-broad British accent) don't detract.
"Saints and Soldiers" is rated PG-13 for strong scenes of war violence (shootings and explosive mayhem), gore (fairly restrained, considering the subject matter), and scattered use of mild profanity, as well as slurs about nationality. Running time: 91 minutes.
Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 out of 4 stars]
By the looks of "Saints and Soldiers," it's apparent that Mormon Cinema has truly arrived. Not only is this a great Mormon movie, it's a great movie by any standards.
Canadian director Ryan Little has managed to capture a moment in World War II history that is universally inspiring.
To call this "Saving Private Nephi" might seem a little flippant, but in truth, it's high praise for a film that is immediately reminiscent of the Spielberg classic.
And to its credit, the film never mentions the words "Mormon" or "LDS," but audiences will recognize the subtle references without having them hammered home.
Based on actual events, the story is of a ragtag band of American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines after surviving a Nazi massacre near Malmedy, Belgium.
It's midwinter 1944, in the Ardennes Forest. Hitler's troops have launched an all-out offensive in an attempt to break the backs of the U.S. forces. It will later be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden) gathers the surviving American soldiers who either played dead or fled into the woods after the Germans opened fire.
The group includes Corporal Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred) from Snowflake, Ariz., Army medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver) from Brooklyn, and infantryman Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) from Louisiana.
Later, these survivors will run into British pilot Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), who was shot down behind enemy lines with vital reconnaissance about the quickly advancing German army.
Getting back to an Allied outpost with the information could save thousands of lives of unsuspecting troops soon to be in harm's way.
This is an engaging journey, filled with wit and wisdom, courage and character, and several chilling confrontations. Not only must the soldiers face the enemy from without, but also the enemy from within.
"Saints and Soldiers" profiles how simple men from simple places can rise to extraordinary heights in bravery, humanity, survival and faith.
It's a moving experience captured in seamless cinematography and enveloped in a rousing soundtrack that is sure to bring a tear to the eye.
I only wish it had come out earlier, before the heat of summer, but it finally has arrived for LDS and non-LDS to appreciate.
THE FILM: 'Saints and Soldiers'
OUR RATING: *** 1/2
STARRING: Corbin Allred, Alexander Niver, Peter Holden, Kirby Heyborne and Lawrence Bagby
BEHIND THE SCENES: Produced and directed by Ryan Little in his full-length feature film debut. Shot on location in Utah.
PLAYING: Layton Hills 9, North Pointe, Newgate Tinseltown, Walker 8. Runs 90 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG-13
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
Three unexpected pleasures from director Ryan Little's LDS-themed World War II drama: 1. It's technically competent. 2. It doesn't drown the story in its theologizing. 3. It warrants stronger praise than, "Well, for a Mormon movie, it doesn't suck." Loosely based on actual events leading up to the Battle of the Bulge, it finds five Allied soldiers--including a traumatized young Mormon known as Deacon (Corbin Allred)--scrambling for their lives through a snowy Belgian countryside to deliver vital intelligence about a planned German offensive. In a way it's a throwback to old-school war tales about brothers in arms just doing their duty--lean and stripped down to the basics, though with slick production values and a great sound mix. And the LDS overtones, when they appear, run along the lines of guys who make an impression through the way they live their lives, not by beating someone over the head with scripture verses. Though Kirby Heyborne's strained British accent and an occasional lack of thematic focus are a bit distracting, it's more satisfying to find that Little didn't try to force his movie into becoming Saving Private R.M.
Within the genre of films by Mormons, about Mormons, "Saints and Soldiers" is easily the best. It is so superior on almost every level, especially in its technical aspects, that it puts hastily assembled drivel like "Handcart" and "The Home Teachers" to even more shame than they were already put to.
Take it out of the genre comparison and it still holds up. Intelligent, mature and thoughtful, it is one of the better films of any kind that you'll see this year.
On Dec. 17, 1944, German soldiers opened fire on a group of unarmed American prisoners near the Belgian town of Malmedy, killing 86 of them. "Saints and Soldiers" opens with this massacre and follows a handful of U.S. soldiers who escape into the woods. There is Sgt. Gunderson (Peter Asle Holden), now the de facto commanding officer of the little group; Louisiana boy Kendrick (Larry Bagby), who is going through serious nicotine withdrawal; Brooklyn native Gould (Alexander Niver); and Greer (Corbin Allred), nicknamed Deacon for his religious practices.
Deacon doesn't drink or smoke, he carries a little "Bible" around with him, and he was a missionary in pre-war Germany. Though the word "Mormon" is never used, it's clear that's what he is, though I suppose a non-Mormon viewer might take him for a Jehovah's Witness or a fundamentalist Christian. (Those of us in the know catch the giveaway: He's from Snowflake, Ariz., where EVERYONE is Mormon.)
While hiding from the Germans and still deciding on a course of action, the band finds Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), a British paratrooper who has landed in their midst. He has critical information that he must get to the nearest Allies command post before the Germans cross the Muse River. And so the plan is set: Get there before the bad guys do.
Through snow, cold and under the constant threat of being found by the Germans, the group trudges toward safety. But Deacon, the best marksman in the group, hasn't slept in several days, and he is haunted by something, remembrances he keeps having of an earlier miscalculation. Gould, in particular, is mistrusting of Deacon, given his previous association with and affinity for the German people.
The performances are solid all around, particularly from Corbin Allred as the tormented Deacon and Alexander Niver (who played the little boy on "Charles in Charge" in the '80s) as Gould. None of the performances are maudlin or melodramatic, even when the events are dire; the tendency to overact in highly dramatic situations is repressed.
Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker's screenplay is tightly written, drawing the characters with enough strokes to give them personality but not weighing the thing down with needless exposition or backstory. It explores the inherent conflict between religion and war, the idea that one must sometimes give up one's personal responsibility in order to fight for something bigger, even if it means doing things one is normally opposed to.
The director is Ryan Little, who also made the little-seen but commendable "Out of Step" (2002). Little acts as cinematographer, too, and "Saints and Soldiers" is a highly polished, visceral film in that regard. The tone is intense and atmospheric; still, while distinctly "light" moments are few, the film nonetheless is not oppressive or dreary. It is dramatic, in the most complimentary sense of that word. It engages the emotions and the senses subtly and expertly.