Five GIs stranded in the snow behind enemy lines in Belgium during the run-up to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 -- a near-perfect premise for the sort of World War II movie that would not be compromised by a low(ish) budget. Skillfully filmed in wintry rural Utah by first-time director Ryan Little, and released by the LDS cinema stalwarts at Excel Entertainment (God's Army), this is a "Mormon movie" by implication only. Opening with the infamous Malmedy Massacre of U.S. prisoners by the SS, Saints and Soldiers goes on to center upon an American sharpshooter (Corbin Allred) who did his missionary work in Berlin before the war and refuses to write off all Germans as subhuman. The impressively clear and concise storytelling leads to a wordless dovetailing of narrative strands in the movie's powerful final minutes. Apart from a couple of wobbly accents among the supporting players, every aspect of performance and production is precisely detailed. The triumph here is a matter of craftsmanship rather than art, but it's rare enough even on that level for a film to be worth celebrating.
Rating: **** [4 out of 5 stars]
For those who used to think that any movie produced by a Mormon Church-affiliated company was likely to be dreck (as I did), Excel Entertainment's Saints and Soldiers (filmed entirely in Utah) should prove quite a surprise. The young director/cinematographer Ryan Little and writers Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker have made a small-scale (under $1 million budget) but immensely moving film that avoids war movie cliches while still giving us, in essence, a typical war movie story.
The plot throws together four American survivors from the 1944 Malmedy Massacre, which left 72 Allied prisoners dead in the Ardennes woods. They're trying to lay low behind enemy lines until a British paratrooper literally falls by their way. He has important intelligence that may greatly affect the Battle of the Bulge, and the four Americans decide to help him reach a command post. Their journey is made more difficult by one solider having once lived in Berlin. He's a loyal American, but has no animal hate for the Germans.
Each of the soldiers is a different type, but their behavior is so specific and organic that you really believe fate just happens to have thrown these five men together. It's no surprise that the script is about man's common brotherhood, but it is a surprise that Little and the writers never push it. They don't try to suck in their audience by lingering over events and emotions.
While the film is cerebral, it's filled with solid action, suspense and poetic visual images (I didn't think World War II had any left). Little is equally competent with his performers, all of whom are unknown and skillfully disappear into their characters.
The result is a gem of a war movie with an unusually convincing reality base. We feel as if there's no distance between us and the fighting men. And that lack of distance is the film's point.
That's the fourth tie-caught-in-bike-chain injury this week. When will this mad war end?
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
At Loew's 34th St. (1:30). PG-13: War, violence. A thoroughly engrossing World War II film, "Saints and Soldiers" is based on a true story of Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. Ryan Little directs a strong, no-name cast playing a small band of G.I. prisoners who survive the Malmedy Massacre - in which a Nazi unit opened fire on escaping soldiers - by scattering into the snowy woods. Cold, starving, and armed with just one rifle between them, the four Americans stumble upon a British intelligence officer with crucial information that could save countless Allied lives. In his feature film debut, Little uses washed-out color and a you-are-there immediacy to tell a powerful wartime tale of survival, morality and honor.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
Just as it stands, "Saints and Soldiers" could have been made in 1948. That is not a bad thing. It has the strengths and the clean lines of a traditional war movie, without high-tech special effects to pump up the noise level. I saw it the same week as the new restoration of Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" (1980), made by a director who was an infantryman throughout World War II, and was struck by how the two films had similar tone: The No. 1 job of a foot soldier is to keep from getting killed. Doing his duty is a close second.
The film is inspired by actual events. We're told of a massacre of American soldiers at Malmedy, in Belgium, six months after the Normandy invasion; Nazis opened fire on U.S. prisoners and most were killed, but four were able to lose themselves in the surrounding forest. The movie is about their attempt to walk back to the American lines through snow and bitter cold; along the way, they're joined by a British paratrooper who has intelligence about a major Nazi offensive, and they decide they have to get that to the Allies in time to do some good.
These five soldiers are ordinary people; well, the Americans are, although the Brit seems odd to them, and they don't always appreciate his sense of humor. They are tired and hungry all of the time and guard cigarettes like a precious hoard. Unlike the characters in modern war movies, they don't use four-letter words, and we don't miss them. I don't know if that's accurate or not. Certainly in the 1940s that language was much rarer that it is now, but Norman Mailer uses the F-word all through The Naked and the Dead, spelling it "fugg" to get it past the censors.
The movie's hero is quiet and troubled rather than gung-ho. That would be Cpl. Nathan Greer (Corbin Allred), nicknamed "Deacon" because he treasures his Bible and was once a missionary in Berlin. That's where he learned the German that saves them. We assume he's a Mormon, but aren't actually told so. His little group is led by Sgt. Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden), who shields him from criticism after he freezes at a crucial moment; he's the best sharpshooter in the group, but can he actually kill someone? Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), the medic, is the obligatory soldier from Brooklyn who is required in all World War II movies, and Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) is the equally obligatory farm boy from the South. The British pilot, Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), may have seen one David Niven movie too many.
The story follows them as they trek through the forest and try to stay alive. There are some close calls as German troops comb the area, but also a friendly Belgian housewife (who will remind film lovers of the farm wife in "Grand Illusion") and, maybe a little too coincidentally, a German soldier who was friendly with Deacon during his missionary days in Berlin.
The director, Ryan Little, used the mountains of Utah for Belgium, and a firm hand to insist on character and story in a movie that doesn't have a lot of money for extras and effects; many of the Germans are played by military hobbyists who stage battle re-enactments, and they also lent Little some of their equipment. "Saints and Soldiers" isn't a great film, but what it does, it does well.
An Excel Entertainment release (in U.S.) of a Medal of Honor Prods. production. Produced by Adam Abel, Ryan Little. Directed by Ryan Little. Screenplay, Geoffrey Pano, Matt Whittaker, based on a story by Dennis A. Wright, Robert C. Freeman.
With: Corbin Allred, Lawrence Bagby, Kirby Heyborne, Peter Holden, Alexander Polinsky, Lincoln Hoppe, Alex Niver.
Well mounted, frequently gripping WWII tale of GIs surviving behind German lines during the Battle of the Bulge has won numerous awards at small Stateside festsfests. But while pic is impressive in its own right, "Saints and Soldiers" won't be an an easy sell due to no-name cast and limited budget, although war stories still have their following. Religious-circuit distribdistrib Excel Entertainment picked up the film at the Hawaii Film Festival and is planning an early 2004 release.
Sergeant Gunderson (Peter Holden) and his squad's sharp-eyed sniper Deacon (Corbin Allred) lead a small group of GI survivors of the post-D-Day "Malmedy Massacre" at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Deacon, a Mormon nick-named for his teetotalling and ever-present Bible, suffers from nightmares resulting from an incident in which he accidentally wiped out a family on the way to Belgium. His shakiness doesn't endear him to the new guys, Louisiana good ol' boy Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) and skeptical Brooklyn medic Gould (Alex Niver).
After the lads survive through miles of frozen forest, their mission is accelerated by the arrival of Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), a British reconnaissance pilot desperate to get aerial shots of the German rollout back to Allied HQHQ. There is mild class-based tension between the posh officer and Louisiana hayseed, but the film's central counterpoint is between Deacon's religious beliefs and Gould's cold-eyed atheism.
Multi-hatted helmer Ryan Little, who did his own fine lensing in tough winter circumstances, is a Brigham Young grad committed to making Mormon-themed features. (Little has made several shorter pics, also with war-related themes.) While the protag's protestations of faith are perhaps murkier than intended -- the rich score's trumpets and strings do much of the heavy lifting -- this dynamic is more thought-provoking than pushy.
However, script by Geoffrey Pano and Matt Whittaker has other letdowns: Characters say soldiers "lost it" or "flipped out" -- terms that were taken literally in 1944 -- not to mention that shoulder shrug with an oh-so-'90s "whatever" as anachronistic punctuation.
Similarly, Deacon bumping into a German soldier he knew well from his mission work in Berlin before the war, is undermined by simple math: Deacon is only in his mid-20s and the Nazis had been in power for 11 years, so it's hard to imagine a teenage Mormon making heavy inroads under Hitler's nose.
In any case, the other elements are strong enough to sustain audaud involvement. Tech credits for the Utah-lensed production are laudable on every level, especially considering that big-looking effort was made for under $1 million. Incidentally, in helmer's only show of indecision, pic has also charged out under the banners "Saints at War" and "Saints of War," both which are non-starters.
Camera (color), Little; editor, Wynn Hougard; music, J Bateman, Bart Hendrickson; production designer, Steven A. Lee; costume designer, Debra Box; sound, Jeff Carter; military adviser, Reginald Meldrum; associate producer/assistant director, Brian Brough; casting, Jennifer Buster. Reviewed at Hawaii Film Festival, Nov. 3, 2003. Running time: 90 MIN.
Rating: ** [2 out of 4 stars]
The World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers" seems awfully familiar: When a ragtag group of grunts get caught behind German lines, they must rely on one another to smuggle vital intelligence to the Allies. In the process, they learn each other's secrets and must respect their cultural differences to build trust and survive.
Sounds like "Saving Private Ryan" and a lot of other war movies, huh?
It is and it isn't. "Saints and Soldiers" comes from a religious school of filmmaking that has its roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with films such as "God's Army" and John Groberg's "The Other Side of Heaven."
Director Ryan Little's "Saints and Soldiers" distinguishes itself by (mostly) avoiding the tendency of faith-based films to sacrifice character-driven storytelling in favor of a moral lesson. It also takes pains to make its message nondenominational, which increases its Christian crossover appeal.
Though handsomely shot, Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker's screenplay shackles its characters with stale dialogue straight out of decades-old Sgt. Rock comic books.
"What the hell are we doing here? This is crazy. I should be home right now," says senior officer Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden), as if movie soldiers over seven decades haven't been mouthing similar sentiments.
Gunderson's buddy and the movie's central figure is Cpl. Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred), a shell-shocked soldier haunted by the innocent blood he has spilled. A missionary in Germany before the war, Greer remains the group's only German-speaking asset, which provides an unlikely and sadly unbelievable twist toward the end that burns away any credibility the first part of "Saints and Soldiers" earns with audiences.
But if nothing else, Little's miniature epic should be taught to film students in a course titled, "Getting the Most Bang For Your Buck." "Saints and Soldiers" looks great and creates a whole world from its low-budget production with little more than snow, uniforms and confidence in its historical authenticity, even if the character accents are shaky at best among the competent actors.
If only production value equaled solid storytelling, Little's war story of faith might be more compelling. Right now, it's the movie equivalent of singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" to those already in the choir.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
Some war film cliches will always be recycled, and should be. Each generation needs reminding of what it is like to slog through snow with a wounded buddy, heading into trees that may hide snipers, knowing that you could "buy a Section Eight" (death) in a trigger's moment.
"Saints and Soldiers" was probably made because of the success of the Spielberg war epics "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers." It is smaller, a World War II combat movie done with plain, efficient respect for what soldiers faced in the Battle of the Bulge (France and Belgium, 1944). It is based on fact, and feels it.
The title is a tip. The movie was made by a company imbued with the Mormon faith (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Director Ryan Little graduated from Brigham Young University and made a student short film called "The Last Good War." He seems aware of the lineage before Spielberg, such foot soldier marvels as "Attack!," "Men in War" and "A Walk in the Sun," and maybe even (in the mom-and-child sequence) Renoir's great "Grand Illusion."
The chief character, dubbed Deacon and acted by Corbin Allred with the war-racked urgency of a boy aging fast, is a terrific shooter, but feels guilty about a recent tragedy. From the mostly Mormon town of Snowflake, Ariz., he is a nonsmoker (rare in the U.S. Army, 1944) and ponders his Bible quietly; seems he had been a missionary in prewar Germany, though you wonder how many young American Saints proselytized Hitler's Berlin.
His broken unit escapes from the Malmedy massacre of U.S. troops, makes contact with a downed English pilot, struggles on despite having only a rifle and pistol. The group is regulation WWII issue: the shy and pious Arizonan, a wise-off from Brooklyn, a shrewd sarge from Chicago (appealing Peter Asle Holden), an okra grunt from Louisiana, the verbally endowed Brit.
Religion, unstressed and not preachy, slips into the story as quietly as a church mouse in a duffel bag. The film is about the men, their necessary bonds, their risks, their losses and the beautiful winter hills ravaged by war. Combat scenes are quick and to-the-bone, and even the Germans are humans, not just targets in swell uniforms.
The makers have served their mission well, and not as missionaries. It is probable that the late Sam Fuller, who fought and knew, would have liked the result.
Rating: *** [3 out of 5 stars]
Would it be possible to make a movie about war and faith - one subject compelling, the other fascinating - and have the result be bland?
Yes, and Saints and Soldiers proves it.
This is a movie that suffers the fate of all war movies made since 1998: It does not have the power or budget of Saving Private Ryan. That isn't Saints and Soldiers' fault, but the average writing and acting is. advertisement
The movie is "based on actual events" - the capture and roundup of American soldiers in December 1944 near the town of Malmedy, Belgium.What happened next became known as the Malmedy Massacre.
In the U.S. version, the GIs were captured by the Germans at the beginning of the Battle of Bulge. The Germans shot and killed 84 of the men as they stood in a field.
The Germans, after the war, had a different recollection. They say the captured Americans started trying to escape and fight back and were killed justifiably.
History is undecided but leans pretty heavily toward the U.S. version. But the massacre is really just a way to set up the story of the four American soldiers who escaped.
Not focusing on the slaughter is a good idea, because you can see the budget restraints in the making of this movie. Don't go if you're looking for a big-bang war movie.
As you might expect, the four men (later joined by a British pilot), are now trapped behind enemy lines. Of course they are. This is where the "actual events" stop.
The men now have to reach the Allies with vital information that will save countless lives. Egad.
The center of the movie is Nathan "Deacon" Greer, played well by Corbin Allred. What makes Deacon interesting is that his character is a devout Mormon from Snowflake. Not only is he devout, he also spent two years in Berlin on his mission, where he grew to respect the Germans. He believes all soldiers are just men wearing different uniforms. Part of Deacon's struggle is that he's really good at killing the men in the German uniforms.
Saints and Soldiers spends a lot of time on religion. There are legitimate questions about God when confronted with man's inhumanity to man. The film is at its best when it delves into matters of faith.
Saints and Soldiers' problem is that it spends too much time as a small war movie instead of a big-question movie. It would have been better if the soldiers had just holed up in a barn for the duration and talked about God.
Rating: ** [2 out of 5 stars]
Inspired by the December 1944 massacre of 86 unarmed American soldiers outside Malmedy, Belgium, this war-time fable is actually a Mormon production, but it curiously downplays its provenance. After being disarmed and fired upon by a German unit, the survivors of the so-called "Malmedy Massacre" scatter into the surrounding forest. Trudging through the knee-deep snow are exhausted sharpshooter Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred); levelheaded Sergeant Gunderson (Peter Holden); Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), a battle-hardened medic, and good ol' Southern soldier Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby); they're later joined by Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), a downed R.A.F. pilot carrying a vital piece of intelligence. A panzer division is about to cross the Muse River en route to the biggest ammo dump in Europe, and if they're not stopped, the Germans will recapture Antwerp. Deacon is given possession of this ragtag band's sole weapon, but his wits have been rattled by a terrible accident that occurred just days before: While attempting to kill a sniper, Deacon hit two old women and six little girls with a grenade. But Deacon hasn't lost his deep faith in the Lord, as his conversations with the deeply jaded Gould demonstrate. For his part, Gould has little use for God and believes the prayers of the dying fall upon deaf ears. Guess which one dies a martyr's death and which one learns a lesson in salvation and the brotherhood of man? Learning to love thy enemy amid the horror of the Holocaust is easier when you ignore what these German soldiers (the word "Nazi" is barely spoken) are fighting for, and the fact that such "ordinary men" aided and abetted the systematic murder of millions of civilians. Although the film's religious persuasion is never stated outright, it's not hard to discern: Deacon's nickname, the fact that he left his Mormon-founded hometown of Snowflake, Arizona, to do missionary work in Berlin and the host of prohibitions that guide his behavior are certain signs that our hero belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Similarly, the religious beliefs of Gould, a swarthy medical student from Brooklyn Heights who seems to have a personal beef against the Germans, are never revealed, but his rather crude characterization falls uncomfortably close to Jewish stereotypes. That the film seems willing to erect a simple religious parable on such a moral morass is bewildering. That it should do so without accurately depicting the nightmare of Hitler's Europe is unconscionable.
Bottom line: Gripping, well-told war story with a no-name cast but real grit.
"Saints and Soldiers" is a sharply observed, well-produced war picture that focuses on a small band of Allied soldiers caught behind enemy lines. Director-cinematographer Ryan Little neatly ratchets up the suspense while throwing emotional spotlights on the inner struggles of each combatant trapped in this hostile, frozen wilderness riddled with German troops.
The film is produced and released by Utah-based Excel Entertainment Group, a niche distributor that targets Mormon audiences. So, yes, one character is a Mormon, soldiers exchange opinions about the afterlife and the movie ends on a note of moral uplift. Yet the film is really no different than most World War II action dramas as the focus remains on men fighting to survive a nearly impossible predicament. If properly marketed, the film should cross over to non-Mormon, even nonreligious males, eager to take in a tough, gritty war film rooted in realism.
The screenplay by Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker (from a story by Dennis A. Wright and Robert C. Freeman) derives from an actual event in December 1944 in Belgium. After a war atrocity known as the Malmedy Massacre, where German troops opened fire on unarmed Allied prisoners, four GIs escape into the nearby snowy woods.
Dissension threatens their survival. Cpl. Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred) speaks German, which saves their butts on a number of occasions, but his refusal to drink coffee or smoke and his constant reading of a Bible make others nervous. What's worse, he learned German while on his Mormon mission to Berlin in the 1930s, which makes him far too sympathetic to the enemy as far as the others are concerned.
Deacon also suffers from shell shock, which causes him to see things that are not there. His sergeant, Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden), deflects much of the concerns, having witnessed Deacon's bravery and sharp-shooting skills for many months. Brooklyn medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), a determined atheist, is the most distrustful, having witnessed Deacon freeze when an enemy soldier came within his cross-hairs.
The need to get back to HQ is further energized by the arrival of a fifth man, British reconnaissance pilot Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), who parachutes from a shot-down spy plane with vital intelligence for the Allies. So this tiny band of sleep-deprived soldiers with only two weapons must dodge enemy soldiers under horrific weather conditions to reach Allied lines. Meanwhile, some unconvincing class tension breaks out between Oberon and good ol' boy Shirl Kendricks (Lawrence Bagby), much of it stemming from the Brit's unwillingness to share his cigarettes with the nicotine-starved Yank.
The story takes one implausible leap, when a captured German soldier turns out to be a former convert of Deacon's mission to Berlin. Otherwise, the movie takes a clear-eyed, clear-headed look of the rigors of war from the grunts' point of view.
Production values are astonishing given that the film was reportedly made for less than $1 million. War re-enactors volunteered to play German and Yank soldiers, while authentic jeeps, tanks and aircraft were donated by private military collectors. The film uses snowy Utah locations extremely well, with Ryan's cinematography and J. Bateman's evocative score adding to the atmosphere of nervous desperation.
SAINT AND SOLDIERS
Excel Entertainment Group
Director-cinematographer: Ryan Little
Screenwriters: Geoffrey Panos, Matt Whitaker
Based on a story by: Dennis A. Wright, Robert C. Freeman
Producers: Adam Abel, Ryan Little
Production designer: Steven A. Lee
Music: J. Bateman, Bart Hendrickson
Costumes: Cathren Warner
Editor: Wynn Hougaard
Nathan "Deacon" Greer: Corbin Allred
Steven Gould: Alexander Niver
Gordon Gunderson: Peter Holden
Oberon Winley: Kirby Heybourne
Shirl Kendrick: Lawrence Bagby
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time -- 90 minutes
Rating: 54 out of 100
The deification of a generation continues. Not gonna spend a lotta time on this one, beyond overstating the obvious, which seems to be my ouevre. Great looking film, well-acted and capably directed (Little most intelligently borrows some of his battle filming techniques from fellas like Spielberg and Scott). However, this is a movie that anyone who's spent anytime at all with WW II films has seen before. And if you haven't seen sed films, you probably aren't particularly interested in the genre, and won't get much enjoyment outta this one. You've got all yer Naked and the Dead soldier-types here, from the religious sniper to the hard-boiled heart of gold Sgt, the David Niven witty Brit to the cynical medic. The film exploits familiar conflicts--the spiritual man who has done some awful things for which he seeks redemption, the doubter who must be lead to find some faith--and resolves in predictable bitter-sweetness. While there are some welcome shadings to the depiction of soldier's wartime morality, the movie doesn't amount to much more than a professionally produced melange of warmed-over Norman Mailer war stories.
Screened at: Chelsea Cinema, NYC, 10/20/04
What would you think of a soldier in active combat during World War II who does not curse, does not smoke, and eschews coffee in favor of lemonade? You're on the money if you guessed that the guy is religious and, in fact, Nathan Greer (Corbin Allred), whose army buddies call him "Deacon" because he's so morally upright, is a Mormon. However you won't hear the word "Mormon" mentioned at any time during this hour and one-half pic, though if you're especially observant and a student of world religions, you'll realize that the "Saint" in the title, refers to the Mormon Church, aka Church of the Latter Day Saints. Truth to tell, though, all of the Americans, one Brit and even one German are saints in their way, partly because none of them curse, darn it, and none even dares to say that war is heck.
While this is a feel-good movie, save for the lack of good-old American cussin' there is nothing particularly distinctive, nothing to explain how "Saints and Soldiers" won fourteen awards at film festivals and seven audience-choice prizes. Compared to Spielbergian special-effects pics like "Saving Private Ryan" it's positively static. But the conversation is heartwarming and the little victory for the Allied side is just what we need given what's coming to us daily on CNN and Al-Jazeera from Iraq.
Though there is a fair share of suspenseful action scenes, most of the activity revolves around a small group of allies who escape near Malmedy, Belgium, as German troops massacred eighty-six prisoners of war (a true event). Behind enemy lines are the bible-carrying, lemonade slurping sharpshooter, Deacon Greer (Corbin Allred), a Brooklyn Heights New York medic with a big red-cross helmet, Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), a Louisiana bumbler with the unlikely name of Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby), and, occasionally giving orders, Sergeant Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden). To add spark to the proceedings, an RAF pilot bails out of his doomed plane at the very location of the Americans bringing with him a coveted pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. LS/MFT for those who remember.
Perhaps it's asking too much of American audiences to go for a film with not a single known cast memberwhich makes this one the ideal vehicles for film festivals at which the movie thrived. Among the scintillating conversations of this pure-mouthed crew is a debate about the afterlife, particularly heated when Steven Gould, an atheist, debates the issue of God's role: does this war mean that He is cruel, or that He is testing our faith in Him? "Saints and Soldiers" is child-friendly, a PG rating more apt than its current PG-13. It's always nice to sit in a dark theater and contemplate the one war that positioned Good vs. Evil, where there was a real enemy identified by soil rather than an amorphous, immoral beast that knows no boundaries, has no rational demands, and shoots schoolchildren in the back.
Dubiously aspiring to be a Mormon variation on Saving Private Ryan, this dull, static war movie follows five Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in the waning days of World War II. Director-cinematographer Ryan Little provides minimal visual interest with a narrow color palette--all whites and grays except for bright-red blood--but the look has the unfortunate side effect of making the action difficult to follow, particularly during the confusing firefight scenes. The thematics are similarly murky--the thin backstory hints at a conflict between the religious convictions of the hero (helpfully named Deacon) and the demands of combat, but it never fully materializes; as it is, we mainly know that he's a Mormon because he doesn't smoke or drink coffee.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
THE WWII drama "Saints and Soldiers" wants to be an epic in the mold of "Saving Private Ryan," but it's hindered by its modest budget.
The small scale works effectively enough in the more intimate scenes, and the characterizations are sufficiently solid to sustain interest throughout, but there's little here to make this stand out in an already well-stuffed genre.
Shot in snowy Utah and starring just a handful of (mostly TV) actors, "Saints" is based on true events that took place in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.
It follows a handful of American soldiers -- and one Brit, a downed RAF intelligence officer (Kirby Heyborne) -- undertaking a perilous mission behind enemy lines.
Director Ryan Little is a graduate of Brigham Young University and the title is a tip-off that the story has a religious underpinning, contemplated chiefly through the character of Corporal Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred), a former missionary who struggles to reconcile his beliefs with the hostilities that surround him.
Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 stars out of 5]
In the wake of such monumental World War II opuses as "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line," it's often easy to forget that some of the best such films of years past were more intimate than epic, emphasizing simple relationships and vexing moral dilemmas over the spectacle of armed conflict. It is in this proud tradition that "Saints and Soldiers" has been made, a timely and moving antidote to post 9/11 pessimism over the uneasy entanglement of war and religious faith.
Based on factual events, the film begins with a notorious massacre that took place in mid-December, 1944, when a German intercept of an American battalion went disastrously awry. A handful of surviving Americans are able to flee and regroup: combat-seasoned Sgt. Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden), husky Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby), cynical medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver) and quiet sharpshooter Nathan Greer (Corbin Allred). Caught behind enemy lines, the men cautiously wend their way through Belgium's Ardennes forest, along the way picking up a wayward British skydiver named Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne) who has been charged with an urgent mission to deliver top-secret documents to Allied troops. In marked contrast to the usual "men on a mission" formula, however, "Saints and Soldiers" is more preoccupied with the exchange of worldviews, philosophies and religious beliefs that engage the men in the course of their mission. At one end is the teetotaling Greer, nicknamed Deacon for his devotion to scripture and faith. At the other end is the atheistic Gould, blunted by one too many encounters with senseless death, but particularly offended by Deacon's empathetic view of the German people he grew to know and love during a prewar stint as a Berlin missionary. Even still, Deacon is a reluctant evangelist, keeping largely to himself and offering up beliefs and opinions only when pressed by Gould's interminable curiosity.
With a setup of this sort, writers Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker could easily have dragged the story into sentimental, overtly commercial obviousness. Instead they allow their characters to wrestle a good bit with their predicament and each other, coping with unforeseen complications in unpredictable and often provocative ways. It all comes at an especially noteworthy real-world point in time during which piety and religious devotion are increasingly seen as a primary source of international strife and violence. Much to their credit, the makers of "Saints and Soldiers" see things differently, drawing a line between dogmatic zealotry and the kind of genuine faith which, in their eyes, may be the only true path to peace.
Blessed with a smart script and an excellent cast of unknowns, first time director Ryan Little, who also served as cinematographer, establishes himself as a major talent. Wringing mega-budget production values from what was, by all accounts, a micro-budget at best, he shames his big studio colleagues, proving that passion can be a far more effective facilitator than money.
Those with decent memories are sure to remark on similarities to Keith Gordon's equally excellent 1992 adaptation of William Wharton's "A Midnight Clear," which also dealt with the doings of a group of soldiers in the Ardennes during December, 1944. But such similarities are, if anything, complimentary, suggesting a shared determination on the part of their filmmakers to peer past the fatigues and dog tags and into the souls of the ordinary men who must shoulder war's extraordinary soullessness.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 5]
It's round umpteenzillion for the U.S. vs. Germany in Saints and Soldiers, yet another WWII film that aims to take you behind enemy lines and into the thick of battle.
Saints and Soldiers is lovingly produced on a small budget by Ryan Little, a young director who seems obsessed with WWII. The story is based on actual events in mid-December, 1944 in Belgium (at least as they are understood today) at the Battle of the Bulge. Americans are captured by the Germans, and when they try to escape, a number are gunned down. The handful of survivors escape into the woods and try to figure out how to get back to the Allies, made all the more important due to critical information held by a British officer they encounter along the way.
If you're feeling a Saving Private Ryan vibe you're not alone. Saints is remarkably derivative of the 1998 classic, with its band of rough and tumble guys on a seemingly impossible mission. The catch is while Ryan's characters were all unique and memorable to a fault, Soldiers' bland heroes are not. The only two that stand out at all are the Brit (due to his accent) and one character who is a German sympathizer. The other members of the troop could be anyone, and the actors playing them all come across like grumpy GI's who lost their personality on D-Day.
Little's budget constraints are telling at times. It doesn't say so in the press notes, but the film seems to be shot on digital video -- it's either really good DV or really bad 35mm film -- and at times the harsh shadows and jerky handheld action don't properly wash. The battle scenes (shot in the snowy mountains in Utah) feel realistic but are terribly small in scope. You can shoot off 5,000 rounds of blanks until you're blue in the face, but it it's only a handful of people doing the shooting it doesn't come across as appropriately epic. At times, the cast limitations give the film an absurd Monty Python feel -- near the end, Little brings out the big guns, literally, as the two sides shoot rockets at one another. One soldier misses his target and the rocket impacts directly with a wispy tree that's otherwise sticking out of a barren hillside, blowing it to pieces. Predator never got this goofy.
Little's heart is in the right place and the quieter scenes among the men fare much better, but the film ultimately proves that war movies are best left to the moneybags. What's next? World War III erupts at the mall?
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 5]
War is heck in the clean-scrubbed world of "Saints and Soldiers," the best low-budget, Mormon World War II epic you'll see this year. If that sounds like faint praise, consider the 14 awards the film has garnered at festivals across the country, including seven prizes for audience choice. As the tag line "There is a time for heroes" suggests, this is an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing war picture, unambivalent in its portrait of war as a necessity and the heroism of self-sacrifice. At a time when the country is divided over these very issues, it should find an enthusiastic, if limited, audience.
The film opens in December 1944 near Malmedy, Belgium, as advancing German troops open fire on unarmed American prisoners of war, killing 86 in an event that would become known as the Malmedy Massacre. The four men who manage to escape into the nearby Ardennes forest represent a conveniently diverse cross section of war-movie archetypes: the tough-talking sergeant (Peter Holden); the devout, soft-spoken sharpshooter (Corbin Allred); the wisecracking medic from Brooklyn (Alexander Niver); and the blundering Cajun country boy (Lawrence Bagby).
Trapped behind enemy lines with a single rifle among them, the soldiers strategize about how best to make their way to the nearest American Army camp. When a stranded R.A.F. pilot (Kirby Heyborne) drops in on them by parachute, the stakes are raised: the daffy Brit is in possession of German military intelligence that could save thousands of American lives. Together, the five men must overcome German snipers, frigid weather and long patches of expository dialogue to smuggle their precious cargo across enemy lines.
Thanks to an impressive cast of largely unknown actors, this small-scale, meticulously researched film tells its story with quiet conviction. The filmmaker's religious credo sneaks in so subtly that it's not until the closing credits that you realize that the "saints" of the title are of the Latter-day variety. A key exchange between the characters Gould, the atheist cynic, and Deacon, the tormented believer, poses the familiar question: Are the horrors of war proof of the universe's cruelty or a God-given opportunity to test our faith?
Unlike most war films of the last 30 years, this one plumps unapologetically for the latter option. Its strategy for dealing with the moral ambivalence of war -- not to mention any parallels with contemporary conflicts -- is to close its eyes, put down its head and charge. Darn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
"Saints and Soldiers" opens today in Manhattan, Washington, Los Angeles and Phoenix. It is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) and includes a sprinkling of very mild profanity, lots of war-related violence and one glimpse of a pinup girl on a playing card.
Escaping from the clutches of the Nazis, a small group of American soldiers -- a tough-but-fair sergeant (Peter Asle Holden), a card-playing Cajun (Larry Bagby), an angry medic (Alexander Polinsky), and a pious Mormon (Corbin Allred) -- find themselves behind enemy lines in Belgium, forced to journey on foot through harsh winter snow. Along the way they find a crashed British pilot (Kirby Heyborne) who has crucial coded information that could help swing the tide of the war. Mormon director Ryan Little cuts back on the usual genre violence and language so as not to be too offensive to the faithful, but that doesn't affect the story any, which is still gripping and valuable in its embrace of true Christian forgiveness -- the ability to see the enemy as fellow human beings becomes key to the survival of our heroes, something our leaders today might want to consider. Heyborne's English character is a misstep, idiotically named Oberon Winley and performed with a highly suspect accent.
When Nazis capture and try to execute a group of GIs in World War II Belgium, four manage to escape into the snowy Ardennes forest. Unfortunately, the four who get away are near-cliches in uniform. We have Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred), a quiet, religious sniper who carries a Bible in his pocket and is traumatized by a recent tragedy. ("Shell shock" in those days.) There are also tough-as-nails New Yorker Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), who's a medic; Gordon "Gundy" Gunderson (Peter Holden), the down-to-earth sergeant who's a teddy bear inside; and Shirlee Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby), a good ol' Louisiana boy from "N'awlins." Worst of all, cliche-wise, is Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), a downed RAF pilot they meet who has valuable military information that could help the Allies and -- horror of horrors -- an unbelievably phony English accent. Suddenly, there's a new purpose to their escape: They must deliver that information into the right hands. But they have precious little weaponry, and the Germans are always close.
Filmmaker Ryan Little, who also made "Out of Step," based this story on true events, but he wasn't so strong on other points of believability. The almost-comic-book wartime vernacular and an extended motif about smoking Lucky Strikes feel like heavy-handed attempts to evoke the period. And despite all the life-threatening situations, warrior deaths and heroic feats, it's hard to get behind characters who feel like lazy archetypes.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 4]
"Saints and Soldiers" is a touching and reverent character study involving battle-weary soldiers as they begin to reveal themselves to each other while trapped behind enemy lines.
It would be unfair to compare this film with 100 million dollar films like "Saving Private Ryan," especially since "Saints" was delivered for less than 1 Million - but it's the story that matters and "Saints & Soldiers" is a good one.
Director Ryan Little places the viewer into the action, at times, with a slightly jerky hand-held camera. This compelling cinematography also adds to the film's desolate feel and intensifies the action.
More than anything else, "Saint and Solders" is a masterful exapmle of how to simply tell a story and keep the audience interested.
Also compelling is the film's acting. Along with Allred the film co-stars Kirby Heyborne, Larry Bagby and Peter Holden.
See why the film has garnered 13 wins (to date) at film festivals across the country.
It gets 3 stars and is rated PG-13 for war violence and related images.
Rating: *** [3 out of 5 stars]
This solidly old-fashioned World War II drama is marketed to the Mormon community, though its Mormon connections are never overt. Directed by Ryan Little, the film benefits by being a small-scale war movie intent on following the actions of five soldiers who are trapped behind German lines, desperate to make it to freedom and to deliver a crucial bit of information. With solid acting and writing and direction that tends toward the quiet and natural, it manages to turn simply avoiding missteps into something of a virtue. Though the examination of faith, self-sacrifice and morality is not groundbreaking, it always holds our interest. Corbin Allred, Alexander Niver, Peter Holden, Kirby Heyborne and Lawrence Bagby star.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 out of 4 stars]
Well-shot, finely acted but too treacly and predictable, "Saints and Soldiers" fashions itself as a Mormon take on a "Saving Private Ryan"-style war film.
Director Ryan Little, inspired by Steven Spielberg's gritty opus, admirably strives for authenticity and stark realism. Press notes indicate that the actors wore authentic patches, uniforms and even underwear that soldiers used circa December 1944. The action focuses on troops who survive the Malmedy Massacre in Belgium, in the time leading up to the Battle of the Bulge.
So hard-core is the violent film, it was originally rated R by the MPAA, rendering it unwatchable to much of its target audience, because Mormons are discouraged from seeing movies rated R. A re-cut let the still-bloody film squeak by with a PG-13.
A solid, good-looking effort that bends a bit too much toward war-film conventions, "Saints and Soldiers" marks the continuing evolution of films made by and for Mormons. Lack of the ham-fisted preachiness that tends to permeate much of the genre may allow the film to become a crossover general-audience hit, in the vein of the successful summer comedy "Napoleon Dynamite."
Filmed mostly in snowy forests near Alpine, Utah, "Saints and Soldiers" follows a band of Americans stuck behind enemy lines. After Nazis open fire on a captured squadron, a few American soldiers play dead and escape, scampering off into the wilderness.
The story centers around detached and spiritual Snowflake, Ariz., native Nathan Greer (Corbin Allred), who devotedly reads from a book of Scripture he keeps in his inside coat pocket and refuses to drink coffee or smoke cigarettes. He speaks of God and religion, but never identifies his faith. There's all but a flashing neon "Mormon" sign over his head. Greer's comrades assume he's Baptist and nickname him "Deacon."
It might have been tempting for the filmmakers to make the one Mormon character into a flawless beacon of stability, but Greer has some faults, including a tendency to hallucinate and flip out. Greer is a severely haunted, shellshocked soul who clings to his faith to persevere.
Greer, who explains his fluency in the German language by revealing that he served two years as a missionary in Germany, doesn't outwardly preach to others about his religion, but the inner peace he keeps despite the trauma he suffered spurs others, including hidebound atheist medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), to grudgingly inquire about his faith.
If you can't see where this is going, you've never seen a war movie.
The beleaguered band finds a friend in British operative Oberon Winley, played by Kirby Heyborne, a veteran of the Mormon movie circuit who appeared in "The Singles Ward" and "The Best Two Years." Winley claims to have essential intelligence and insists the others escort him back to a command post.
Stereotypes abound among the men, including the Dumb Southern Guy, Tough New Yorker and Cynical Chicagoan. The men discuss the troubles of life and the hell of war, watch one another's backs and suspect fellow soldiers of sympathizing with the Germans.
"Saints and Soldiers" soars when it moves beyond the clumsy characterization and clings to its through-line of urgent drama and nerve-shattering war action. Had director Little been more willing to play to his strengths of tension and battle choreography, his film might have become something more than a religious World War II-set curiosity.