Saints and Soldiers may be this year’s biggest surprise
A film that can boast of winning awards at over a dozen film festivals would hardly seem in need of the kind of rousing approval that critics reserve for underdog films. But when the film is “Saints and Soldiers’ a miraculous little WWII drama coming from seemingly out of nowhere and distributed by a small Utah-based film company best known for “The Other Side of Heaven” and “God’s Army” then it’s a cause for celebration.
Based on actual events, “Saints and Soldiers” tells the story of a small group of US Army survivors from the Malmedy Massacre trapped behind enemy lines in Belgium during the snow pounding winter of 1944. Minimally equipped and surrounded by one of the most brutal German forces, the band of soldiers rescues a British pilot (Kirby Heyborne, “The Best Two Years,” “The R.M”) who has information vital to the allied forces.
Together the motley regiment battles through the frozen wilderness and forges a bond despite the seemingly impossible odds of survival. What “Saints and Soldiers” lacks in epic grandeur it more than makes up for in sturdy, solid storytelling and dialogue that never reaches for maudlin sentimentality.
Without the objective, or the budget for that matter, to stage a major battle sequence, feature-film first time director Ryan Little has created that rare occurrence of a war movie that relies on its narrative rather than explosions for its emotional power.
Screenwriters Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker have clearly done their research to produce a gripping, authentic drama that seamlessly borrows from many real accounts yet rarely seems forced-most notably while punctuating its non-denominational religious undertones.
Corbin Allred potrays Nathan “Deacon” Greer a sharp-shooting soldier haunted by an unfortunate combat-related accident. Having served in Germany as a missionary, his connection to his enemy exposes both his communication advantages but a potentially moral dilemma as well. The other company members played by Alexander Niver, Peter Holden, and Lawrence Bagby and the aforementioned Heyborne (who sports a dandy British accent) are remarkably consistent for a group of actors whose resumes primarily involve guest spots on television shows.
Smashing the Hollywood formula that big names and big budgets alone satisfy today’s fickle audiences, “Saints and Soldiers” offers a film that never offends either the sensibility of its gritty subject matter nor the sensitivity of those who find most films of this genre overly and unnecessarily graphic.
While “Saints and Soldiers” won’t make people forget “Saving Private Ryan” anytime soon it succeeds on a personal level in much the same way as “We Were Soldiers” and “Black Hawk Down” minus the cacophony of carnage. It is also more effective in many ways than “Pearl Harbor” and does so without the advantage of pricey technology or historical nostalgia.
That a film can succeed on so many levels while being shot entirely in our humble state using a cast and crew of relative newcomers proves that serious filmmaking that incorporates enough passion and inspiration is still viable in these days of cynicism and bloated bombast. And that’s a victory worth cheering.
Rated PG-13 (For violence and related images)