Nowadays war movies, especially those set in World War II, are the exclusive domain of Hollywood, what with their unlimited resources and mind-numbing ability to throw as much money as humanly possible at a production. So you have to give Ryan Little and his boys credit for even daring to mount a movie like “Saints and Soldiers”. If the film is even a little bit successful, Little should be congratulated. Having said that, how is our modestly budgeted stab at a WWII movie? Answer: Pretty damn good.
The film is about four American GIs captured behind enemy lines. After they miraculously escape a German firing squad, the foursome is willing to wait the war out. Things change when they find downed English pilot Winley (Kirby Heyborne), who has knowledge of the German’s upcoming surprise charge through Allied lines. Led by stout Sergeant Gunderson (Peter Holden), the five men decide to make the perilous trek back to friendly territory to warn the Allies. So arm with Winley’s pistol and one German rifle, the five soldiers try to save some lives, even if it means giving up their own.
Although the film firmly establishes its objective early on, the movie seems to be more concern with a subplot involving marksman Deacon (Corbin Allred), an ex-missionary who has begun to see ghostly visions as the days wear on. Haunted by the lives he’s taken as a soldier, Deacon fails to kill a German during the escape, and seems lost throughout the mission, looking for things that aren’t there. Watching over Deacon like a hawk is medic Gould (Alexander Niver), a New Yorker who is at home fixing up bullet wounds as he is going through the pockets of the dead. Englishman Winley, on the other hand, seems to exist only for comedic purposes, especially in his interactions with the oafish Kendrick (Larry Bagby).
If my World War II history is correct, the film is taking place during the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans, suddenly realizing that defeat was possible, made a last, massive counter offensive in the dead of winter. Then again, since the film doesn’t really date itself (or if it did, I missed it), it hardly matters. In this case, the characters are the story, with the mission itself nothing more than a McGuffin. With a small cast of 5 major actors, Little has crafted an involving film. It’s amazing what you can do with a lot of sweat, a solid script, a strong cast, and a talented director.
Not that I’ll tell you “Saints and Soldiers” is on par with WWII epics like “The Thin Red Line” or “Saving Private Ryan”. Those films were monumental achievements and rewrote the way war films were made. Even so, credit must still be given. With a single location and a cast of relative unknowns, “Soldiers'” short 85-minute running length ends up being just right. The personalities in “Saints” are also very clear, and for once I actually remembered all the names of characters in a war movie. Now that, in itself, is a major accomplishment.
Of the cast, Alexander Niver is the film’s standout. Despite the fact that the script is geared towards making Corbin Allred’s character the hero, Niver steals much of the movie with his hard gaze and dark personality. As the tortured Deacon, Allred had more to work with, and it’s an acknowledgement of Niver’s skills that he’s able to make Gould the most memorable soldier of the bunch. All this, despite the fact that the cast basically comes from Central Casting — i.e. the New Yorker, the country hick, the religious marksman, and the tough Sergeant. Not exactly unique characterization, but I suppose that’s the price of making war movies nowadays. No matter how hard screenwriters try, they invariably end up throwing the exact same mix together time and time again.
Cliched characters aside, “Saints and Soldiers” makes great use of its limited locations. The wooded forest where most of the movie takes place is put to effective use. Although it’s probably a given that the filmmakers reused the same patch of land multiple times, the cinematography by Little nevertheless shines. The film looks terrific from beginning to end, with the white snow clashing beautifully against the onscreen violence. Speaking of which, “Soldiers” has a number of thrilling action sequences for the action junkie. It’s obvious Little spent a lot of time choreographing the scenes. They might not be as ferocious and complex as your typical action sequence in “Band of Brothers”, but they’re still quite good.
Little and company have achieved something pretty impressive with “Saints and Soldiers”. This is a fantastic war movie, aided by a strong script, an excellent cast, and an immensely talented filmmaker. Who knew you could still make a gritty and realistic war movie that didn’t cost $100 million? Apparently Ryan Little did.
Ryan Little (director) / Geoffrey Panos, Matt Whitaker (screenplay)
CAST: Corbin Allred …. Deacon Greer
Larry Bagby …. Shirl Kendrick
Kirby Heyborne …. Oberon Winley
Peter Asle Holden …. Gordon Gunderson
Alexander Niver …. Steven Gould