Judge Ryan Keefer is amazed at how well a movie can be made with some friends that have heavy machinery.
There is a time for heroes.
A small independent film set in World War II and rated PG-13 received Jury and Audience awards at a dozen film festivals in 2004 and won Grand Prizes in several others. Saints and Soldiers has now arrived on DVD and looks to secure a place in an already crowded genre.
Facts of the Case
Based on experiences of World War II veterans, Saints and Soldiers starts with scenes from a massacre in Malmedy, Belgium, that resulted in the deaths of over 70 unarmed Allied soldiers. However, three soldiers and one medic manage to survive the ambush and attempt to cross back into Allied territory with limited food, shelter and armament. They encounter a British paratrooper who possesses vital information on possible German bombing targets, and in trying to get back to safe ground, the troops learn about themselves and each other. It sounds corny, but it's the most harmless way I can put it.
Saints and Soldiers was produced for a small amount of money, but it does prove the age old statement that if that a production has full faith in the filmmakers and the film, the film will be a critical success. In relative unknown Ryan Little there is a capable filmmaking talent with a keen eye for imagery. In the 90 minute film he paints a vivid picture of each character and you can relate to one or all facets of them as events transpire. The medic Gould (Alexander Niver, Charles in Charge) hails from New York and is by far the outspoken one of the group. There's also the large, friendly Cajun named Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby, Hocus Pocus), the capable Gunderson (Peter Holden, Out of Step) and the quiet, overtly religious Deacon (Corbin Allred, Anywhere But Here), and the bold British soldier Winley (Kirby Heyborne, Everwood). On their trek back to Allied territory, they gain a newfound respect for one another.
The primary focus is on Deacon, whose missionary work seems somewhat similar to that done by the Mormons, though his affiliation is never made clear. In the interest of full disclosure, much of the cast apparently has done similar missionary work and the studio (Excel Entertainment) produces a series of religious themed films. While there are some instances that could be interpreted as the filmmakers thumping the viewer over the head with a Bible, overall, it's not as bad as one might think. I think that it if you look at things from the standpoint of someone who is looking for their own peace in the midst of insanity and chaos, regardless of their core beliefs, it's not really that bad of a concept. In my Army days, I believed in coffee, cigarettes and ramen noodles whenever I had to "play war," and I'm sure there were those who had objections to that.
What's amazing about this movie is that it was made for under a million dollars. The Utah Mountains were an easy substitute for Belgium, and over 100 war re-enactors were cast as extras. Many of them had contacts that allowed the filmmakers access to half-tracks and other vehicles, and even a P-51 Mustang. This is in addition to the blanks, squibs and small arms like grenades that were employed. Not only was Little the film's director and producer, but he was also responsible for the cinematography. He shot it all himself with handheld cameras, and the result looks remarkably like a forgotten episode of Band of Brothers. I'm convinced that perhaps in a weaker year Saints and Soldiers would have walked away with the Independent Spirit awards (Best Cinematography and Best First Feature) for which it was nominated. However, lined up against Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite and The Motorcycle Diaries, it's been largely forgotten since it was released.
The DVD transfer presents the film with lots of razor-sharp clarity, so much so that you can identify individual snowflakes if you look hard enough. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is excellent, standing among the better tracks in recent memory, and outstanding for such a small film. It's a little on the loud side, but during the opening scenes at Malmedy, you're right in the middle of things.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's something that seems almost inherently wrong with a 21st century war movie that carries a PG-13 rating; from time to time I had a morbid streak and wanted to see a little more gore. To be quite honest, it really didn't detract from the movie, which was still very enthralling. Because the war film genre has been done to death recently, some of the trends in this film have been seen in other films. And despite the praise I have for the characters, they're still a little bit recycled; for instance, the "loudmouth New Yawk" soldier role was done several times, most recently by Edward Burns in Saving Private Ryan.
Saints and Soldiers comes to video shelves several years after larger studios' more successful releases. Despite the lack of large scale war sequences (which can be written off because of the small budget), it's an engaging film with a big budget feel and produces a sizable investment in the characters.
The filmmakers are acquitted for their hard work and perseverance in producing a quality war film about the people and their quest, and not about the battles fought. It doesn't hurt that the battles look and sound excellent. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Excel Entertainment
• Making of Featurette
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