Saints and Soldiers Review
It's December 1944 and although the soldiers on the ground in Europe don't know it, the Second World War has less than a year before Germany is defeated. Yet, the skirmishes between the Allies and the Nazis go on with the two often battling for towns and villages on the Western European front, including Belgium's Ardennes Forest, where, at Malmedy, a group of Nazis opened fire on their American prisoners, killing over seventy GIs. Four soldiers manage to escape the massacre - Nathan Greer (Corbin Allred), nicknamed Deacon on account of his strict religious beliefs, medic Gould (Alexander Polinsky), Kendrick (Larry Bagby) and Sgt. Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden) - and hide in the snow and the forests until they hear the Nazis leave, at which point they gather themselves and plan a route back to Allied territory.
Along the way, though, they meet a British spy, Flight Sergeant Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), who has information with him that is crucial to Allied success in the area and so Gunderson changes their plans, telling Winley that he and the others will escort him to a nearby Allied post despite it taking them behind enemy lines. So the five soldiers trudge through the snow and sneak past Nazi patrols but they've not slept in days and Deacon, the best shot in the troop and the one holding the rifle, is haunted by the ghosts of two innocent women and four children whose deaths he was responsible for as he hunted a German sniper. When he freezes, letting go a German soldier, the sarge believes in Deacon and that he'll come good but no else, least of all Gould, seems half as confident, worrying that their deaths will be the penance so sought after by Deacon as he seeks forgiveness and a way to put an end to his guilt.
It's odd to profess a certain faith in God whilst, at the same time, about to criticise a film and a director for that very thing, largely because faith is something that's difficult to accurately portray in film. I grant you that Hollywood has a long history of making religious epics - The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur, King Of Kings and so on - but faith, as opposed to the telling of stories from the bible, is a much more difficult thing to express onscreen. After all, were I not to have admitted being a Catholic on these pages, would it be possible to ascertain that information from what I write. Similarly, can you look to your colleagues at work and accurately note their particular beliefs, or lack of them, based on what they do. Even in the most well-known religious film of recent years, The Passion Of The Christ, the actual issue of faith and of Christian belief was only credited in the film's final minute, when we see Christ is no longer in his tomb.
For Christians, Christ dying is not what the Catholic Church was founded upon, rather it was his resurrection and yet that is the part of Christ's life that religious films have tended to shy away from. How easy would it be to show an actor rising from the dead, bestowing life everlasting to all those who believe, revealing the wounds in his hands and feet before his ascension into Heaven without having the audience snigger at the incredulity of it all? I would argue that for most of us, faith is a very private concern and that we're not disposed to believe in miracles. Even the Catholic Church, in their process of beatifying a saint, are wary of miracles and require a fair degree of certainty before naming anyone a saint. Admittedly, this may be somewhat flexible with recent murmurings regarding the beatification of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) but the concerns of the Catholic Church stands as a reflection of society - when all around us appears so very ordinary, it is surely too much of a leap of faith to believe in miracles.
A miracle of sorts is what Saints And Soldiers hangs upon. The hero of the piece is Nathan Greer, nicknamed Deacon, who carries a bible with him everywhere and, as the film progresses, we find out that he spent some time on a missionary in Berlin before the outbreak of war. It was there that he picked up what German he knows as well as a number of friendships with German families. Because of this, Gould, who is the kind of tough Brooklyn kid who's all too common in war movies, doesn't trust him but we also know that Deacon doesn't quite trust himself. As would any of us were we drafted for war, there remains the question of whether a killing during wartime is, to one's moral sense, different to one during peacetime and Deacon spends much time reading the Bible in pursuit of an answer. That he does shoot at and kill Nazis doesn't mean that he's necessarily found an answer, more that he does what I believe any of us would do - he kills to stay alive - but as is witnessed by the testimony of many veterans of various wars, the faces and names of those they killed come back to them over the ensuing years.
The miracle within Saints And Soldiers is not that Deacon survives the slaughter that opens the film but that he misses a German soldier when he knows that he should not have done. As Sgt. Gunderson says, Deacon is the best shot he knows and Deacon admits as much, saying that he rarely misses but when he shoots at and misses an enemy, he takes that as a sign of divine purpose. When this soldier is later captured by Winley and is shown to be a young German who Deacon met and became friends with during his time in Berlin, we are led to believe that Deacon is right, that this is no chance meeting but one that was predestined. As such, it is impressed upon the viewer that each man in the troop is going to change in some way as a result of this meeting and so the film plays out in that fashion with the cynical, hard-to-impress Gould learning that Germans can be people too. Although he isn't the writer, director Ryan Little's background is in producing films from his Utah home that reflect the questions of faith rising from his knowledge and possible involvement in the Church of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons. Saints And Soldiers reflects this with Deacon, whose actions are informed by his beliefs in God, being the one whose actions leave a lasting impression on those who fight alongside him.
Admittedly, not killing a Nazi at close range isn't much a miracle - no burning bush, parting of the seas or columns of fire here - but it still felt all wrong in the film. Up to that point, Saints And Soldiers had run like an episode of Band Of Brothers - with its snowy landscape, it bears closest comparison to the episode The Breaking Point - or indeed to the early part of Castle Keep but once Deacon begins trying to find a reason behind his missing of the German soldier, it loses credibility. That said, the arrival of Oberon Winley turns the film for the better with his teasing of Kendrick - there's a running gag about one desperately wanting a cigarette from the other - giving Saints And Soldiers a more easygoing manner, distinct from the furrowed brows of Gould and Deacon. That there is such a clear line between Deacon's feelings of guilt and the lack of trust between him and Gould in one strand of the film and the gallows humour between Winley and Kendrick in the other shows that presenting the issues of faith are Ryan Little's main concern and that he has ring-fenced Deacon's faith as being beyond question.
Ordinarily, I would admire Saints And Soldiers a great deal - it looks beautiful, it's offbeat, it's occasionally funny and it has as much of an eye on one's soul as it does the here-and-now but it doesn't come together as it should. As I find with anyone who takes their faith too seriously, the film lacks the sense of the absurd. Much religion is, after all, difficult to quantify based on what we can see, hear and touch and so, rather than looking for proof of God, faith is based on belief and nothing more. Saints And Soldiers looks to prove there is a God who intervenes in our lives and although this is certainly novel, I'm afraid that it never quite convinces.
Oddly, Saints And Soldiers comes to DVD with a mix of the good and the bad. Beginning with the image quality, it is very good indeed with sharp picture that captures the shadows in the forest and the falling snowflakes with ease and with a contrast good enough to make the forests, buildings and various soldiers stand out from the blanket of snow that covers the ground. The only real complaint that one can make is that the film betrays its budget a few times too often with the few special effects standing out with the amount of digital noise that surrounds them but so long as Ryan Little keeps his actors and the camera moving, the viewer doesn't really have enough time to hold on one image to notice this.
On the other hand, the audio track suffers badly. It's not that the 2.0 nor the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks are bad - they aren't, particularly the latter, which makes great use of the rear channels for gunshot and ambient effects and is as clean as the picture - it's more that the synch between the picture and the audio track is out, leaving the dialogue coming a beat after the actors' lips move. At first, I thought this might be a problem with my setup and spent the first half-hour fiddling with the delay on my A/V amp - my main television is a plasma screen and it typically adds in a delay on top of that within the cabling and the A/V processor - but the next morning, I looked at it again on a PC and on a standard television with internal speakers and had exactly the same problem. Typically, my main setup has a delay on the audio signal of 3ms but to even get close to matching the dialogue and action, this had to be reset to, at first, 7ms and then 14ms later in the film but, even then, there was something not quite right about it, particularly when, on a big screen, it's noticeable that the picture and sound are not synchronised.
If you have an A/V amp where you can delay the audio signal than you may get some enjoyment out of this film but for those connecting their DVD player to a standard television or surround sound system that doesn't have this feature, Saints And Soldiers may not be worth bothering with.
Commentary: Director Ryan Little, co-producer Adam Abel and co-writer Matt Whitaker are enthusiastic contributors to this track and, one assumes, to the film, proving that a lack of budget is no hindrance to the making of an authentic-looking movie set during wartime. Otherwise, and take it as read that they sustain their commentary on an almost constant level throughout the film with there being few gaps, this isn't bad - informative enough on the making of the film in terms of locations, cast, extras, crew, etc. for all but those most interested in the minutiae of a production but also explaining the stories from WWII veterans who inspired the film. There's a fair deal of backslapping, unfortunately, but accept that and this is pretty good.
Making Of Feature (23m42s): The story behind Saints And Soldiers is an interesting one - produced for less than $1m, it used the Utah mountains to stand in for the Ardennes forest and various war reenactment societies for uniforms, extras and equipment, many of whom worked on the film for nothing. This Making Of describes that production and the cast and crew are on hand to take the viewer through the writing, casting, principal photography and release of the film, followed by its success at various film festivals. Special mention is reserved for Raymond Meldrum, the film's military advisor, who sourced various rare pieces of hardware, including two Nazi half-track vehicles where Saving Private Ryan, with its much greater budget, only had one. This never outstays its welcome and its an often interesting piece that sheds much light on the production of the film.
There's little to add here on Saints And Soldiers other than to summarise what's already been said - it's a frequently beautiful film but is let down by a dreadful transfer whilst many of its more interesting moments are lost between Deacon's questions over his actions, his faith and what his failure to shoot an enemy soldier means. There are, one suspects, good films to be made on the issue of faith - The Rapture is one that springs to mind, which challenges the belief of born-again Christians in a forthcoming apocalypse and of a God that would allow such a thing to happen - but this isn't one and although it's a credit to its producers, there's also the suggestion that much better is to come.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:43:58