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Saints And Soldiers
cast: Colin Allred, Alexander Polinsky, Kirby Heybourne, Larry Bagby, and Peter Asle Holden

director: Ryan Little

90 minutes (15) 2003
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Made on a small budget with a relatively unknown cast, writers and director, Saints And Soldiers is a World War II film that follows nicely in the tradition of Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers but which might leave a few scratching their heads over the film's message.

The film starts with allied forces finding evidence of the German massacre at Malmedy but it actually tells the story of those who managed to escape it. As a group of American soldiers flee, trying to avoid capture despite being behind enemy lines, they encounter a downed British airman who has important intelligence that needs to be relayed to allied commanders or many allied troops could die. The group set off across country in the depths of winter, narrowly avoiding capture a number of times. As they travel we learn more about the soldiers' personalities, most notably in the form of Deacon and Gould playing off each other. Forced to stop by the weather, the group take refuge in a French woman's house and save her from being assaulted by a German prisoner. However, one of the Germans they capture turns out to be an old friend of Deacon's and his decision to let him go might well return to haunt them.

For such a small production, Saints And Soldiers does very well. It is well photographed, well directed and the simple plot keeps the action ticking over quite nicely without ever allowing the pace to slow. Apart from the terrible accents, the cast turn in good performances and the dialogue, while rarely inspired, has a number of funny moments. The director also does well with the action scenes by keeping them simple for most of the film but shifting up a gear at the end when he gives us a nicely shot set piece featuring a fire-fight up a stone staircase and a series of steep paths. Visually, the film looks a lot like Band Of Brothers, partly because of the winter setting (reminiscent of that series' episodes set in the Ardennes) but also because of the use of filters that make the snow look whiter than white while bleaching out the colours, giving the film an almost black and white appearance at times. Indeed, the similarities between Little's film and Spielberg's film and TV series do not end there as Little adopts the same approach to the Second World War as Spielberg.

Despite his role in resurrecting the Nazi as a contemporary screen villain in the Indiana Jones trilogy and his portrayal of the Holocaust in Schindler's List, Spielberg has put forward the modern historical perspective that portrays the German soldiery as victims who were only doing their job in order to stay alive. This is quite different from more traditional war films that had no sympathy whatsoever for German soldiers and therefore tended to portray them all as evil men commanded by sinister and occasionally camp Nazis. Indeed, Spielberg's approach has lead to films that are less about the absolute morality of the Second World War and more about the war as a source of moral quandaries and psychological trauma. Little follows Spielberg in making Saints And Soldiers a human drama. This human drama gives this film its depth, intelligence but also, its possibly questionable message by centring the film on the clash between two personalities and ways of seeing the world.

The two main characters are the Christian missionary and skilled warrior Deacon (a good man driven to the brink of insanity by the guilt of having accidentally killed a group of women and children) and Gould (a cynical Atheist medic who tried to dodge the draft until his father hunted him down and forced him to enlist). At the end of the film, Deacon chooses to release a German soldier he knew from his time as a missionary despite Gould's claims that he should have shot him when he had the chance. A few moments later, the German reappears and helps the group escape. Clearly the film has the message that those who do good will have good done to them. However, the film also has a different, more sinister message.

At the end of the film, Gould is seen discretely slipping a bible into his pocket. Clearly his experience and his time with Deacon changed him. It's possible to interpret this as the actions of the German having re-awakened Gould's belief in humanity, but it is also possible to see it as Deacon's actions giving Gould a reason to re-examine his atheism. This interpretation gains strength when you realise that the film was shot near Salt Lake City and that a number of the people involved in the making of this film were Mormons. This would seem to suggest that Saints And Soldiers is a form of Christian propaganda; with the message that by doing good, a Christian can bring atheists to God because atheists are simply wayward sheep. Obviously, this is only one interpretation of the film (and a paranoid one at that) but when you see the film, I'm sure you will agree that it is an interpretation with some substance to it. Regardless of the writers' and director's intent, if such a subtext does exist it does so in a far from heavyhanded way and it is quite possible to enjoy the film without feeling as if you've just been waylaid by people wanting to talk to you about 'Jeeeeeesus'.

In conclusion, this is a well made if utterly unoriginal war film that should play well with anyone who enjoyed Saving Private Ryan or Band Of Brothers and that general approach to the Second World War. The hint of sermonising might leave a bitter aftertaste in those who are sensitive to such matters but it is a relatively minor concern. This is good solid fun but it does leave me wishing that someone out there would one day remake a film about the Second World War where German soldiers aren't victims.
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