The ‘Saints and Soldiers’ DVD case trumpets its status as Best Picture winner at seven different film festivals. The font is small and the white typeface kind of blends in with the snowy cover image, but if you squint hard enough, you make it out: Marco Island Film Festival, Ojal Festival, Heartland Film Festival, Winslow Film Festival, San Diego Film Festival, Sacramento Festival of Cinema and Long Beach International Film Festival.
Nah, I’ve never heard of half of them either.
Knowing little about the film other than that most of the cast are affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I sat down to watch it with a vague sense of trepidation. Would it prove a genuine cinematic achievement or a theological propaganda piece?
The religious elements, to my relief (the soldiers might have been in foxholes, but I wasn’t, so my atheism remained intact), were synthesized into the story and given a moral/humanist context rather than rendering ‘Saints and Soldiers’ the cinematic equivalent of a couple of way too neatly turned-out Jehovah’s witnesses turning up on your doorstep on a Saturday morning when you’re nursing a hangover and just wanting some peace and quiet.
But what of its cinematic achievements? On the whole, it’s a fairly well realized piece of filmmaking given its small budget (three quarters of a million) and the fact that, as a result, Utah had to stand in for the Ardennes. Directed with a keen eye by Ryan Little (he was also cinematographer), generally well acted and unexpectedly tense during its closing scenes, it’s a decent movie that might have been a damn good one but for a couple of flaws. Only a couple, mind, but they’re jarring enough to be significant.
The opening scene, based on the Malmedy massacre in 1944, is very well done, establishing its cast of beleaguered American soldiers as everyday guys just trying to survive and presenting the Germans as more than mere rent-a-Kraut clichés. One moment of panic leads to bloodshed and our four mismatched survivors – guilt-ridden Christian Corporal Nathan “Deacon” Greer (Corbin Allred), pragmatic Staff Sergeant Gordon Gunnerson (Peter Holden), cynical medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver) and lugubrious Private Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) – plunge into the Ardennes forest and desperately try to evade German patrols.
So far so good: a seldom-mentioned wartime event as backdrop, some neatly seeded visual hints as to the source of Deacon’s guilt, and a personality clash between Gould and Deacon shaping up tensely. Plus Little’s ability to conjure images of wintry desolation that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Ivan’s Childhood’.
About a third of the way in, however, Little and scripters Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker seem to lose faith in the dramatic potential of their survival-behind-enemy-lines narrative and throw in a downed British flyer, Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), in possession of critical information that could change the course of etc etc etc. The sudden lurch into against-the-clock thrilleramics never quite convinces.
Nor does Heyborne’s performance. Quite apart from the only British character in the movie being called Oberon Winley (which is about as facile as if they’d called one of the Germans Fritz Wienerschnitzel), Heyborne’s attempt at an English accent is so bad it tips the whole thing into parody. Particularly when he’s served with an already fuck-awful line like “Well, you chaps have been super, but I must be off” and it comes out as “Weyell, yeeew chips hiv bayn soopah, but Eyh mist be orf.” Every time the guy opens his mouth, it’s ‘Goon Show’ territory. And unfortunately he opens his mouth a lot during the last two-thirds of the film.
As a thirty minute short without the comedy Brit and the naff top-secret info MacGuffin, ‘Saints and Soldiers’ could have been world-class. At feature length, it’s something of a noble failure. Still, it went over big at Marco Island and Ojal.