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At Malmedy, the prisoners
Were massacred among the firs.
Survivors fled, though only four,
Content to hide and nothing more
Behind the German lines adverse,
Until a Brit convinces all
To risk their lives through snowy pall,
More lives to save from waning war
In snowy squall.
Camaraderie begins to grow
Among the outfit, lying low.
Through losses testing faith and nerve,
They carry on, like all who serve,
And gain perspective on the foe
From those who fall.

Who knew that a war movie made by Mormons would become one of my favorites of the whole genre? I watched Saints and Soldiers with low, if any, expectations and was completely enthralled by its powerful story. Set around real-life events, like the Malmedy massacre and the Battle of the Bulge, the film incorporates several true anecdotes into its tale of five soldiers behind enemy lines.

Though none of the actors are well-known stars, the entire film centers on its character development and excels at it: faithful but traumatized Deacon, coolheaded Gunderson, cigarette-craving Kendrick, suspicious doctor Gould, and swaggering Brit Winley. Every exchange provides either insights into their characters or humorous incidents that endear them to the audience and to each other. The writers throw in deftly written dialogue cues about each character’s “secret” and backstory that work even better than flashbacks would. By the time some of them give “their last full measure of devotion,” we feel as if we know most of them and are shaken by the loss as much as their fellow soldiers. Many movies have attempted such emotional direction, but Saints and Soldiers succeeds, at least for me.

For a low-budget production, the film boasts surprisingly genuine performances; stunning winter cinematography; a stirring, patriotic score; and a number of period details, from military costumes to antique vehicles, which add to its overall authenticity. One well-handled aspect is its Christian message; yes, it features somewhat of an evangelistic subplot, but it is never preachy and could have indeed happened out on the battlefield. Deacon is written as a Mormon from Snowflake, Arizona (“Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t even like coffee.”), but the only explicit elements of his faith are his reading of a small book (probably a Bible) and a brief, interrupted prayer. His faith acts as a complement to the story rather than the main focus and in the end is affirmed in a satisfying and realistic way.

Of course, there are also the usual explosions and battle scenes necessary in a war movie, and though many die and it is certainly intense, the violence is brief and restrained. Modern war films too often delve into the overly gritty, gory details that make war hell, claiming truthfully that it is “realistic,” but Saints and Soldiers achieves the same impact and emotion without profanity and without depicting heads blown off and blood spurting.

A lesser-known classic, Saints and Soldiers is a powerful, character-driven fight for survival that doesn’t demonize the enemy nor idealize the heroes and ought to be a model for other war films.

Rank: 54 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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