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Faith is under fire in a well-made 'Saints'

Mormon principles underpin the war movie 'Saints and Soldiers,' but never feel forced.

October 15, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Saints and Soldiers" may be an independent film, but it's not the kind we're used to. It's a solidly old-fashioned World War II drama with a protagonist accurately described by his friend as "the squarest guy I know." The movie insists right and wrong are things that matter, which, for the filmmakers, is very much the case.

Directed by Ryan Little, "Saints and Soldiers" is distributed by Salt Lake City's Excel Entertainment, a group that has effectively marketed well-reviewed films such as "God's Army" and "Brigham City" to a previously untapped audience: the LDS (Latter-day Saint) or Mormon community.

Although the initiated will pick up hints about its origins (the title is one of several tipoffs), what is different about "Saints and Soldiers" is that its LDS connections are never overt. The film, which has won awards at 14 film festivals, can be easily appreciated by people who think of Brigham Young as the name of a college football team.

Inspired by actual events, "Saints and Soldiers" benefits by being a small-scale war movie, intent on following the actions of five soldiers who are trapped behind German lines, desperate to make it to freedom and to deliver a crucial bit of information. With solid acting and writing and direction that tends toward the quiet and natural, "Saints and Soldiers" manages to turn simply avoiding missteps into something of a virtue.

Shot in various Utah locations, including the Sundance Ski Resort, "Saints and Soldiers" does a convincing job creating a sense of place. The heavily wooded and snowy terrain makes you feel the chill of Belgium's Ardennes Forest toward the end of December 1944, and the details of physical production add to that sense of verisimilitude.

For "Saints and Soldiers" had the good fortune to connect not only with war re-enactors, over 120 of whom were willing to lie in the snow for hours at a time, but also with key armory collectors. All the weapons and military vehicles in the film are authentic and, the press material boasts, even though "Saving Private Ryan" could manage only one German half-track, this film has corralled two.

As written by Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker, "Saints and Soldiers" begins with a real event that came to be known as the Malmedy Massacre, the killing of a group of American prisoners by German troops.

Escaping the gunfire are four Americans commanded by tough Sgt. Gunderson (Peter Holden). As is inevitably the case with war movies, these guys just happen to form a geographically heterogeneous group representing wildly different parts of the country.

Gould (Alexander Niver) is a cynical New Yorker, a medic not above robbing the dead. Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) is a Louisiana country boy determined to "get me some more Krauts."

And then there is Greer (Corbin Allred), familiarly known as Deacon, a dead shot with a different attitude.

Though "Saints and Soldiers" never says it in so many words, several factors identify Deacon as a Mormon. He neither smokes nor drinks coffee, he grew up in Snowflake, Ariz., and he mentions prewar missionary work he did in Germany, an assignment that gave him a knowledge of the language that some of the others find suspicious.

Though clearly the good guy, Deacon is having problems with shell shock and hallucinations as the result of an incident whose nature is gradually revealed. The guys also have to deal with downed British pilot Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), a character as off-putting as his name, who puts everyone even more on edge as he insists on getting vital information in his possession to HQ.

Though "Saints and Soldiers'" examination of faith, self-sacrifice and morality is not groundbreaking, it always holds our interest.

So do the film's combat sequences, which, ironically for a picture intentionally made to give veterans something to take their children and grandchildren to, ended up being rated R for its violence before being reedited to its current PG-13 form. Even films that praise the Lord have to worry about passing the ammunition.


'Saints and Soldiers'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for war violence and related images.

Times guidelines: wartime violence.

Corbin Allred...Nathan Deacon Greer

Alexander Niver...Steven Gould

Peter Holden...Gordon Gunderson

Kirby Heybourne...Oberon Winley

Lawrence Bagby...Shirl Kendrick

A Medal of Honor production, released by Excel Entertainment Group. Director Ryan Little. Producers Adam Abel, Ryan Little. Screenplay Geoffrey Panos, Matt Whitaker. Editor Wynn Hougaard. Music J. Bateman, Bart Hendrickson. Production design Steven A. Lee. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

In limited release

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