It’s probably safe to assume that everyone in some way is fond of stories of WWII, and has at least one great film in their video library. Patton and Saving Private Ryan are usual suspects but once in a while there comes a lesser known story of war-time heroism that few know exist. Saints and Soldiers probably doesn’t ring any bells for a good number of film fans, but really it deserves more attention that it gets. A very underrated but stellar WWII movie it was made with very little money but looks as if it had a huge budget. It’s not quite Saving Private Ryan in terms of scale, but has moments of humanity/camaraderie in the vein of any Spielberg production. For those of you in the dark about Ryan Little’s simple finely crafted film, have a look at the trailer. For those of you in the know, hopefully we’ll share some common opinions in this post.
Saints and Soldiers takes place in the end of WWII and tells the story of a handful of soldiers who escape the P.O.W. massacre at the hands of the Nazis. With no supplies or weapons save for only one gun (and 4 bullets), they set out to find the safety of the nearest Allied outpost. While trying to avoid recapture and certain death, the foursome happens along a stranded British pilot with some reconnaissance info about impending Nazi troop movements. More important than keeping themselves alive is this information which will keep hundreds of Allied troops alive if they can deliver it successfully.
While this is film found much success in film festivals and the like, it missed a broad audience. It can easily bee seen or compared to Saving Private Ryan and more similarly Band of Brothers, and therefore may have been overlooked as a cheap knock-off, but this movie still kept pace and becomes its own film. Saints and Soldiers relies less on action and more on the forced but still intimate relationship between soldiers. Although from the same Army they certainly didn’t know one another but their story is more about discovering who they are than it is some ‘shoot-em up’ war film.
One element that makes Saints and Soldiers work well are the close angle shots which aid in allowing us to feel part of the action as well as the panic as the soldiers continually escape and hide from roaming German soldiers. Intimate, at times, you quickly get to know the characters, just as the soldiers get each other. A slight bit of “low-budget” production pokes its head out from time to time but overall it still feels pretty professional and the “this could be a cheap TBS movie” feeling might quickly prompts you to ask, “why wasn’t this in theaters?” as you neared the half-way mark. It’s surprising to find the amount of danger in a film that was more or less 5 guys running through the snow. As they had their equipment stripped from them prior to the massacre at the start of the film, the 5 are less soldiers and more likened to fleeing prisoners.
Yet, it’s not all just frenzied running or void of conflict or suspense. Action is quite plentiful and thrilling to say nothing of the exciting finale. This film certainly has hints of brilliance as it aspires to be a fine WWII story that is also free of a lot of melodrama. True the religion aspects can be a bit forced, but the rest of the film keeps pace very well even for a swift 86 minute film. Helping the film succeed, though also make it more obscure, is the cast which is comprised of a bunch of relatively unknown actors. Their animosity really helps sell the plot and the dialog as overloading a film with famous actors (or with one huge star) can sometimes take us out of a film. These actors start to embody their what their characters were enduring and it kept the story compelling and engaging all the way to the end. It’s all very refreshing seeing some impressive talent in this bunch of unknowns, including Peter Holden who has a striking and uncanny resemblance to George C. Scott, and everything about this movie just worked.
In the plethora of war films out there Saints and Soldiers is a contender for the production most like a Spielberg project (both Ryan and Brothers) without blatantly causing the viewer to say “this feels like they’re copying Band of Brothers“. That said, the film is worth the price of admission and while it’s questionable why this didn’t find a wide release, just be glad it’s available at all (btw, the BD transfer is stunningly crisp). A great and heartfelt story that has elements of a pure character study, set against real events in history, Ryan Little’s film delivers in a way that smaller (and big budget) films aspire to be but never quite get there. You want a truly great WWII movie, see Saving Private Ryan but should you want a very fine and highly underrated WWII film that will surprise the hell out of you, see Saints and Soldiers.