Well mounted, frequently gripping WWII tale of GIs surviving behind German lines during the Battle of the Bulge has won numerous awards at small Stateside fests. But while pic is impressive in its own right, "Saints and Soldiers" won't be an an easy sell due to no-name cast and limited budget. Excel Entertainment picked up the film at the Hawaii Film Festival and is planning an early 2004 release.

Well mounted, frequently gripping WWII tale of GIs surviving behind German lines during the Battle of the Bulge has won numerous awards at small Stateside fests. But while pic is impressive in its own right, “Saints and Soldiers” won’t be an an easy sell due to no-name cast and limited budget, although war stories still have their following. Religious-circuit distrib Excel Entertainment picked up the film at the Hawaii Film Festival and is planning an early 2004 release.

Sergeant Gunderson (Peter Holden) and his squad’s sharp-eyed sniper Deacon (Corbin Allred) lead a small group of GI survivors of the post-D-Day “Malmedy Massacre” at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Deacon, a Mormon nick-named for his teetotalling and ever-present Bible, suffers from nightmares resulting from an incident in which he accidentally wiped out a family on the way to Belgium. His shakiness doesn’t endear him to the new guys, Louisiana good ol’ boy Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) and skeptical Brooklyn medic Gould (Alex Niver).

After the lads survive through miles of frozen forest, their mission is accelerated by the arrival of Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), a British reconnaissance pilot desperate to get aerial shots of the German rollout back to Allied HQ. There is mild class-based tension between the posh officer and Louisiana hayseed, but the film’s central counterpoint is between Deacon’s religious beliefs and Gould’s cold-eyed atheism.

Multi-hatted helmer Ryan Little, who did his own fine lensing in tough winter circumstances, is a Brigham Young grad committed to making Mormon-themed features. (Little has made several shorter pics, also with war-related themes.) While the protag’s protestations of faith are perhaps murkier than intended — the rich score’s trumpets and strings do much of the heavy lifting — this dynamic is more thought-provoking than pushy.

However, script by Geoffrey Pano and Matt Whittaker has other letdowns: Characters say soldiers “lost it” or “flipped out” — terms that were taken literally in 1944 — not to mention that shoulder shrug with an oh-so-’90s “whatever” as anachronistic punctuation.

Similarly, Deacon bumping into a German soldier he knew well from his mission work in Berlin before the war, is undermined by simple math: Deacon is only in his mid-20s and the Nazis had been in power for 11 years, so it’s hard to imagine a teenage Mormon making heavy inroads under Hitler’s nose.

In any case, the other elements are strong enough to sustain aud involvement. Tech credits for the Utah-lensed production are laudable on every level, especially considering that big-looking effort was made for under $1 million. Incidentally, in helmer’s only show of indecision, pic has also charged out under the banners “Saints at War” and “Saints of War,” both which are non-starters.

Saints and Soldiers

Production

An Excel Entertainment release (in U.S.) of a Medal of Honor Prods. production. Produced by Adam Abel, Ryan Little. Directed by Ryan Little. Screenplay, Geoffrey Pano, Matt Whittaker, based on a story by Dennis A. Wright, Robert C. Freeman.

Crew

Camera (color), Little; editor, Wynn Hougard; music, J Bateman, Bart Hendrickson; production designer, Steven A. Lee; costume designer, Debra Box; sound, Jeff Carter; military adviser, Reginald Meldrum; associate producer/assistant director, Brian Brough; casting, Jennifer Buster. Reviewed at Hawaii Film Festival, Nov. 3, 2003. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Corbin Allred, Lawrence Bagby, Kirby Heyborne, Peter Holden, Alexander Polinsky, Lincoln Hoppe, Alex Niver.

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