Saints and Soldiers is loosely based on the conflicting stories surrounding a massacre that occurred at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge, in which German soldiers murdered American POWs. The event was one of several events of this nature that coincided with the battle and were later the subject of a war crimes trial known as the Dachau Trials. Beyond the general concept of the massacre, other true events that happened during World War II are attributed to a small band of survivors of the massacre, who embark on a mission to alert Allied Forces about a German Panzer Division pushing towards a major Allied position. Although some of the events in this story are true, they are not from a single source and did not apply to a single group. So the "true" aspect of this film takes generous liberties with the historical aspect of the story.
Saints and Soldiers opens with American POW's, under close scrutiny of their German captors, marching through the snow. The Americans are lined up and searched when one soldier breaks for the woods. He is executed during his flight, leading to an uprising by the American soldiers. The Germans react with machine gun fire, mowing down rows of POWs as four of the soldiers manage to escape into the woods. Caught behind enemy lines in the middle of Winter, the quartet attempt to work their way back to Allied-controlled territory.
During their journey out of hostile territory, the soldiers happen upon an English pilot whose parachute is tangled in a tree. After freeing the pilot, the group learns that German Panzers have broken through a weak section of the Allied front lines and may be pushing towards a major allied position. In order to save American lives, the soldiers risk their own to trek through German occupied territory in order to deliver a warning. Along the way, the men work through distrust, personal demons and personality differences to find common ground on their journey.
Saints and Soldiers was filmed with what appeared to be an overwhelming desire to portray the German soldiers as equals. This effort weakened the movie for me. The real Malmedy Massacre resulted in a trial that found 73 of the German soldiers guilty of war crimes, handing down death sentences for 43 of them. Although there was controversy regarding the way the trials were conducted, this was not the first time that this particular unit had committed atrocities against American POWs. I am fairly certain, historically, that the American soldiers were summarily executed and not shot in reaction to any kind of uprising. This incredibly liberal interpretation of the events damaged the integrity of the story.
In addition to the portrayal of events at Malmedy, the writers (Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker) also pilfer true events from World War II and attribute them to the characters created for Saints and Soldiers. Although interesting, the amalgamation of stories further eroded my enjoyment of this film. It bothered me that the film would be treated as somewhat historical when nothing could be further from the truth. Combining (and re-interpreting) numerous unrelated events to form a single story is dishonest when you tout something as "true."
Beyond the basic story of heroic soldiers battling against all odds to save their comrades, there is an underlying theme that was pervasive throughout this film. One of the men ("Deacon" played by Corbin Allred) is very religious (his beliefs suggest he is Mormon). The theme of redemption runs throughout the story and is demonstrated in two key relationships. The interactions between Deacon and Steven Gould (Alexander Niver), which has Gould constantly questioning the existence of God was one example. The other was the way Deacon treated a captured German soldier, Rudolph Gertz (Ethan Vincent). Although the exchanges furthered the underlying themes, they detracted from the primary plot and stole some of the credibility away from the plot. Forgiveness and redemption are great themes for a story, but not when they have a negative impact on the primary plot.
There was a lot I did not like about Saints and Soldiers. There are degrees of like and dislike and even when the cons outweigh the pros, sometimes it comes down to simple entertainment. Was I entertained? Did I ultimately enjoy the film in spite of the flaws? The answer in this case is "yes" to both questions. I enjoyed the film and was entertained by it. Although the undercurrents hurt the credibility of the film, the cinematic qualities, the special effects and my simple enjoyment of it tilt the scale to a moderate recommendation.
Saints and Soldiers is a rare war film, in that it ekes out a PG-13 rating. It seems that war violence almost always manages to earn an R rating from the MPAA. Although there were a couple of excellent battle sequences, the gore factor was well managed in this film. That may have a lot to do with the intended audience and the underlying themes in this film. The story does depict death and injuries and does have a disturbing scene where a bullet is removed from a character's leg, but overall, the rating is well applied. I would allow my eleven year old to watch this film, but it really depends on the degree of violence you want your children exposed to at their current age. Run time is one hour, thirty minutes.
Saints and Soldiers was decent but not exceptional. The cinematography managed to capture the harsh qualities of Winter in a war zone. The freezing temperatures seemed to escape from the screen into my living room. The performances were acceptable, but none particularly notable. The plot was decent but did not adhere very well to the concept of "true." The primary sub-plot detracted from the overall story but not enough to destroy it. This film is worth renting for a rainy day. 6.5/10.
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