A few words about . . . Saints and Soldiers

The film: For months prior to its theatrical release, Saints and Soldiers had been at or near the top of my must-see list. Here was what looked to be a great war movie about Mormons, with none of the prohibitive content which made films like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers inaccessible to most LDS audiences. Finally, it seemed, the Mormon cinema movement would be able to move past such sophomoric efforts like The Singles Ward and The Home Teachers (the latter of which remains unseen by me, probably for the best). I unfortunately missed seeing Saints and Soldiers during its first-run theatrical window, so I caught it at the Movies 8 (the dollar theater) in Provo some months later.

I was so disappointed. Hugely disappointed.

Saints and Soldiers appeared a total knock-off of the movies I mentioned earlier, and the comparison made those movies stand out even more. But worse still was the presentation of the film. Not only was the image terribly scratched and dirty, but the sound seemed confined to a single speaker behind the screen. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that a dollar theater should offer a state-of-the-art surround sound experience, but I at least expect to see my movies in stereo – you know, with two speakers instead of one. As if that weren’t bad enough, what sound did come through the one speaker was completely hollowed out and dynamically flattened, as if it originated from a tin can. My experience was so terrible I originally wanted to go ask for my $1.50 back, but instead I have expressed my disgust with the dollar-movie experience by never going back to it. This was in early 2005.

This probably belongs in a separate post, but with the total lack of quality control happening in multiplexes today, the increasing affordability of home theater systems, and the ability to rent movies from McDonald’s RedBox for $1 a night, it’s become both more financially viable, convenient, and plain enjoyable to watch movies here at home. If I don’t catch the movie at a first-run theater, I’d now rather wait until it’s DVD debut, which in these days of short theatrical-to-DVD release windows is usually 4-5 months. For me at least, the dollar movie theater has become almost completely disintermediated from my entertainment value chain.

Recognizing that my disappointment with the movie may have been partially confounded by my total disgust for the theater experience, I decided that night that I would give Saints and Soldiers another shot on DVD, where I could have total control over the movie-watching experience. I’m glad I did, because my view of the film improved as a result.

Saints and Soldiers is still a flawed movie. Director Ryan Little probably wanted to deliver a Saving Private Ryan-type experience to LDS audiences without all the R-rated profanity and gore, so for those who haven’t seen Ryan, Soldiers will probably be received with great acclaim. But for others, the similarities between the two films are so remarkable that Soldiers appears to suffer from Ryan-envy. There’s the same desaturated color palette, soldier stereotypes, and handheld camera techniques that Spielberg pioneered in Ryan on display here – even John Williams’ fantastic score for Ryan is evoked more than once. In fact, the more I try to remember specific themes from the Soldiers score, the more Williams’ music enters my mind. Even the font size on the closing credits emulates Spielberg’s film. And there’s another similarity between the main characters of these two films which I won’t delve into for spoiler reasons – but if you’ve seen Ryan, you can likely predict what happens.

The other weak link in the movie is Kirby Heybourne. Hey, I know that the film was shot on a low budget in the Wasatch mountains, but the casting director could have at least hired a British actor to play the role of the British soldier (and it’s not like BYU is short of international students willing to play the part or provide connections to others who can). Kirby is a fine actor (see The Best Two Years as an example), but he’s not right for the role. In addition, because he’s appeared in 2 out of every 3 Mormon movies made up to this point, the audience is less focused on Heybourne’s character and more on Heybourne himself. (People in the theater were whispering, "Hey, is that the ‘R.M.’ guy?") Heybourne tries so hard to pull off a British accent, but he works so hard at it that it lessens his overall craft. He sounds too refined and David Niven-like that even when he’s supposed to sound angry and emotional you can tell he’s restraining himself because he’s got to constantly keep his accent "on." The film would have been better with a British actor who doesn’t need to watch his accent and can just concentrate on his part. All that said, however, I really did like the film’s theme of finding brotherhood across enemy lines. This aspect was touched upon briefly in Part 10 of Band of Brothers, but Soldiers carries it multiple steps farther. Many GIs who only knew that the other side delivered death and destruction at every opportunity began to view them with total hatred and disgust; the idea (both during and after the war) that the German soldiers were "guys just like us" is a powerful theme which was lost of some of the soldiers, but not all. On a personal note, the patriarch who blessed me ten years ago was a German immigrant who, along with his brother, was roped into fighting on the German side during WWII. His brother is a sealer in the Chicago Temple, and both are tremendous men of faith. I’d like to see more movies explore this line of thought – humanizing "the other side." Granted, there were plenty of monsters masquerading as men on the German side as well, but we had them too. That’s the funny thing about war, something that makes it such a rich topic for exploring human nature: it’s never completely black-and-white.

Is Saints and Soldiers good? Yes. I’m glad I gave it a second chance on DVD. Does it match up well against other war movies? It’s a decent entry, yes, and a good indicator of better Mormon cinema projects to come, but there are better examples of the war genre out there.

Image Quality: Much improved over my theatrical experience, but this film’s image suffers from the same authoring flaws that other discs from Excel Entertainment have demonstrated, namely excessive sharpening. One might mistake this for great detail, but the sharpness is pumped up to such an extreme that one can see edge haloes surrounding nearly every object on the screen. Details that should look soft come across as very hard and stiff, and there’s plenty of mosquito noise on screen as well. On the plus side, whites and earth tones are terrific, and blood appears a deep, rich red. A potentially great image let down by poor disc authoring.

Sound Quality: Wow! The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very immersive. Surrounds get a real workout here, and gunshots get a sharp, clear, and visceral sound effect that’s very involving. Bass is very tight, with only one instance of "boominess" that I can recall. Dialogue is also very crisp and intelligible. This track was such a massive improvement over the dismal theatrical experience that at times I felt I was watching a completely different movie! Very involving sound design here, and hats off to the team that made it happen on such a small budget. Overall: Saints and Soldiers is a good movie for LDS audiences who haven’t seen some of the better albeit more graphic war movies out there, of which Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are two WWII-specific examples. I appreciated the lack of R-rated content, but the production evokes too much of Ryan and the casting choice of Heybourne was ill-advised. Mormon cinema will more fully come into its own when its creators stop trying to create LDS-tinted versions of Hollywood films and film their own uniquely-inspired ideas.

Rated: PG-13 for war violence and related images. The Malmedy massacre is depicted at the beginning of the film, and various good and bad guys are shot and killed during the course of the film. Although blood is seen, it’s not in the realistic amounts which Ryan and Brothers depict as a result of gunshot wounds, which can be somewhat harrowing. A character is shot in the neck, but the camera wisely avoids close-ups – a change which was probably made to avoid the R rating the MPAA initially slapped the film with. There’s also a brief close-up of a medic working on a gunshot wound to another character’s leg which might be a bit much for the squeamish.

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