I saw Saints and Soldiers with my lovely one and my father last night. I liked it. A lot. But before you rush out to buy the DVD, you should know that I was biased.
The Mormon hero (in one of the film’s masterstrokes, his Mormonism is never explicit, leaving the viewers to imagine in him their own intensely personal experience of faith) is a Cpl. Greer, from Snowflake, Arizona. I grew up in Taylor, about three hundred yards from Snowflake, and I remember visiting the WWII marker on the grounds of the Snowflake Chapel. I remember seeing a Greer there and assuming, probably correctly, that he was a shirt-tail cousin of ours (my grandmother was a Greer). So, I felt a bond of faith to Cpl. ‘Deacon’ Greer, like y’all readers would, but also a bond of blood and bone. I’m biased. Even so, I think you’d like it too.
The characters are fully realized, the conflict between the characters about faith and loving-your-enemies is immense and intense without being heavy-handed, there are flashes of appropriate humor, and the winter in which the film is set is dreary, dreary, dreary, to the point of majesty. The only criticism I’d make is that Deacon’s hallucinations are a major plot point in the first part of the movie but they disappear part way through without adequate explanation.
This is not a movie about romance. It is a movie about friendship, sacrifice, and devotion among men. That’s part of the reason I liked it so much, because that’s not a theme that’s often fully plumbed at the movies (with Master and Commander being a recent exception). Unlike Master and Commander, however, in this movie women are a felt absence.
At first, when main characters die, you feel the tragedy through the hearts of their fellow soldiers. You feel that they have given up their lives as soldiers, as comrades, and you feel that this was indeed a sacrifice. Later, when you have time to think, you realize that the men who died were the ones who were defined by absent women. One had never been kissed, he said. Another’s wife was almost due, but she only shows up in the movie as a gray photograph. The third talked about flirting with the shopgirl in his father’s business and speculated, casually but not frivolously, of coming back after the war for a Walloon woman they meet partway through. But all these characters die, and you realize that this absence of normalcy, of women, was part of their sacrifice. In contrast, the characters who survive never talked about those things.
And it turned out they had no sacrifice to make. Love and family would still be available to them.