François Truffaut once claimed that it was impossible to make an antiwar film, because war movies have an intrinsic sense of adventure and can't keep combat from looking like fun. Surely Truffaut would have changed his tune during this era of post-Vietnam disillusionment, when the fun has been clouded by moral ambiguity and ultra-realistic violence. Even Saving Private Ryan, in many ways a conventionally stirring tale of WWII heroism, made the Normandy invasion look considerably less enjoyable than the can-do ensemble did in The Longest Day. With Iraq sinking into a deeper quagmire, it seems we can never go home again.
Or can we? A hopelessly old-fashioned Mormon war movie, Ryan Little's Saints And Soldiers could have been made 50 years ago, when intrepid WWII units were stocked with amiable lunkheads, wiseacre medics, and Bible-thumping heroes itching for self-sacrifice. In the downtime between bloodless skirmishes with the Germans, some stare longingly at pin-ups with nice gams, while others treasure shots of their pregnant sweethearts back home. Forget raping, pillaging, and razing villages: In the heat of battle, these clean-cut gents don't even swear. It's an almost charmingly naïve fantasy for 2004, but, then again, the Mormon Church isn't known for keeping current.
Based on real events, Saints And Soldiers opens with a massacre in December 1944, when advancing German troops fired on American POWs in Belgium, killing upwards of 70 unarmed men. A few escapees gather in a neighboring forest to regroup and find safety, including devout sharpshooter Corbin Allred (unsubtly named "Deacon"), forthright sergeant Peter Holden, cynical medic Alexander Niver, and earnest Cajun hick Lawrence Bagby. When the four rescue an RAF pilot (Kirby Heyborne), their mission changes after the man gives them crucial intelligence that could save scores of Allied troops if they can get to them before the Germans.
It pays to be an atheist in a Mormon war movie, because martyrdom only means something to the faithful; the faithless have to continue living in order to be reborn. Too often, Saints And Soldiers confuses bravery for faith, as if Allred's ass-kicking under fire were somehow a confirmation of the Divine, or his one missed shot a miracle of holy intervention. For war on a budget, the film does better than a bunch of guys running around the woods in old Army fatigues, but its resourcefulness and better-than-average acting don't acquit its retro bogusness. Saints And Soldiers belongs in another era, back far enough that it would already be forgotten by now.