Saturday, June 30, 2007

Film: Saints and Soldiers

This past week I watched two films that I wanted to post about here. They are not exactly religious films, but they are both films that raise profound religious questions and I definitely felt like my appreciate of the films was enhanced by bringing some "religious literacy" to the experience. I'll do one now, and hopefully I'll find time later this weekend to post about the other (the very fine film Children of Men, just in case I don't have time to post about it!).

The first film, which I thought was truly stupendous, is something everyone (EVERYONE) should see is Saints and Soldiers. This is a recent film (2003) about the Battle of Bulge. Although the film is fiction, it is woven together of material from incidents that took place during that terrible battle towards the very end of World War II.

The film begins with the massacre of American prisoners of war at Malmedy, Belgium, and then follows four soldiers who escape from that massacre, running out into the snowy woods, finding themselves behind enemy lines. They then meet a downed British pilot, and risk everything in order to get him safely to an Allied command post because of the vital information he is carrying. Over the course of the film, you get to know each of those five men as unforgettable individuals, with a beautiful revelation of their characters through the dialogue, their actions, and the choices they must make. It is without a doubt one of the best movies about war that I have ever seen.

All five characters get a great deal of attention in the film, but the most highly charged moments come from the interaction between two characters in particular. There is Gould, a medic from New York, angry (he tried to dodge the draft but got caught), cynical, defiantly anti-religious, with no interest in wartime heroics (he despises having to use his medical training to work on bodies shattered by wartime violence). Then there is Nathan, known as "Deke" (Deacon). He got his nickname from being such a pious guy, and we learn that he had been a missionary in Berlin before the war (his ability to speak German plays a crucial role in the plot). He is a perfect sharp-shooter (he grew up going hunting in Snowflake, Arizona), and keeps to the straight and narrow (he doesn't even drink coffee - and he doesn't smoke; cigarettes also become an issue in the story).

There are a couple of dialogues between these two characters - about whether there is an afterlife, and about the humanity of enemy soldiers - which were, for me, the most memorable parts of the film.

Here's where the religious literacy comes in - at a certain point during the movie my husband said to me, "You know, he must be a Mormon," which is exactly what I had been thinking myself! It was as if there were all these clues for us - being a missionary (which is a fundamental part of Mormon religious life), being from Arizona (which has a large Mormon population, and Snowflake, Arizona was founded by Mormon pioneers), and not drinking coffee (Mormons do not drink cofee, following an admonition in the Word of Wisdom section of the Doctrines and Covenants).

The film does not ever make explicit that Deacon is a Mormon, but according to the wikipedia article, the director's commentary for the film confirms that this is the case.

I thought this was very interesting on their part. On the one hand, it is lying there "in plain sight" so to speak, for people who know what to look for. The fact that my husband and I both reached that conclusion with certainty and independently shows that it is not hard to pick up on... if you know something about the LDS church.

For folks who do not know how to "read the clues," however, I think they could miss that entirely, which is a shame. When, after all, did you last see a Mormon character in a movie?

So, while there was a certain frisson to figuring this out on my own, I wish for the sake of religious literacy that the film had been more explicit about this, pointing out his wonderful character as a Mormon, and enriching people's appreciate of Mormonism in the process.

Anyway, it is an EXCELLENT film. Be sure also to watch the "Making Of" featurette that comes on the DVD - the way they made this film on an incredibly low budget is a great story in and of itself!

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