Rated PG-13 for war violence, a brief swear word and close-ups of corpses
Written and directed by Ryan Little
Starring Adam Gregory, K. Danor Gerald, Bart Johnson, Matthew Meese and more
A good story can do wonders for a limited special effects budget.
"Saints and Soldiers: The Void," the latest entry in the movie series highlighting snapshots of WWII, is at its heart the simple, surprisingly engaging story of two men who find common ground and their better selves in the middle of a crisis. Though the movie makes an attempt at tackling the racism of the time, and doesn't shy away from the death toll of the war, it's the two men at the movie's heart that makes it shine.
The "Saints and Soldiers" movies all follow a small groups of different soldiers through various real battles and/or attacks. The series' title comes from fact that there's always one member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among the group, though here his religion is never mentioned by name.
In "Void" we follow the cleanup crews, those soldiers fighting the pockets of resistance that were left after Hitler killed himself. The army is completely segregated, and when a white unit and a black soldier get caught in an ambush some of the soldiers don't hesitate in showing their disdain for working with a black man. When their lives end up on the line, however, the men learn to work together to save innocent people.
The most surprising aspect is how hard the movie works not to soft-pedal its racism. Cpl. Carey Simms, a beauty with too-perfect hair who is clearly the main protagonist, is so insulting that it actually had me squirming in my seat. Actor Adam Gregory makes the character have to truly wrestle with his prejudices throughout the film, and the fight clearly isn't an easy thing. There's no magical fix, but the steps he makes seem hard fought and genuinely earned.
It helps that the man he's forced to work with is Sgt. Jesse Owens, a character who radiates intelligence and decency despite a drinking problem that's hinted at. Actor K. Danor Gerald makes him impossible not to root for, either when he's justifiably angry or being humble and self-sacrificial, and his feelings about his tragic back story give him even more depth.
The fact that this will be marketed as an LDS movie, though, means that some attention needs to be paid to Rodney "Ramrod" Mitchell, the movie's sole LDS character. Played with a low-key affability by Michael Behrens, Ramrod doesn't smoke or drink but is more distinguishable by his deep love for the Hellcat tank destroyer he keeps running.
He seems magically free of the racism that plagues the other characters, which some might see as problematic given the LDS church's history, but a prominently featured British soldier is equally free of any hint of it. With Ramrod, at least, his and Owens' mutual love of Hellcats creates an immediate and believable bond.
Still, the real story belongs to Simms and Owens. It's not a traditional movie bond – no brotherhood is forged, and there's no crying in each other's arms – but it's a triumph of the human spirit in the most old-fashioned sense. Whether in the face of almost certain death or their own deeply held prejudices, human decency wins out.
That's the kind of story we could all stand to hear more of.