Saints and Soldiers: when real war spawns fiction

Saints and Soldiers tells the story of a group of US soldiers in World War II who survive the infamous Malmedy Massacre and, stuck behind enemy lines, must find their way back to friendly forces.

The film states it is “Based on True Events” which sparked my curiosity, given my interest in all things Second World War. I knew of the Malmedy Massacre in (very) general terms, but my interest was so sparked I decided to do some more research. More on that later.

Saints and Soldiers proves that you don’t need grand, epic battles or a big budget to make a good war movie. Made on a shoe-string by American Ryan Little, it examines themes that many war films have before: what fighting and killing does to a man, how we dehumanise the enemy, and how when you get down to it for the most part “the enemy” are just like us.

Saints and Soldiers

The group of unknown actors do an excellent job of portraying the soldiers. While somewhat stereotypical, I get the sense they are supposed to be that way, to show that the majority of US soldiers were “average Joes”.

Being a WWII buff I paid special attention to details of insignia, weapons, vehicles etc and must give the film high praise for authenticity. Made in the backwoods of Utah, the producers managed to scrounge up German and American vehicles from collectors (more even than Saving Private Ryan had managed to get) and enlisted the help of World War II Recreationists as extras and for uniforms. According to the IMDB listing all the weapons were real, modified to fire blanks. In the early scenes I saw what must be an extremely rare STG-44, essentially the world’s first Assault Rifle, built by the Germans late in the war and a precusor to the AK-47.

Doing research after watching Saints and Soldiers I noted that in the real event, the prisoners were supposedly mainly from one part of an Artillery Company. In the film, the four surviving troops are a mix of infantry and 101st Airborne, the unit made famous by Band of Brothers. So it appears the writers have taken dramatic licence here, though all the units mentioned were in the Ardennes at that time. One of the Malmedy accounts listed below mentions US troops captured earlier in the day by lead elements of a tank division and made to ride along with the Germans during the advance.

Of course, the story is complete fiction – it only starts with a real event (Malmedy) and shows how some soldiers escaped, but those that did made it back to friendly lines rather quickly as those lines were not very far away (one account talks about a US commander on the other side of the town hearing the shooting!). However in the film, much talk is made of how the friendly lines are a long way away.

Much has been made about how Saints and Soldiers was made by a Mormon, and while it is not mentioned, the main character is also a Mormon. There is no religious preaching in the film, no “beating of the Book”. What discussions are to be had about God and religion are conversations you might expect between combat-experienced troops; soldier talk about what happens next, is there life after death, and holding friends in your arms while they die.

In the end, this is a good, small war story told with heart and good intent. Its examination of Malmedy is quite perceptive and a good “stab” at what may have actually happened – though its initial scene of the massacre being a result of an escape attempt and then a loss of control of the situation is turned around by a later scene showing German troops moving through the field, executing still living soldiers with single pistol shots. This could be rationalised by a commander not wanting any “living witnesses” to something he may view as a mistake – or, possibly, a reflection of higher orders as some accounts report.

I very much recommend Saints and Soldiers to anyone with the slightest bit of interest to look up Malmedy and read about the events there, and see how the fog of war and various accounts can lead to so much confusion.


For those interested:

Here is an even-handed and long article on the massacre, the war crimes trial afterward, and the details as best as they can be collected. As I started reading this article I grew concerned about the seemingly anti-Semitic bent on the first page, but further reading of later pages showed me it is quite an even-handed article.

Here is an article written for World War II Magazine that examines the details of the actual event itself without going into the trial(s) afterwards.

Both the above articles make for every interesting reading.

However the first link above opens a door to so much more. At various points through the pages, there are links to other stories of atrocities – some committed by American troops, most famously at Dachau concentration camp where US soldiers executed a number of Waffen-SS prisoners.

(Side note: The SS was a HUGE organisation with many sub-branches, and was completely separate from the Wehrmacht or regular German Army. One branch was combat – the Waffen-SS. These were elite, well-trained units, much like the US Airborne or Rangers, though at this stage of the war they were being supplemented by barely-trained conscripts. While they were likely to have committed isolated atrocities, it could be said they were much like any other combat unit during the war – each have their own share of over-zealous members. There was another branch, SS-Totenkopfverbände, responsible for administration of the concentration camps. During the war, this small but important difference would probably not have been noted by Allied soldiers, who saw only the SS symbol. Please note I’m not judging here the US troops. They would have been told only what they needed to know by their commanders, who would have understood the difference.)

The main reason I point all this out is to show that both sides committed atrocities (war crimes) and both sides tried to cover them up. The US, Britian, France et al and Germany were all signatories to the Geneva Convention regarding the rules of war and treatment of PoWs – the Russians were not, and it should be noted what both sides did on the Eastern Front was even more horrible.