It’s been 11 years since director Ryan Little’s “Saints and Soldiers” arrived in theaters, providing one of the sharpest and most compelling entries of the early “Mormon cinema” era.
Like that first film and its 2012 follow-up (“Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed”), “Saints and Soldiers: The Void” offers another intimate look at the soldiers who fought in World War II and the moral issues they faced.
“The Void” is set during the last days of the European theater in May 1945. Hitler has already committed suicide, and the Allies are sweeping away the last vestiges of the Nazi army. But even if many feel the war is over, others sense danger. When a destroyer tank crew is ambushed by German fire after being diverted into a danger zone called The Void, lives still hang in the balance.
But while “The Void’s” surface conflict is between the embattled American troops and the desperate German soldiers hunting them, the film’s title also carries a double meaning, referring to the gap between African-American soldiers and their white counterparts.
It is within this context that we meet Sgt. Jesse Owens (Danor Gerald), a former tank commander (and, no, not the Olympian) reassigned to driving duty under suspicious circumstances. Sgt. Owens is fighting two wars at the same time, against the Germans and the fellow Allied soldiers (led by Cpl. Carey Simms, played by Adam Gregory) who are uncomfortable with his presence. Gerald’s world-weary likability is a strong match for his character, and his relationship with Simms forms the moral center of the film.
The mark of the Saints and Soldiers franchise has been a mission to create an authentic visual product in spite of the limitations of a non-Hollywood budget. In “The Void,” this effort comes across through the use of several destroyer tanks, which are featured so prominently that they almost become characters in the film. And given the relative lack of religious content, you almost leave the theater wondering if “Tanks and Soldiers” might have been a more honest title.
Thanks to elements like these tanks, “The Void” boasts some effective moments and is able to work in some impressive pyrotechnic effects during its action sequences. But it also struggles against a sluggish script that uses expository dialogue to spoon-feed the audience rather than let the actors’ behavior send a more natural message.
"The Void" often seems too concerned with its uplifting message that's obvious to the audience, where more subtlety and a "show, don't tell" method might have resonated with more power. A focus on the ambiguity of an early scene in which American troops have to discern the intent of a German family stranded on the side of the road could have better embodied the tension and relief of the encounter, but instead the scene is used to quickly demonstrate the different levels of charity among the different soldiers.
This kind of subtlety is in use when it comes to “The Void’s” portrayal of war violence, which spares audiences the intense gore of a “Saving Private Ryan” while still demonstrating the harshness of war. This is never more apparent than in encounters with the sadistic Stalag commander (Christoph Malzl).
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In sum, “Saints and Soldiers: The Void” offers an important message and some nice visuals. But there’s still the feeling that a little more focus on writing and execution would have etched a more enduring experience.
The film includes periodic war violence, some vulgarity and language, including a racial slur. It's official MPAA rating is PG-13 for war violence and a brief epithet.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.