Twenty-five years ago, Geoffrey Panos went looking for the heroes of the "greatest generation" and maybe something more.
He went looking for the soldiers of World War II, specifically, the Army Rangers. He found them in trailer parks and mansions and subdivisions around the country. He collected their stories. He grew to love them and vice versa. One of them even died in his arms.
At odds with his own befuddled generation the children of the '70s he attached himself to another and found kindred spirits.
"If you weren't there, you should have been," the old Rangers told him. They made him an honorary World War II Ranger, telling him, "That means you'll be the last one. We'll all be dead."
With this to draw upon, Panos was a natural to write their story.
He is working on a three-volume history of the Rangers of World War II that has been 20 years in the making. During the past two years, he took a break from the project to tell a largely fictional account for the big screen. He wrote the story for the soon-to-be-released "Saints and Soldiers" and co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Whittaker.
For Panos, it was a labor of love and always has been. With family money to back him, he could have done anything he wanted after graduating from the University of Utah. Instead of fast cars and golf, he hit the library.
He read volume after volume of history. Eventually, he went straight to the source. He tracked down soldiers around the country. He interviewed more than 150 of them, some of them for two or three days. He collected hundreds of maps, letters and photos ("I love research and nerdy stuff like that," he says). And he walked the great battlefields of Europe with many of the old Rangers.
"I felt lucky," he recalls. "How would you like to walk with the men who fought at Gettysburg and be able to ask them about it? At the time, I knew how special this was."
As one might expect, when it came time for the movie, which is set at the Battle of the Bulge, Panos and his co-creators were sticklers for details, right down to the type of playing cards the soldiers used, the wrist watches they wore, the Lucky brand cigarettes they smoked and the Jeeps they drove. Most war flicks neglect to fill the magazine pouches on the soldiers' belts but not these guys. ("That drives people who know war crazy," says Panos.)
When Mother Nature failed to provide the winter scene they needed while filming in Utah's mountains, they used truckloads of Betty Crocker potato flakes for snow.
"It was still cold; we were freezing," says Panos, who appears in the movie and is killed twice. "It felt like we were there."
He didn't tell the story he would have written in his youth. Now 52, he exchanged action for more dialogue and character development to tell the fictional story of a handful of men who survived the Malmedy Massacre.
Panos is frequently asked to speak about his association with the old heroes of the great war. He can rarely get through a speech without choking up.
"It was a special generation. I saw John Wayne in all of them.
"They were men. They grew up in the Depression. Then they went to war. I really hated the late '60s and '70s. My generation suffered from prolonged adolescence."
Choking back tears, he continues: "It always breaks my heart to go through (recordings of) the interviews. Almost all of these men are dead.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to [email protected].