Spike Lee probably made few friends in Hollywood over his spat with hometown favorite Clint Eastwood regarding the absence of black soldiers in Eastwood’s twin World War II epics, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Still, Lee has a valid point about the absence of black Americans in the Hollywood iconography of World War II.
If filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was right that the only way to critique a movie is to make another movie, Miracle at St. Anna is Lee’s critique of an entire genre. It’s a point Lee makes from the first scene, where we see a black veteran watching an old John Wayne movie on television. The juxtaposition itself is enough to make the point, though Lee can’t resist hammering it home. “Pilgrim,” the vet mumbles with quiet irony, adding unnecessarily, “We fought that war too.”
It’s a slightly heavy-handed misstep in a film that runs confidently though unevenly over a mountain of material, stepping right more often than it steps wrong over its 160 minutes. As a contribution and challenge to the World War II genre, Miracle at St. Anna compares reasonably well to most Hollywood efforts. As is often the case, Lee seems to relish biting off more than he can chew, and the ambition and scope of this effort is worth the bits that don’t quite fit.
Like Saving Private Ryan, the story is bookended by a pair of harrowing battle scenes and wrapped in a latter-day framing story, with an aging veteran looking back on the nightmare of his youth. The first firefight is a familiar battle-line sequence fought over a river crossing; the other is a more unusual sequence, in the narrow cobbled streets and alleys of a village in Tuscany.
What primarily differentiates Miracle at St. Anna is its focus on troops from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers Division. Following the novel of the same name by James McBride, who adapted his own story for the screen, Miracle is set in the Tuscany countryside when the Buffalos were among the Allied forces pushing back the Nazis and liberating the Italians in 1944.
Unlike Ryan and many American World War II movies, Miracle focuses not just on the American soldiers and their enemies, but also on the civilian populace of the region, with whom four American troops live for several days after being cut off from their division behind enemy lines. Among these are partisan members of the Italian resistance, led by an underground hero called “the Great Butterfly” (Pierfrancesco Favino) as well as civilians, old men and women and children. In one key sequence, a dramatization of a historical massacre of 560 civilians at the titular village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, there is also an anonymous Italian priest, archetypally saintly in extremis, shepherding his flock to the end.
As with many team stories, the main characters fall into a familiar pattern of mind, spirit and flesh; of ego, id and super-ego. Ranking officer Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) is the steady, commanding voice of reason. Thoughtful, devoutly Catholic Puerto Rican Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) embodies conscience and spirituality. Arrogant, egocentric Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) represents challenging, unruly carnality; he’s pointedly skeptical of Aubrey’s idealism, and he repeatedly puts the moves on a village beauty named Renata (Valentina Cervi) with a crudeness that repels Aubrey, who is also attracted to her but respects her.
Then there’s lumbering, simple-minded PFC Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), who, in a story with a white protagonist, would surely be a “magic negro” (a term popularized by Lee himself), but here can be called a “holy fool,” with a slow wit and superstitious notions masking a nearly mystical purity and prophetic conviction. Train’s devotion to a decapitated bit of statuary (which becomes the MacGuffin driving the 1983 framing story) becomes quasi-sacramental, dressing Catholic sensibilities in a folk Protestant idiom.
Train is the one who finds a wounded Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) under a pile of rubble in a shelled-out ruin and insists on taking him with the division. Angelo calls Train “Chocolate Giant,” and the two childlike souls share a bond that grows as the film progresses.
Race, of course, is a major theme. As the Buffalo Soldiers advance, they are “welcomed” by anti-morale propaganda broadcasts from “Axis Sally,” a sultry-voiced American traitor who cheerily assures them that the Germans have “no quarrel with the Negro,” ridicules them for fighting for a nation that doesn’t want them, under white commanders who don’t value them.
“Sally” even promises them food and every comfort if they lay down their weapons, though in fact the defending Nazi forces barely have food (or ammunition) for their own needs. Aubrey evenly reminds his men what they’re up against: a racist regime that regards them as subhuman — “monkeys, apes, baboons.”
Later, Aubrey angrily quarrels with Bishop over black advances and the importance of fighting for America. Yet even he has to admit that it is in Italy, a foreign country, that he feels free to be simply a man and not a Negro for the first time. The point is undescored by a flashback to a scene in the American South, in which the four uniformed soldiers of the 92nd are denied service at the front counter of a café where four Geman POWs have just been served.
Alas, “Sally” isn’t wrong about everything. It’s true that some, if not all, of the white commanders don’t value the Buffalo soldiers. Through the callous indifference of one racist officer, Aubrey and his men wind up under mortar fire from their own side.
As he usually does, though, Lee avoids one-sided stereotyping. Not only are there decent and not-so-decent characters on both sides of the race line, there is also moral variation among the Nazis and the Italians.
In one notable touch, Renata’s father, a blustering old Italian patriarch — a benighted Archie Bunker type, perhaps — still proudly identifies himself as a Fascist and praises Il Duce for making Italy a world power, blaming him only for “getting into bed with Hitler.” (He also blusters against a neighbor whom he accuses of being a witch and putting the evil eye on him, though in fact, according to Renata, she prays for him every night.) I was reminded of the black-and-white way that Pan’s Labyrinth demonized the Fascists, and appreciated Lee’s humanizing touch.
Along with the long-overdue attention to the black veterans of the 92nd, Miracle at St. Anna makes welcome, positive use of Catholic themes and images in a genre that too often recently has made the Church appear only as a sinister power.
The stumbles of the opening act are aggravated in the coda, where again Lee doesn’t trust viewers to get the point until he’s underlined it two or three times, and an extraneous character makes an unnecessary speech that is goofy in its pretentiousness. The heavy-handedness also affects Terence Blanchard’s sometimes intrusive score.
But the strengths of the main part of the film carry it past its lapses and excesses. Striking images highlight key scenes, such as an inverted helmet bobbing downstream past corpses in the water after the opening firefight, where Lee lingers on the dark-skinned faces of the slain, as if saying, “Remember them too.”
Miracle at St. Anna may not be a perfect film, but it’s a more than honorable and rewarding achievement, and worth watching.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.