Spike Lee's new film, Miracle at St. Anna, involves four African-American soldiers behind enemy lines in Italy in World War II. It is a story that needed to be told given the way war stories have been written and filmed since the 1940s. Finally someone has paid tribute to the sacrifice of black Americans for their part in this great war.
The two hour and forty minute film opens with an old black man watching a John Wayne movie about the war and muttering to himself, "We fought that war too." The next day he goes to work at the post office and does something that startles you instantly. This opening scene adds time to the story but does not actually help the story that much. From this scene the movie then goes back to the 1940s and the war. The movie ends with another scene that does not play that well but includes a feeling of deep emotion. The closing music moved me to tears: "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" sung very soulfully. What occurs between the beginning and the end is one of finest World War II movies I have ever seen.
First, be warned. The violence in the battle scenes is as gripping as it gets. Saving Private Ryan has nothing on Miracle at St. Anna for graphic and chilling war scenes. But even more disturbing is a scene of slaughter and carnage where Germans kill a village of Italian people in cold blood. The account of how and why this happened is debated but the fact that it happened is not. The event is called the Sant'Anna di Stassema atrocity. 560 civilians were killed as the Germans emptied their ammunition on the village people and then ran out of bullets. This scene is as chilling and memorable as any I have witnessed in a war movie. (Again this is not for children at all. The R rating for violence is well deserved.) Some Italians have protested elements of this particular story, especially the connection of one Italian Partisan that the movie says helped the Germans bring about this slaughter of innocent Italian people.
Second, this is a Spike Lee movie, for good and for bad. Lee is a brilliant man, thus his films always create a buzz of some sort. But in this movie he could have reduced it to two hours and accomplished just as much. Most of the professional critics are correct in their opinions about this problem of length.
Third, the most moving scene in the movie, by far, is the one that takes places in Louisiana where the black soldiers are training to fight and die for America and they meet with racial bigotry in a small town diner. Every time I see such scenes I get angry. I go back to my childhood in the 1950s and still feel a sense of indignation rise up within me. This scene really did it for me big-time. It was a powerful reminder of our past. (Lee is a deeply devoted supporter of Barack Obama and thus some will reject this movie for this reason, which in itself is ridiculous if not outright racist!)
Miracle of St. Anna opened September 26 and only did so-so at the box office. It has received some very mixed reviews. Some, like Roger Ebert, see it as a great war movie. I share this view.
The film was scripted by James McBride, the same novelist who wrote the book, Miracle at St. Anna. I tend to think this is the reason for the length of the film version of the story. A novelist should almost never write the script for a movie. When this happens the writer is too committed to keeping the movie exactly like the book, which is almost always deadly to the movie. In this case it was not deadly but it does blunt the impact of the story with far too much meaningless detail.
As some readers know, Spike Lee created quite a spat about this movie because he reacted so negatively to Clint Eastwood's twin World War II epic films: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. (The Eastwood films are real classics and the Letters from Iwo Jima is the finest war film told from the opponent's perspective I have seen on World War II.) Lee has a valid point about previous war films. The absence of African-Americans from such films is a huge oversight. This prompted him to direct Miracle of St. Anna, which is a revealing look at racism in the time period. Sadly, Lee did not need to react in the way he did to Eastwood since this didn't really help him promote what has become a powerful and gripping movie. The problem here is that Lee's scope and ambition are just a bit too large.
Whereas Saving Private Ryan, and other war classics, focuses only on soldiers this movie also looks closely at the Italian people. It humanizes war by showing the viewer how awful and dreadful war really is to people who are non-combatants. People who get thrilled by war need these reminders regularly.
This movie has a very deep spirituality about it. This is what made it even more compelling to me. The film is really about the four leading characters, four black American soldiers. Ranking staff officer Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) is a steady, commanding office of reason. The role is superbly played. Then there is a devout Catholic who is Puerto Rican Cpl. Hector Negron. He embodies conscience and Catholic spirituality very well. A Sgt. named Bishop Cummings represents untamed carnality and a deep skepticism about faith. He questions Aubrey's idealism and pursues a local woman for her beauty. Then there is the PFC Sam Train. One Catholic reviewer calls him the "holy fool" in this cast of lead actors. He retains very superstitious notions about God and faith mixed with a deep belief in Christ and an admirable, though simple, belief.
Lee also includes a scene where the Germans, Italians and Americans are all praying just before they begin their killing. This collage will confuse some with its simplistic views about how people invoke God's help before battle but I actually found it a powerful testimony to the sad fact that many people fight as if God is truly on their side. We would always do much better to answer this question the way Abraham Lincoln did when he said it is much more important that we be on God's side than we claim him to be on our side in a battle.
The great overriding theme in all of this is race. Like a powerful thread this theme runs from the start to the very last scene. Long over-due attention is finally given to the role African-Americans played in the Second World War through this film. The film also treats Christian and Roman Catholic themes with respect and accuracy. Perhaps Lee's greatest film work occurs when he shows black soldiers bloodied bodies in a river, and a helmet floats by a man's face. As one reviewer put it this scene says, "Remember me too."
Spike Lee should be commended for this fine film. His angry public persona should not keep you away if you are drawn to powerfully themed war films. The critics might have given it two or two-and-a-half stars but I give would it three-and-a-half or four. The only hesitation about giving it the highest rating is the way the story rambles and meanders at times. A better editor would have perfected it and made it totally superb.