by HELEN GEIB
The first scene of Spike Lee’s new film Miracle at St. Anna shows a sixty-something year old black man alone in his New York apartment in 1984 watching a WWII movie on television. The old movie stars John Wayne as a general in the European theater. Lee strings together excerpts from several scenes of Wayne’s character speaking about the sacrifices made by American soldiers and then cuts to a close-up of the old man speaking a line to the effect of, “we were there too.” That line is the film’s mission statement and emblematic of Lee’s filmmaking. This is a war drama about black combat soldiers in the American army in Europe in WWII that opens with a line of dialogue informing the audience that black American soldiers saw combat in Europe in WWII. Lee shows and tells, and then tells again for good measure.
The apartment scene begins a length forty-years-later framing story; however, the bulk of this inordinately long (2 hours, forty minutes) film is set in war-torn Italy in 1944. The film’s main characters are four black infantrymen who are separated from their unit and become trapped behind German lines. They run across a traumatized Italian boy who bonds with one of the soldiers, spend a couple of days in an Italian village where they interact with the villagers and two of the group become enamored of the local beauty, and meet a group of Italian partisans with a German prisoner.
That summary only scratches the surface of what goes on in the film. Miracle at St. Anna is hugely overstuffed with plot, characters, themes, and intentions. The result is an unfocused narrative and shallow characterization.
The film’s many topics can be roughly divided into two groups, race and everything else. A sampling of the first group: providing a corrective to Hollywood’s traditional omission of black soldiers from representations of WWII combat; inter-personal conflicts and philosophical disagreements among the four infantrymen; racism in the army and at home; the relationship between the Italian boy and the gentle, simple American soldier who has never touched a white person before; German race-based propaganda, including one message directed at the American soldiers and a very different one at the Italian civilians; the rivalry for the attentions of the Italian beauty, crudely divided between one soldier promising sexual gratification and the other seeking a spiritual affinity; discussions of why black men should or should not fight in “a white man’s war” and whether anything will change after the war.
Some of the “everything else:” German atrocities against civilians; discussions of whether God exists; the intra-national conflict between fascists and communists in Italy; the burden of personal guilt at killing in combat; the possibility of the “good German;” the possibility and reality of miracles.
With such a wide range of topics, it was probably inevitable that the film’s tone would vary greatly from scene to scene. The film moves back and forth between realism, the predominant storytelling mode, and the fable-like quality of the scenes involving the Italian boy and his soldier. Additionally, the action periodically grinds to a halt so some two of the soldiers can break off from the group for a deep talk about an important issue.
Another problem caused by the filmmakers’ determination to do everything at one go is that the momentum of the story is repeatedly broken as the film jumps among the four soldiers, as a group and separately in their various plotlines, subplots involving the Italian partisans and the German army, and gratuitous scenes at division command headquarters and a field base. There is also a lengthy, comes out of nowhere flashback that serves no purpose except to illustrate Southern racism in the early 1940s, just one example of the film’s underlying assumption that its audience is surpassingly ignorant about fundamental facts of mid-century American history.
Watching this film is particularly frustrating because it is a bad film made from materials that might have made a good film. The central wartime storyline would seem like surefire dramatic material. The four soldiers are played by talented actors: Derek Luke, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, and Michael Ealy. As expected from a Hollywood production, the period recreation in costumes and art design is excellent. Miracle at St. Anna focuses attention on a significant and neglected chapter in American military history, but it waits a better film to do the story justice.