It’s the 1980s, and you’re in a setting that’s just as mundane and boring in real life as it is in the film: a post office. A clerk is working the window; not particularly sociable even by the low standards of the postal service, he keeps his head down.
A man asks to buy a single stamp in a European accent. The clerk looks up. There’s a flash of recognition, and before you can say Jack Robinson the clerk has produced a pistol — a Luger, oddly enough — and fired two rounds into the presumed postal patron, who falls dead as a mackerel.
The camera pulls back. What the hell just happened?
Welcome to the start of Miracle at St. Anna, which could have been one of the great classic war films if it maintained that level of impact throughout. We’ll tell you right now, it didn’t. There are too many characters, and too many complicated interactions; the movie has ambitions beyond the possible, and the dynamic opening’s energy level is frittered away in a horde of subplots.
It was bold of Director Spike Lee to attempt this film, and the Buffalo Soldiers (of all eras of the segregated Army, from the Civil War to the first year of the Korean War) deserve to have their stories told. But when you blend an auteur director and an MFA-type literary novelist’s story (one of the sort that are written for fellow Manhattanites only), season with anachronisms, and strain through the demands of the medium, what winds up on screen is a hard to follow sequence of too many vignettes that don’t string together.
Some parts of it are really good; you have to credit Lee and his impressive Italian and American cast for a great effort. But the story is chaos, and they lose the chance to give the main characters depth by flooding the screen with minor characters who are type, stereotypes, or caricatures.
The irony of the black men fighting for a country that denied them equal rights is hammered home in a prewar flashback within the flashback, in which they are unwelcome in a southern lunch counter, while Nazi POWs — who might be Nazis, but they’re white — are. In case you had any doubts about the moral standing of Nazis, you see some examples later on.
Acting and Production
As mentioned, the actors are generally first-rate. Lee had some bigger names (including Wesley Snipes) lined up for the film… nothing but names were lost when they fell through.
Some actors are given narrow and shallow parts, parts developed like bit parts, and then get too much screen time for the narrow characterization. Other characters are deep and interesting, particularly the four key American soldiers, and we wanted to see more of their characters. They are:
Corporal Hector Negron is the key protagonist — and also the guy who Lugered the European in the movie’s throat-grabbing opening, an act we have no explanation for until well into the movie. He’s a Puerto Rican who has picked up Italian, making himself very useful to the men. Laz Alonso plays the part — a difficult part when you factor in the elderly-Negron scenes — very well.
Staff Sergeant Audrey Stamps — the leader of a patrol of four Americans cut off behind enemy lines in the Italian campaign. They were cut off when a white officer who leads from behind negligently called an artillery barrage on his own troops.
Sergeant Bishop Cummings, a smiling, slick operator of a fellow.
Private Sam Train, who like his name is large and strong. But he’s also very gentle and more than a bit superstitious. He seems to be somewhat hard of thinking. Omar Benson Miller disappears into this character, who’d have been unbelievable without Miller’s great performance.
The Italian and Nazi characters are sketched in with a few lines each, but one interesting thing is that every group has good and evil people within it, with the possible exception of the black soldiers; some of them are morally conflicted, but nobody’s out-and-out evil like some of the Italians, Germans, and American whites.
Accuracy and Weapons
Almost every single weapon here is something that the character quite probably would have used, in real life. That’s a minor accomplishment. The weapons also manage to have the right level of weathering, too: frontline soldiers’ guns are well-used, but it’s recent use. It’s not the patina of age, which you sometimes see in scenes shot with vintage firearms.
The four men have three Thompsons — M1928s, which probably should have been less photogenic M1s by this stage of the war — and a Garand, although it seems luck of the draw that the isolated men are one rifleman, two NCOs, and a radio operator (Negron) carrying the weapons that they should carry.
Only a couple of the machine guns that are briefly on screen are wrong: one’s a Vickers and one’s a British aerial Browning, incongruously standing in for American Brownings. Someone at IMFDB also caught a detail we missed, that in a scene showing two MPs, they’re holding postwar M1 carbines, not wartime guns.
The Germans are armed with Lugers, K98ks, MP40s (maybe too many MP40s) and MG42s. Both sides have mortars, and quite surprisingly, they’re the right mortars. The Italian Partisans have a mix of German, Italian, and typical airdrop (i.e. STEN) weaponry.
There’s little hooey. Most of the artillery hits look like artillery hits (grey and brown dust explosions), but it wouldn’t be a Hollywood production if there weren’t a few hero explosions made of flaming explodiumite.
The tactics, of course, are laughable; the Germans especially seem prone to blazing away, or charging like brain-dead cannon fodder, in the tradition of Hollywood enemies since time out of mind.
One scene that seems phony is the St. Anna church massacre. But despite the scene’s barbarity, it’s not a writers’-room fantasy of monstrous Nazis. Novelist and screenwriter James McBride lifted it rather directly from history. It depicts the actual conduct of real, living, actual monstrous Nazis; in fact it understates it, as 560 Italian civilians, mostly women, children and old men, were murdered in Sant’Anna di Stazemma that day.
Italian partisan vets did not like their portrayal in the film (or the novel) according to this story, which mistakenly calls author/screenwriter James McBride a WWII veteran (he’s in his fifties, and not a veteran at all insofar as we know).
The bottom line
Miracle at St. Anna is an attempt to make a movie as a work of art; as a result, it falls short of a work of entertainment. And that’s how we review ‘em here.
There are better options for your entertainment hours, unfortunately. Where Miracle comes into play, is as an educational film. Many young Americans are profoundly ignorant about our nation’s history, especially its military history. Most of them are astonished to learn that black units, other than the glamorized and celebrated Tuskegee airmen, fought and fought well in World War II. It’s a particularly good film for a black father to use, to connect his sons to American military history and the creditable service of segregation-era black units.
For more information
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- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
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- Wikipedia page: