An Unintentionally Lighter Side of World War II?
Spike Lee’s war movie seems to be a tour of duty and a pleasure cruise rolled into one. The bulk of the tale centers on an African American infantry in World War II Italy. Four soldiers survive a grueling assault and cross the river into enemy lines. Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) leads Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo), and Private First Class Samuel Train (Omar Benson Miller) through the Tuscany countryside to a quaint village where they set up camp and wait for orders. Along with the main goal of staying alive long enough for the calvary to arrive the men also end up caring for a little orphaned boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) and get to meet the town’s native son / Partisan rebel leader, Peppi Grotta aka The Great Butterfly (Pierfrancesco Favino).
If this was supposed to be Lee’s big and bad response to Clint Eastwood’s omission of black soldiers in “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” then I’m sorry to say this was kind of a weak slap to Eastwood’s face. In case you didn’t hear that bit from the rumor mill Lee apparently had some major beef with Eastwood for neglecting to mention that black men also fought in WWII. Now I don’t know for certain that “St. Anna” was made because of that issue but I’m pretty sure it was part of Lee’s drive to make the movie.
That controversy aside, I’m glad “Miracle at St. Anna” was made. As a black man myself I was moved and proud to see people with my complexion fighting on the front lines. “Saving Private Ryan” and the aforementioned Eastwood movies were great but save for the one Native American soldier from “Flags” and the predominantly Japanese cast in “Letters” there isn’t a lot of minority representation in movies like this. Well, unless there's a call for railroad clerks and shoeshine boys. “St. Anna” is the story that doesn’t get told very often so when it is and in a film version that’s a big deal.
The four featured soldiers conveniently represent a piece of the human spirit; Bishop is the cynic, Stamps is the good and mostly obedient soldier, Train is the innocent child trapped in a very grown man’s body, and Negron is the combination of all three aspects. Ealy’s “Bishop” is quite the bad boy. According to the movie he’s a preacher with a shady side. Bishop wasn’t a complete villain. He was the voice on the team that kept reminding his team that even in uniform they would still be regarded as “boys” back home. Stamps tries to keep things in order. He knows how his superiors really feel about him and his fellow soldiers but he fulfills his duty with the hope that his good conduct will help the progress of racial harmony. Negron seconds that emotion but of course he’d rather be anywhere but there.
Then there’s the big and cuddly “Train”. I wasn’t sure if he was mentally challenged or just a very simplistic country boy. He just seemed to be in his own world a lot of the time. At times it was sweet like when he’s keeping the morale of his buddies up while at other times it was deadly such as when he zones out during a major skirmish. But Train really shines when he becomes the big brother of the displaced Italian boy, Angelo. The two share some very tender moments such as a cute scene where the English speaking Train teaches the Italian speaking Angelo a rudimentary “tap” language so they can communicate easier.
I also liked the character Renata played by Valentina Cervi but I wonder if her character was given too much girl power. I expected a young girl growing up in 1940’s rural Italy to be a little more docile. Not Renata. She has no hang-ups telling her father to pipe down when he tells her she can’t escort the soldiers though the Nazi ridden mountains and she sure doesn’t mind being hit on by one of the Army men. Hey, y’all know I’m all for heroines but I was very surprised that women had that much clout in 1940s Tuscany. Interesting.
In a movie like this of course we’re gonna touch upon the race issue. Kinda hard to avoid when the story is set in the 1940s and army brass are regarding the black infantries as “experiments” rather than acknowledging them as full fledged parts of the armed forces. Lee adds a particularly poignant scene that occurs to the fab four back in the States in 1943 when the soldiers enter an ice cream parlor and are literally treated worse than German POWs. Obviously, that’s one of the running topics of “St. Anna”. Why do these black men fight for a country that hates and fears them? It is a question the men ask themselves many times. They have their own personal drives but I guess universally they just wanted to prove themselves to their country and in turn prove that black people deserve to be respected as American citizens.
A World War II drama with a predominantly black cast directed by Spike Lee. What’s to gripe about? Not much but I can’t say this flick was gripe free for me. The biggest malfunction I got from this movie is the constant genre flipping. One minute “St. Anna” is an intense military epic then the next minute its some sort of light hearted romp with the characters joking around just a bit too much for my taste. Not that the soldiers in other war movies didn’t have moments where they played around but the sniper-around-the-corner intensity was never lost. “St. Anna” is weakened because that danger, that urgency is lost with the lulls in action and the over-casualness between the lone four soldiers. With the Germans supposedly crawling all over the countryside the soldiers, for the most part, acted pretty cool.
I know this was Lee’s first war picture so I guess I have to give him some grace since he was breaking soil on new territory. I think he tried to mix his usual approach to building characters with military film sensibilities. Sometimes it worked but overall it was a strange movie. While I did like it I was disappointed that Mr. Lee didn’t ground the piece in more reality. The first major WWII picture about the Buffalo Soldier infantry should’ve been a lot more serious. Lee may be new to war pics but he’s no stranger to “historwood” projects. Honestly, instead of chiding Clint Eastwood perhaps Spike Lee should’ve consulted with him.
The nutshell review is that “Miracle at St. Anna’s” is a good movie. Entertaining and educational. The side plots involving The Butterfly’s terrorist group, the Italian villagers, and little orphan Angelo keep the plot from just sticking to the skin tone issue and that keeps things kind of refreshing. But that flipflopping technique does not bode well for the tone of the movie which constantly switches from drama to comedy so often that it’s hard to take the story completely seriously. Until, of course, when the bullets start flying.