With the seemingly endless supply of war films out there, it’s plain to see that while it might’ve been hell, it also empowered many folks to emerge as heroes. Some of these heroes have become iconic pieces of pop culture, plastered on posters, statues and postage stamps. Others quietly move back to their homes and go on back to the average lives they left when duty called or when the bad guys packed it in. So even though you could fill a bookshelf with movies for each of the major wars, some aspects still manage to get overlooked. Don’t get me wrong, the holocaust is one of the saddest points in not just modern history but all of human history. But at the same time, how many movies do we need on the subject? Miracle at St. Anna ventures into an under-told aspect of World War II – African American soldiers on the Italian front. Outspoken director Spike Lee shows some restraint in telling the story. While it does have its weak points, it’s held together by its unique angle on the war as well as strong characterization for its central characters.
The U.S. Army’s 92nd Infantry Division was an all-Black squad fighting in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. A combination of good and bad luck left four of the platoon stuck behind enemy lines, surrounded on all sides by Axis forces. The soldiers take refuge in a tiny village, whose residents are more than happy to help the would-be liberators. The soldiers get bonus points for saving the life of a young boy.
Lee is known for throwing the hammer down and shouting his point loudly. Here it’s a little quieter. Race certainly plays an issue, but there’s also a more universal aspect to it, albeit one told from the perspective of the African American Buffalo Soldiers. Miracle at St. Anna is at its best when its exploring the nuances of the situation and the implication of race. For example, the young boy’s reaction to his savior, Train (Omar Benson Miller) carries such an innocence to it. Here’s a young boy who has probably never seen a Black person before so his imagination leads him to the idea of a chocolate giant who might as well reside in Candyland. Another bit of historical detail comes with Axis Sally, the German radio temptress who says all the right words to get the Black soldiers thinking about which side of the war really represented the good. While propaganda is not a new idea to me, Axis Sally provides some new context as to how it was used in the war.
When the story isn’t focused on peaceful interactions, things fall begin to slip. The battle scenes in particular are weak. Leading up to all of the fights, Lee creates good tension. It’s a by-product of good characterization. However as soon as the guns come out the musical score ventures off into melodramatic territory, thus wrecking the mood faster than throwing up one’s appetizer at a swanky candlelight dinner.
The third act also falters as the focus shifts from the soldiers and the villagers more towards the Axis fighters. The change in focus is jolting and although it gives a more rounded view of the situation, it stalls much of what came before it.
Miracle at St. Anna represents a more restrained view from Lee. He’s still raising the idea of race but not in the way we’re used to. For better or worse, it’s a more tender story that brings heroism out of the ignored corners.
Miracle at St. Anna Blu-ray Review
Spike Lee rarely disappoints when it comes to making his audience think and in the vision of his work. The vision is upheld with the excellent transfer of Miracle at St. Anna onto Blu-ray. The film is shown in gorgeous 1080p high definition widescreen with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Audio is in English 5.1 DTS-HD with additional French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles for all three languages are also available.
The most interesting of the disc’s bonus features is “Deeds Not Words,” a roundtable discussion led by author James McBride and Spike Lee with veterans of World War II. “The Buffalo Soldier Experience” explores the role the African American soldiers played. Finally, there’s nine deleted and extended scenes.
Miracle at St. Anna Gallery