I don’t understand all the hate for this film. It’s a little sloppy in places, and takes a while to start, but once we flash back to World War 2, I was gripped. It helps that I watched The Inglorious Bastards (full review) recently; this is not Saving Private Ryan, it’s an old-school World War 2 film, injected with hokiness, but also with a modern level of gruesomeness and brutality. Lee begins by showing an old black man watching John Wayne in The Longest Day as a hint to not expect a modern gritty tale. The first thing he says is, “we fought that war, too.” Miracle at St. Anna doesn’t always work, but I enjoyed it. It is more cluttered than deep, but there is plenty to enjoy here.
An elderly postal worker shoots another old man; cops find a priceless relic in his apartment. We learn its story, with the “experimental” all-black Buffalo Soldiers regiment in Italy in ’44. We get Spike Lee black soldier stereotypes in place of the classic motley crew- there’s the white commander’s lackey, there’s the man trying to uplift his race, there’s the idiot manchild, there’s the guy with the gold tooth and luck with women, who “sets the race back a hundred years.” It’s part commentary on WW2 film conventions and movie expectations of black characters as you’d expect from Spike Lee, but has a solid, old-fashioned heart of a war story, as gritty as The Story of G.I. Joe.
The Italian campaign of World War 2 was some of the most brutal combat of the war, and its tale is the least told. The black regiments, such as those with Patton who broke through the lines, liberated the camps- rarely get mention, and especially in film. Here we get a story of 4 men trapped behind enemy lines. The artifact, the head of a statue, hangs in a net from a huge man’s belt. He’s Train, a towering baby-faced soldier with a gentle manner. He’s been carrying the artifact because he thinks rubbing it for luck has saved his bacon many times. We see his luck or its power in the first battle, as his regiment stalks across a heavily guarded river, and calls for artillery support. Their white commander- who feels slighted for being forced to lead the experimentary all-black force- refuses to believe they’ve made it so far ahead, and corrects the coordinates, bombing his own men.
As they’re cut down between friendly and German fire, only four manage to escape across enemy lines and into a small Italian village. When Train searches a barn as a possible hideout, he saves a young boy from under a collapsed beam; he feels responsible for him afterward. The boy seems touched, like Train; they give the story a fantasy quality. Stamps is the cool & collected leader of the group, and once he gathers his remaining men he gets them holed up with friendly Italians, including the mysterious and sexy Renata (Valentina Cervi, who does get topless) and her fascist-leaning father. Eventually they team with Italian partisans, including the Butterfly, who has a huge price on his head.
When they finally make contact with their regiment, they’re told to grab a German prisoner to interrogate about the enemy positions. As you can see, there’s a hell of a lot going on- and not all of it gets the detail we’d like. We see what Spike Lee is interested in, which isn’t always the plot. There are Nazi atrocities, such as the slaughter of villages to root out partisans; the detectives in the present trying to make sense of the murder in the post office; the Butterfly wondering if rebellion is worth the heavy price they pay in blood; Train and the boy, who may have “the sight,” and dealing with their bigoted superior.
This all happens in the shadow of The Sleeping Man, the mountain that resembles a man’s face, who the locals think will awaken and wipe the country clean of enemies. There’s a lot going on, and it takes a long time for us to get back to the beginning. Don’t expect too much from it, and you’ll be rewarded. It reminded me a lot of Inglorious Bastards (full review), where the journey was more important than where it took you. At 160 minutes, it’s best classified as what we used to call a Sunday movie- maybe not an epic, but a long, busy story that improves with multiple viewings.