“Safety is the greatest risk of all, but safety leaves no room for miracles, and miracles are the only sure thing in life.”
Spike Lee finds a noble cause in the experiences of the Buffalo Soldiers, fighting in Italy during World War II. There’s no question that history hasn’t always dealt fairly with the contributions the black soldiers have made on the battlefields that have, at times, defined our nation. From the American Revolution through to today’s War On Terror, the black soldier has risked and often laid down his life for a country that at least during World War II, didn’t honor his service or humanity. The problem is that Lee lost focus of whatever it was he was trying to say or whoever it was he was attempting to honor here. This movie never is about these particular soldiers or their contributions. There is no history, to speak of here at all. We don’t see the formation of these units, and the film doesn’t go into their overall importance in the war effort. Instead the film is more about the Italian resistance during Nazi occupation and the politics and betrayals of that movement. It’s almost as if these few black soldiers are merely witnesses to a series of events that were never under their control.
There’s a lot to love about this film. This wasn’t a cast heavy on stars, but it was a cast heavy on heart. This is not a battle weary film, so the characters are far more important than they might have been had this been merely a shoot ‘em up. Lee takes the time and effort to give these actors the environment and script they needed to truly develop for us on screen. The Italian locations add the authenticity that the film needed to bring us such wonderful atmosphere. Where Lee does his work best is in the tight quarters of the refugee home. The location gets incredibly claustrophobic, and that translates to a more emotional investment for us as viewers. You won’t find as much action as you usually look for in these World War II epics, but you’ll get a wonderful story, if you can show some patience.
The film begins at a post office where an older black man is servicing one of the windows. An older white man shows up and asks for a 20 cent stamp. The worker pulls out a German luger and blows the customer away. We are allowed to witness the investigation through the eyes of a reporter on his first day at work. At the killer’s home a search reveals a large stone statue head hidden in the closet. The head is traced to a statue that once adorned a bridge in Italy that was destroyed by the Nazis. The statue was considered looted by the Germans and missing for the 50 some years since that time. Our reporter friend snags a jailhouse interview with the killer, where he recounts his story.
It is World War II, and we join members of the all black Buffalo Soldiers making their way across a wetland in Italy. A seductive woman over a public address system is trying to demoralize the black troops. She broadcasts fears to them in order to get them to give up. She tells them that while they are here fighting, white men are home raping their wives and girlfriends. The soldiers apparently reach their objective, which is in enemy territory on the other side of the water. When they radio in their location, the commanding officer doesn’t believe that they actually made it and announces to his staff that they were just lyin’ negroes. The officer fires on their position, killing most of the unit. Next we join a couple of survivors trying to get to some safety. A nearby barn is fired upon by the Germans, and the men hear the cries of a little boy trapped inside. One of the soldiers, a large man named Train (Miller) goes against his partner’s advice to rescue the boy. Train is carrying the stone head we’ve already seen in the future killer’s closet. He is a simpleminded man who believes that touching it can make him invisible to his enemies and also give him super strength. Inside, the boy has never seen a black man before and believes he must be made out of chocolate. He licks his face, only to discover no sweets. With the boy in tow the soldiers make their way to an Italian home, which happens to be a headquarters for one of the resistance leaders. The men are now holed up in the middle of an occupied area of Italy. The Nazis have them surrounded. They manage to piece together a radio and finally make contact with the same commander who didn’t believe them before. Their orders put them right in the middle of the politics of the resistance. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for our brave troops. One man does survive and is given the stone head by the boy who was saved. We understand who this man was that came looking for a 20 cent stamp and why he was killed. The flashback appears to come full circle, and then Lee makes a terrible mistake.
Up until this time, while I never got a sense this film was really about these black soldiers, it was, in fact, a very good and compelling film. The events are dramatic without always having to be incredibly violent. The cast did a tremendous job all the way around. But Lee had to go for the contrived happy ending. I think you’re going to find that the entire sincerity of the film is wasted when we return to the present and witness the ending Lee somehow felt compelled to provide. I can’t tell you how angry I am that Lee completely flushed away over 2 hours of our time in a pat ending that might be the biggest mistake this sometimes controversial director has ever made. He likes to call his productions a Spike Lee Joint; in this case he’s describing what he must have been smoking when he opted for this ending.
Miracle At St. Anna’s is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This is at times a striking 1080p image. The magic is achieved via an AVC/MPEG-4 codec and a healthy 25-30 mbps bit rate. I was most impressed with the lighting of this film. Certainly there are very dark and grainy moments, but you’ll find them exactly as you should. Light looks naturally produced on an almost constant basis. These battles aren’t pretty, sharp little images that show a glossy battlefield, nor should they be. The detail of the image allows you to feel the dirt fly and the blood flow. Where the image allows you to take in the brilliance of the HD transfer is some of the wonderful scenic shots, the mountain vistas behind characters in the outside. There is a forest scene near the climax that comes alive with green even through a misty fog that often covers the area. Still, color is allowed to break through in those moments, providing the stark contrast we need to appreciate both.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track is a wonderful presentation. Surrounds are aggressive when they needed to be, but crowded when the camera needed you to feel the closeness around you. The battle scenes provide every bit the surround experience you might expect. Bullets go whizzing by, and you can feel the soldier’s boots sticking in the mud as they move forward. I haven’t seen this film in standard definition, but I suspect that the 1.5 mbps audio delivers subs that you just couldn’t get on a DVD. Dialog moves across the sound field in a completely natural way, delivering solid sound that never lets you down, even when the mains and subs are giving you explosive splendor. It’s a nice effort for a good HD experience all around.
All of the extras included here are in HD.
Deleted Scenes: There are 20 minutes of additional scenes. Can you even believe there were 20 minutes more footage? It’s here, but adds little.
Deeds Not Words: This 17 minute feature looks at the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers from an American Legion hall where a round table discussion includes Spike Lee, writer James McBride, and several surviving black veterans of World War II. They tell some engaging tales.
The Buffalo Soldiers Experience: This 20 minute feature is more of a documentary on the unit. You have many of the same participants of the round table talking about the unit’s history. They discuss the racial climate both at home and while they served in Italy.
I think your expectations, more than anything, will shape how you end up feeling about this movie. If you want the standard Saving Private Ryan kind of war film, this one won’t deliver. If you’re hoping for a detailed look at the black soldier in World War II, you will be even more disappointed, considering that that’s exactly how Spike Lee sells this film. If you’re looking for a war film that deals with the human experience, then you just might end up appreciating this film in ways it doesn’t seem it was intended. It’s funny, but a film that was supposed to deal with prejudice will suffer for that very thing. It delivers something other than you were hoping for. While that can make for a surprising delight, it can also quickly turn off the crowd expecting something else. They won’t give the film a chance to show you what it is, rather than what it isn’t. “It cuts both ways.”