Miracle at St. Anna
Special to The History Place
Spike Lee’s new film Miracle at St. Anna opened on Friday, September 26th, to a blizzard of mostly bad reviews and predictions of a worse reception at the box office. In this sixth year of the Iraq War, so-called “war pictures” are generally ill received. Director Lee reportedly shrugged this off, quoted as musing, “With an African American running for president, anything is possible. There’s a whole new dynamic in the air.”
Standing out from the mostly negative crowd, the Boston Herald labels Miracle nothing less than “a masterpiece.” I happen to agree. Having seen all two hours and 40 minutes of the film, two days after it opened, I left the theater in awe of Lee and author/journalist James McBride, who converted his 2003 novel into the screenplay.
The film works on several levels. First, for those of you who still enjoy a good “action picture” (as my dad, a WWII vet, liked to call war films), Lee and McBride really deliver. The battle scenes are at once exciting and believable, and, as in Saving Private Ryan, highly affecting.
The film is also a sort of murder-mystery. The story opens not in the autumn of 1944, when the 92nd Infantry Division was deployed on the so-called Gothic Line in Italy’s Po Valley. Instead it begins in New York City in 1983. An elderly African American postal worker, routinely selling stamps from behind his window, suddenly pulls out a Luger and shoots an equally aged customer stone dead. Then, while searching the murder’s apartment, New York’s finest find a carved stone head. A scene or two later, a consulting professor declares the cranium to be the long-lost capo of “Spring,” one of the four figures on the 450-year-old Florentine Ponte Santa Trinita. The head had been lost when the retreating Nazis blew the bridge in ’44.
How the Luger and the sculpture, valued at $5 million, came to be in the hands of an African American mailman three months away from retirement, and why he used the Luger souvenir to finish off another old timer, who only wanted to purchase a twenty-cent stamp, is all revealed during the remaining two hours of the film.
The title of the novel and movie is rather ironic. The massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema was perpetrated by SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 35 on August 12, 1944. The retreating SS soldiers rounded up 560 villagers and refugees, mostly women and children, machine-gunned them at the church and burned their bodies. McBride imagines a boy, who (one might say miraculously) escapes.
The boy’s nine-year-old life remains charmed. Near death, he’s rescued by a wayward patrol of the 92nd’s so-called Buffalo Soldiers. Though members of an all-black division, the four African American infantrymen are as diverse as any four GIs could be. The Italian boy’s protector is a pro-fullback of a man, whom the Dondi-esque kid calls his “Chocolate Giant.” His buddies include a street-smart grunt with a gold tooth, who devotes the time the troopers spend stranded in an Italian hamlet toward chasing the town’s prettiest girl. The group’s leader is a serious man, consciously committed to civil rights and cautiously confident that the Buffalo Soldiers’ war record will show a racist America that black men are their white comrades’ equals in arms.
And then there’s the radioman, who survives the patrol’s harrowing adventures, to age into the postal employee-qua-killer. His long Odyssey climaxes, oddly enough, on a Bahamian beach, where he tells his companion that all he wants is to join his wife of 25 years, dead of a heart attack, in heaven. “Is that too much to ask?” he inquires rhetorically. Perhaps not, but his God has one more miracle in mind for Lee’s protagonist, before he joins his better half in heaven. Whether he will ever see the Pearly Gates, who can say? The film’s conclusion makes it clear that he will never see the inside of a cell.
The best thing about the film: its miracles are neither mundane nor unbelievable. In the context of war, murder, and clashing passions--racism, sex, love, and intense sorrow--the miracles are as natural as a soothing summer rain.
Rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity.