This Memorial Day weekend, classic war films will be seen on countless television screens across the country. At the start of Miracle at St. Anna - the startling 2008 film collaboration between writer James McBride (author of KPL’s 2005 Reading Together selection The Color of Water) and director Spike Lee – the epic war film The Longest Day runs on a World War II veteran’s TV set. This particular vet isn’t so gung ho upon seeing John Wayne, though – his own war experience as a member of the U.S. Army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division (aka the Buffalo Soldiers) was much different than any that Hollywood was interested in portraying.
The film flashes back to the veteran’s harrowing journey behind enemy lines in war-torn Italy, as he and three fellow Buffalo Soldiers attempt to keep an orphaned boy, the only survivor of a village massacre at the hands of the Nazis, from being discovered. As they travel, not only do the soldiers have to deal with the racist propaganda the enemy uses to distract them (an Axis Sally broadcast during combat, Nazi propaganda posters employing black stereotypes), they still have to endure the explicit prejudice of their commanding officers and, on leave in the deep South, the murderous hatred of ungrateful citizens. In light of all the injustices heaped upon them, their sacrifices at this journey’s end seem especially heroic.
Though McBride and Lee turn the conventions of the epic war film inside-out, the look and structure of the film pay homage to many epic war films that came before. Lee is no stranger to epic filmmaking (see Malcolm X and When the Levees Broke), and though this is his first war film, it plays as though he’s made a dozen. While the film doesn’t glorify combat, it does recognize the unique responsibility of soldiers who put themselves on the line to defend freedoms threatened by force. That some soldiers might have been fighting for freedoms denied to them in their own country is astounding – that rare perspective makes Miracle at St. Anna a war film unlike any other.
Miracle at St. Anna