The boy with Train and his head and Bishop
This is the only Spike Lee fiction feature that has been denied a UK release. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly because it died at the US Box Office where it failed to reach $10 million against a $45 million budget. But then you would expect Disney (Touchstone) to attempt to get something back on a DVD release in the UK at least. Perhaps one is scheduled, but it is already nearly a year since the US cinema release. IMDB seems out of date on the release schedule since Italy isn’t listed, but according to the Lumiere Database it attracted 191,000 admissions there – not great for an epic film like this. It doesn’t seem to have been released anywhere else in Western Europe (at least not in 2008).
More worrying perhaps is the general unwillingness of distributors to put out films with African-American cultural content in the UK. We are still waiting for the awards-laden The Great Debaters (US 2007), the second film directed by Denzel Washington. There is a form of institutional racism at play here, a kind of dismissal of the possibility that general audiences might find an African-American film interesting. I guess the distributors would point to the general negative reaction to Miracle at St. Anna from US viewers and reviewers, despite the minority view that this is a great film.
I don’t think it is a great film, but it is a film that I would urge anyone interested in representation issues and auteur filmmaking to watch. As is often the case, Roger Ebert gives one of the most sensible responses to the film when he suggests that all the flaws he sees in it, and possibly all the things he doesn’t really like, are evidence of Spike Lee’s vision, which he has maintained in the film in the face of potential front office objections:
“When you see one of his films, you’re seeing one of his films. And Miracle at St. Anna contains richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence and life. Maybe too much. Better than too little.”
I’ll go with that.
Outline (no spoilers)
The film is an adaptation, scripted by the author himself, of the novel with the same title by James McBride (published in 2002). The plot opens with an incident in New York in 1983 that sets up a mystery involving, among other things, a marble head that turns out to be a valuable artefact. The main narrative is set in Tuscany in December 1944 during the Allied push against the Germans. Black soldiers from the 92nd Division of the US Army, known as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, engage with a large German force near the Serchio River. Four men get detached from the American side and end up on the other side of the river. They rescue a young Italian boy – who bonds immediately with one of the soldiers whom he calls ‘a chocolate giant’ – and eventually find themselves in a mountain village from which the Germans have fled. Meanwhile, the local German commander is being berated by a senior officer and told that he must regroup his men and find both the local partisans who have been harrying the German forces and a German soldier who is missing and must be found. What happens in the ensuing confrontations between the four Americans, the villagers, the partisans and the Germans holds the key to the mystery in New York. The resolution does solve the mystery, but doesn’t perhaps ‘close’ all the narrative questions.
The film is 160 minutes (although the closing credits last nearly 10 minutes) and it does feel long. The rigmarole of watching Region 1 DVDs forced me to watch the film in three parts. I think that if I had seen it in one sitting it would have flowed more as a narrative. In a way, I think I was least impressed with the opening and closing (mostly) New York-set scenes. The central narrative however, I found gripping. The ‘bookending’ of Second World War stories has become a convention of recent war films and to some extent it also links this film to Lee’s previous feature, Inside Man (2006) which also posed a mystery in New York that only made sense in terms of events from the 1930s. Lee has worked before with properties from other writers or with scripts written by strong authorial voices, so I’m not sure how much of the audience’s difficulties with the film come from the original story (which is a fiction based around a real incident). I read the book after I saw the film and in a way I’m glad I did it that way round as I enjoyed getting deeper into the narrative. I don’t believe that books are always ‘better’ than films – they are simply different as narratives.
The book isn’t actually very long, but it does have an awful lot of narrative detail. Although the film script more or less sticks to the book’s central narrative, there are aspects that are cut out since they are easily described in a novel, but would be difficult to include in a film narrative lasting less than three hours. This is inevitable – the book can include more detail, but it doesn’t press the emotional triggers as well as the film for a popular audience. Partly this means we learn less about the four central characters in the film than we do in the book. There is also, I think, less possibility of exploring the various fantasy or ‘spiritual’ elements of the novel – whether ‘real’ or imagined. More intriguingly, the film simplifies some of the subtleties in the depiction of the Buffalo Soldiers – perhaps McBride thought that audiences simply wouldn’t believe what actually happened in the US Army in Italy? Just to give one example, the leader of the four soldiers is a Staff Sergeant in the film, but a 2nd Lieutenant in the novel – a small difference, but important in how the Buffalo Soldiers were organised. There is also rather more in the novel about the issues concerning white officers and Black men. In other words, the film is perhaps less challenging than the novel in confronting the racism in the US armed forces.
Here are Spike Lee and James McBride in New York discussing the issues surrounding the film – it seems to me that in McBride, Spike Lee has found a like-minded soul (but note the emphasis that McBride puts on the theme of friendship and spirituality over and above the story of the Buffalo Soldiers).
Lee says that he wanted to make the film after reading the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that he knew quite a lot about the 92nd Division and had already considered this kind of project. The US forces in the Second World War were still segregated (although led by white officers). This caused problems in Europe as depicted in the John Schlesinger film Yanks (UK/US/Germany 1979) in which the local British girls are attracted to the black GIs and don’t really understand the colour bar (which did exist in Britain, but not so openly). The only other films I know that deal directly with segregation in the US forces at this time are The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO TV film from 1995 and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984).
As you might expect, the four soldiers are not Hollywood types but carefully-drawn characters who are constructed in various ways to allow McBride and Lee to explore a range of issues. Pfc Train (Omar Benson Miller) is the ‘chocolate giant’ – the gentle and spiritual boy from North Carolina who has never been close to a white person before he rescues the Italian boy. Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso) is the solid and sensible radio operator from Spanish Harlem, a bilingual man who also speaks enough Italian to translate when they meet the villagers. Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) are the two who have ‘got on’ in life and in the Army, but Bishop is smooth and light-skinned, a con-man preacher from Kansas with the most obvious vices. Stamps is upright and sober but perhaps repressed – he is the product of a special US Army scheme devised to ‘fast track’ potential leaders. He is shocked that he feels more ‘free’ in Italy than at home and there is a vulnerability about him. They fall out over the only young attractive woman in the village – and just about everything else. There has been some comment that Bishop is too ‘modern’ in his speech and mannerisms and I can see this, but I suspect that Lee and McBride want to be sure that his behaviour is recognisable for a contemporary audience.
There are two aspects of the film that I suspect have caused most problems with American audiences. One is a typical Spike Lee insert into the narrative – a flashback to the soldiers during training in the Southern US where they encounter racists in a town bar (which was in the novel, although slightly differently handled). It’s the kind of incident that may well have happened in ‘real life’, but Lee plays it to the hilt. The other surprise for audiences, perhaps expecting a Hollywood style war film, is that the story is just as interested in the villagers and the partisans as in the soldiers and one of the central themes is the kind of supernatural bond that develops between Train and the boy and between the central family group in the village and the group of Black soldiers. McBride and Lee strongly suggest that for the soldiers, the village is a spiritual home.
The film did remind me of the great Hollywood war films – I mean the small-scale gritty pictures made by Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller and also Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron – no higher praise really, except that it also reminded me of Rossellini’s Paisa with the partisans and Americans fighting the Germans (and the Brits mentioned and somewhere off-screen). The combat scenes were pretty impressive and exciting and probably quite realistic in terms of the survival rate in what was a very hard-fought campaign. I’d urge anyone to see the film – and to read the book. In an ideal world, I think I’d like Spike Lee to be able to make two films – Part 1 about how the Buffalo Soldiers were formed and Part 2 about what happened to them in Tuscany. I hope he returns to material like this. I’m also tempted to read more by James McBride.