The most overlooked and underappreciated war film that you never hear talked about, this masterpiece revolves around the unsung heroes of World War II that have never gotten their proper recognition. In fact the very basis of the film was deemed somewhat controversial, as Lee had previously criticized Clint Eastwood for his lack of black representation in his celebrated films Flags for our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which Eastwood described was only an issue of accuracy while essentially dismissing Lee as a crybaby and a propagandist. Thus the burden was on Lee to provide some legitimacy to his claims, in which case he puts forth a blend of truth and fiction that doesn’t necessarily validate his criticism of previous portrayals of the war, however it does offer an awareness of additional stories untold through the medium of an epic film that is undeniable.
Based on a novel written by James McBride of the same name, this film highlights the efforts and sacrifices made by the 92nd Infantry Division also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who served in Italy during the mid 1940’s amidst great resistance from the enemy as well as their allies. Extensive research was done by McBride who was appropriately hired to write the screenplay, as authentic portrayals of events is evident throughout the film, highlighted by key moments such as the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre where 560 civilians (130 children) were murdered on a single day. That particular tragedy was filmed on location in Tuscany, Italy, adding an apparent sense of realism to the horror along with the opening battle scene that was shot on the Serchio River. Additional filming took place in Rome for a month, providing a certain aesthetic that is visible throughout the film, with cinematography from Matthew Libatique and Ernest Dickerson that arguably makes it the most beautiful motion picture from Lee’s entire catalogue.
Yet just as powerful as the historical elements in the film are the fictional components told through the story of our four leading men, played admirably by Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Benson Miller, the latter of whose performance as a soldier with an impaired intellect took a few viewings to fully appreciate. Nonetheless these four Buffalo Soldiers become abandoned in enemy territory where they are fortunate enough to get assistance from local villagers, one of whom is an attractive young woman played by Valentina Cervi who becomes intertwined in a love triangle with Luke and Ealy. As it turns out those moments of conflicted romance are one of the film’s finest qualities, as Luke’s chivalry is rejected in favor of Ealy’s arrogance, causing a rift between the men at a time where only their loyalty to each other could keep them alive. In these particular scenes Lee gets the most out of his actors, as Luke’s heartbreak is incredibly subtle but intense, and almost symbolic as if good men weren’t likely to find good fortune in the face of so much evil. Yet Luke’s steadfast demeanor is important to note as well, as in the face of disappointment he never wavers from the task at hand; emblematic of the perfect soldier that is deserving of the highest honors from his country, the type of soldier that history should have never overlooked or ignored.
In addition to explosive character development there is also a mystique to the film that has cultural significance, such as the head of the Primavera which had been decapitated by the Germans and in real events went unfound until 1961 when it was recovered from the bed of the Arno river. In the film however the statue head serves as good luck for the previously mentioned and rather mentally debilitated soldier played by Benson Miller, who is also unknowingly fortunate enough to behold an artifact worth millions, even if it doesn’t give him the strength of five men or make him invincible like he believes it to. Likewise the soldiers stumble upon another streak of luck by rescuing an abandoned Italian boy, one who is traumatized by the war to the point of seemingly being possessed, however throughout the film his premonitions coincidentally forewarn the men of potential evils; in which case to them he resembles a child of god. On the other hand there is also a subplot that is engrossed in great misery and pain, where The Great Butterfly (a Partisan leader played marvelously by Pierfrancesco Favino) is ridden with guilt after finding out his efforts inadvertently led to the massacre at St. Anna. Yet where the miracle comes in revolves around the enchanting beauty of the country itself, as hidden within the mountains resembles the legend of the sleeping man, a symbol of pride that remains uncompromised even in spite of the loss of humanity.
In closing this work of art really comes together despite all of it’s moving pieces, as not only is the history involved incredibly moving but the style and grace concealed within that time period is apparent as well. Not often is a film that’s rich in culture able to cover so many demographics, as both the African American soldiers and the Italian villagers are depicted in a way that is honorable, and even a lone German officer exemplifies enough compassion and remorse to make you wonder how many decent men were corrupted by their circumstance. Yet all theories aside what is relatively absolute is that as likely forgotten as the events themselves is the fact that the story is actually told through a flashback, as a few very brief but star studded scenes open and close the film providing a magic touch and even more added significance. Famed actors John Turturro, John Leguizamo, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Kerry Washington all play their minor roles graciously, and Italian actor Luigi Lo Cascio displays some extraordinary emotions as well, rounding out an unforgettable ensemble piece filled with a variety of outstanding performances. As the film reaches its climax it’s likely to leave its audience with a wide range of feelings, however it’s uplifting more than anything else (e.g. historical accuracy), while ultimately so well done that even Dirty Harry should applaud its devotion to the deadliest war’s most forgotten heroes.