This week’s Christmas war pick is the 1992 release of Keith Gordon’s A Midnight Clear which was adapted from the novel by William Wharton. The film stars Ethan Hawke (Sgt. Will Knott), Peter Berg (Pvt. Bud Miller), Kevin Dillon (Cpl. Mel Avakian), Arye Gross (Pvt. Stan Shutzer), Gary Sinise (Pvt. Vance ‘Mother’ Wilkins), Frank Whaley (Pvt. Paul ‘Father’ Mundy), Larry Joshua (Lt. Ware), and John C. McGinley (Maj. Griffin).
The film tells the story of a six man U.S. Army intelligence squad which is hand picked by their regimental commander (Griffin) to scout out an old French chateau in the Ardennes forest in December of 1944 which may house forward German patrols who are trying to push through a gap on their way towards Bastogne, Belgium. Sgt. Knott (Hawke) and his men are at the breaking point fighting the war and try very hard to disassociate themselves from the normal chain of command.
Knott has reluctantly been promoted to the rank of Sgt. and much like the character David Manning in When Trumpets Fade, he shows very little enthusiasm for promotion because he and his men have managed to stay alive longer than the others in their squad. In one scene, Knott narrates to the audience that in their squad, only he and a few others are left after the numerous failed, ill conceived recon missions ordered by Griffin, “Six of us are dead, so where’s the intelligence?”
With very little information at their disposal, Knott and his men are ordered to take two jeeps and a week’s worth of rations and are to set up a base of operations at the chateau and report any enemy activity in that sector. Upon arriving at the chateau, they find it abandoned and are thrilled to be living in the lap of luxury for a short while. The men reminisce about home and try to turn off the war for a short while. Knott is worried about the stability of one of his men, Vance ‘Mother’ Wilkins’ (Sinise) learned before the mission that his wife miscarried their first child and becomes emotionally unstable for combat duty.
The Americans learn that a squad of German troops hiding in the woods close by are much like themselves and are tired of fighting and are hoping to negotiate terms for a surrender. Knott, Miller, Shutzer, and the others are convinced that it may be a trap, but realize that on a few occasions that if the Germans were planning an attack against them, they could have done it. In one scene, the German troops set up a Christmas tree outside the chateau and celebrate the holiday with the frightened American troops. Knott and the others put down their weapons and begin to join in with the singing Germans. Paul ‘Father’ Mundy (Whaley) who hoped to one day become a Priest, joins in with the German troops to sing carols, while both groups also exchange gifts with one another.
Knott hopes that a fake skirmish can be arranged which would look as if the Germans didn’t give up with out a fight, and hope to make it look as if Mother Wilkins (Sinise) came to their rescue and captured the Germans in a “Sgt. York” manner. Knott hopes that this will allow Mother to return home as a hero and to be with his wife once again. As the film builds to its conclusion, things go horribly wrong and Knott and his men must fight in order to save themselves and avoid capture by the advancing German troops.
Keith Gordon’s direction of the film is flawless and each scene is executed with amazing precision. The cast is wonderful and the performances are well played. Wharton told Gordon that while he was writing the screenplay that if he claimed it was based on a true story, Wharton would not allow the film to be made. Wharton’s novel was based on actual events and Ethan Hawke’s character is a composite of Wharton.
I first saw this film almost twenty years ago on home video and it quickly became one of my all time favorite World War II films. It has a wonderful message of brotherhood and camaraderie among soldiers in combat, yet can also be considered a powerful anti-war film. The men of the intelligence squad represent a cadre of non conformists who despise men like Maj. Griffin who conduct the war from a safe distance and have no knowledge of battlefield tactics. The only sympathetic officer in the film is Lt. Ware (Joshua) who cares for Knott and his squad, and tries to act as a liaison between the lower echelon and the higher ups like Griffin.
Roger Ebert gave the film a wonderful review and said that it was one of the best films of that year. Acclaimed New York Times movie columnist Vincent Canby wrote that “In A Midnight Clear, just about everything works.” The film went on to win much recognition from Sundance and from other international film festivals in 1992.
A Midnight Clear is available on DVD through Columbia/Sony Pictures and can be rented through Netflix.