Friday, December 23, 2011

A CHRISTMAS WAR MOVIE: A Midnight Clear

 

     I thought with Christmas approaching I would suggest an X-Mas themed war flick. “A Midnight Clear” was released in 1992. Its cast consisted of several up and coming actors like Ethan Hawke, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, John McGinley, Frank Whaley, and Gary Sinise (his film debut). The ensemble cast is strong and the movie is a little gem that is not well-known. It cost less than $5 million to produce and made less than $2 million. It is based on the novel by William Wharton.


     The movie is set in the Ardennes Forest before the Battle of the Bulge. It is not a big picture movie. You get no idea how the battle is going. There is a “fog of war” surrounding the intelligence squad that is sent out to observe enemy movements from an abandoned mansion.  They are scared and unclear about what they are supposed to do. The mission is seemingly suicidal and their ex-mortician, current martinet Major Griffin (McGinley) has a habit of putting them in precarious positions. Speaking of a previous patrol, Will (the narrator Ethan Hawke) makes the following telling remark: “We lost half of our squad attempting one of [Griffin’s] map-inspired, ill-conceived recon patrols. When I say ‘lost’, I mean ‘killed’. Nobody in the Army ever admits that someone on our side is killed. They’re either ‘lost’ like Christopher Robin… ‘hit’, as in a batter hit by a pitched ball… or get ‘it’ like in hide and go seek. Or maybe they “get it”, as with an ambiguous joke.” Well said and true. In fact, much of the narration is cynical and critical of the Army.

     We get to know the squad well. They are typically heterogeneous except there is no country hick because this is an “intelligence” squad. They care about each other, but are not all BFFs. There is a flashback scene from boot camp as several of the boys attempt to lose their virginity with a good girl down on her luck. It is a sweet scene and tastefully done.

     The setting and mood of the movie could have easily fit a horror movie. On the way to the mansion, they come upon the corpses of a G.I. and a German in a death embrace. The chalet is eerie. It is empty except for a deer. The nights are particularly spooky. The first night Germans yell unintelligibly from the woods and the next day the Americans discover a German squad encamped in a hut nearby. That night the Germans come again to yell “Fuck Hitler” (later they insist they are not Nazis, just German soldiers – an accurate description of the dilemma of many German soldiers) and throw snow balls. The third night they rig up a Christmas tree and sing carols. Although fictional, the film harkens back to the famous Christmas Truce of WWI. (That reminds me to suggest "Joyeux Noel" as a companion to your Christmas viewing.) The perplexed Americans finally realize the Germans want to surrender, but they need for it to look like they put up a fight. Since “Mother” (Sinise) has recently suffered a breakdown, the guys decide to make him the “hero” of the skirmish so he can be sent home. Mother is to be kept in the dark about the whole affair. Nice plan, disastrous results. Watch the movie and see what happens.

     This is a remarkable movie. It is unlike any other war movie I have seen. It is spiritual (helped by the New Age musical score) and has a heart-tugging scene involving the bathing of a dead comrade that is hard to forget (and slightly homoerotic). It is also overtly religious in spots. Although a Christmas movie, there is also a strong reference to the Crucifixion. Some will not like this aspect of the movie, but I found it refreshing. Keep in mind that soldiers tend to be religious for obvious reasons, so why shouldn’t war movies occasionally have religious themes?

     The movie is very well acted. The squad is likeable and relateable. Each has a distinct personality. Each actor gets a chance to shine. No one dominates. The small unit dynamics are realistic. Their behavior rings true. McGinley is appropriately loathsome as the clichéd commanding officer. (By the way, McGinley and Dillon went on to appear in another great small unit movie – “Platoon”.) The Germans are shown in a sympathetic light. What happens to them is truly tragic.

     This is a very snowy movie. Watch it with a mug of hot chocolate by a fire place if you can. It was shot in Utah and the temperatures at night were frigid. The cinematography is crisp and clear like the locale.

     In conclusion, “A Midnight Clear” is one of the two greatest war movies set at Christmas. Are there others? Let me know. It will make my 100 Best War Movies list when I get done with my journey.

a tribute video


6 comments:

  1. I wanted to do a Christmas in war movies post but I'm not in the mood anymore.
    I reviewed this around this time last year and remember we had a conversation about it being too religious (for me). Of course I prefer Merry Chritsmas and think I liked Silent Night better.
    One year later and many movies later, I must admit, it did at least stay in my memory, more than I can say about some other movies.
    I should re-watch it I guess. It's quite possible that I would like it much more now.

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  2. Silent Night? Looks interesting, I will put it on my TBW list.

    I did think you were too harsh. Try it again and let us know.

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  3. this is a good example of a young director making do with what he had. great use of locations and an equally young cast. Better then the book for once. kinda a thinking mans war movie in a way. the director was Keith Gordon who went to college with Rodney Dangerfield and had a fetish for demonic cars. he made some very interesting movies, two of which are somewhat about war also: Mother Night about Nazis, spies, Nick Nolte. The Chocolate War about a war over selling chocolate bars in a boys boarding school with a climactic battle between two boys at the end. sorta a war movie in ties and pennyloafers. he knows how to get a distinctive style and his actors seem to respond well too. On christmas war movies: seems like Stalag 17 takes place during christmas time and i think Empire of the Sun is partially based during christmas. doesnt Christian Bale go under the wire for Malkovitch to trap a holiday bird or something like that?

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  4. Thanks for the interesting information. Good catch on Stalag 17, but certainly not an X-Mas themed movie. I do not remember X-mas in Empire.

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  5. I don't consider that to be a Christmas movie, other than the title.

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