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Enemies And Christmas in The Unconventional War Film ‘A Midnight Clear’

A Midnight Clear is 1992 war film about US GIs hold up in an isolated cabin in the Ardennes against a handful of Germans cut off from their main force.

A war movie is probably not the first thing you think of when it comes to Christmas, and rightfully so. No squabbling neighbors going to extremes over too many decorations, no humbugs who are giving the holiday season a pass and need spiritual help from the dead to change their minds, no handsome new guy in the office to fall in love with under the mistletoe and most importantly, absolutely no Santa. Yet, here’s a movie that does both war and Christmas right, an authentic and powerful little thriller that might not fit the traditional mold of December movies but is one well worth adding to the list. And checking twice.

It goes like this: As the last German offensive on the Western front, known as the Battle of the Bulge – beginning in December 1944 – we follow a small squad of US Army soldiers who take position in an abandoned chateau near the German lines. These are recon specialists, men with high IQs meant to observe, analyse and report on enemy movements. Suffering losses beforehand, six men remain, including Sgt. Knott (Ethan Hawke), Bud Miller (Peter Berg), Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon), Stan Shutzer (Arye Gross), Paul Mundy (Frank Whaley), and Vance Wilkins (Gary Sinise).

A Midnight Clear
A Midnight Clear, 1992 © A&M Films

Once set up in the house, they realize quickly that they aren’t exactly alone in the isolated spot, as they come upon a small group of German soldiers while on patrol, though violence is avoided when they flee into the woods. Amazingly, as the nights pass, the Germans take to a more playful attitude, tossing snowballs, leaving messages, and eventually a curious surprise, one that offers a shift in perceptions and a stunning revelation. However, it will have shattering consequences.

Directed by Keith Gordon, the film is immediately grounded by its authentic setting and realistic characters, though it maintains a sort of surreal quality throughout. It’s centered around Knott, who narrates and Hawke is well cast as the innocent thrust into madness, trying to keep sane in a war defined by chaos. He’s become the sergeant of the group, a de facto position heaped on his shoulders after poor orders left everyone else ahead of him in the squad dead. In fact all these soldiers are out of their depth, and the film is more a study of the psychological effects of constant stress in a combat situation than the actual fighting. It’s an anti-war movie with hardly any war.

What it does have is an unconventional approach to World War II, keeping these men always convincing, especially as the movie gives us a few flashbacks to their lives leading up to their occupation of the house. One is a tender moment with a young woman who, in perhaps the most trope-ish aspect of the film, breaks in a few of the boys per se, but even this little sequence goes in an unexpected place. This is the pattern the movie established early, never pulling any punches, but working hard to deviate from the norm. It’s a thriller first and foremost, with an opening shot that lingers over the entire film, a lingering unease that keeps everything after a little unstable, especially for Knott who keeps it secret for much of the story, but it doesn’t do what the genre demands. And that serves it very well.

A Midnight Clear
A Midnight Clear, 1992 © A&M Films

Then there’s this amazing little Christmas moment, easily the best thing going in this always tense film. It’s a slow buildup where the soldiers are taunted by unseen Germans in the surrounding woods. Naturally, they think the worst, believing the enemy is a greater force and just waiting to attack, but as the nights pass, things steadily get more peculiar. I won’t spoil what leads up to this moment, as there is a lot that shapes the finale, but suffice to say, the holiday cheer gets the better of both sides.

As tensions mount, one night, a group of Germans arrive at the chateau, which of course alarms the men, but to their surprise, the enemy soldiers don’t open fire or even appear hostile, but instead, light a decorated pine tree with candles and sing a Christmas carol. What follows is a quiet moment of humanity as fighters on opposite sides let down their guards and reveal that no matter the policies and powers of those that order them, they are just men who want to stay alive.

It’s a brief scene in a film that is otherwise weighted by an intriguing plot that involves a few twists and turns. As a war film, it’s a great alternative, avoiding the big battle scenes and images of graphic bloody gore, trading all that in for a compact standoff between desperate men, freezing and alone, trying to do the right thing. The loose canon element, introduced at the start, is a terrific motivator, keeping what follows always compelling, and yet it all hinges on this one small moment in the twinkle of a chilly starry night, near the glow of a simple Christmas tree as the true spirit of the season embraces them all. It’s a great moment in a great Christmas movie.