The Great Anti-War Films A Midnight Clear

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For
politicians, war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne
said. For the young draftees who must wage it, war is hell, a waste
of precious life and future love, a dreadful reason to die. While
the great anti-war films never fail to deliver this message, the
way Keith Gordon delivers it in A
Midnight Clear
(1992) is unique among the films I have seen.

Gordon,
a young actor directing his second film, adapted the screenplay
from William Wharton's semi-autobiographical novel. The time is
December 1944; the place is the Ardennes Forest near the French-German
border. The film opens as the haunting wail of a choir gives way
to the even more chilling sounds of a scream, one so unsettling
that it evokes Munch's famous painting. The camera cuts to a close
up of Vance "Mother" Wilkins (Gary Sinise in his film
debut), the source of the shriek. He runs from his foxhole into
the forest, shedding his clothes as he goes, perhaps in a futile
attempt to shed the wretchedness of war.

Will
Knott (Ethan Hawke) is the sergeant of an American Intelligence
and Reconnaissance platoon composed exclusively of conscripts who
are blessed (cursed?) with high IQs. He has gained his promotion
not because of valor or merit, but simply because he has survived:
six of the twelve original members have died in combat. Disgusted
with the war and assuming his rank with great reluctance, he refuses
to sew his stripes on his uniform.

Knott,
cleverly dubbed "Won't" by his comrades, serves as the
narrator and moral compass of the film. In one of several voice-overs,
he implies that were it the politicians and generals who owned the
MENSA-level IQs, perhaps his platoon wouldn't be traipsing through
the snow-covered Ardennes:

Our regimental
commander is Major Griffin. Griffin was a mortician in civilian
life. His main passion now seems to be generating business for
his army counterparts. It's thanks to Griffin and his military
mortuary skills that I've made my recent headlong leap to three
stripes. We lost half our squad attempting one of his 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 they get it, like in hide-and-go-seek. Or maybe
they get it, as with an ambiguous joke.

Knott
continues by exposing the folly of war and the officers' lack of
lament:

Not one of
the six killed had an army intelligence score of less than 150.
We gained a few miles of European real estate and lost the beginnings
of untold generations of very bright people. I think the army
considered this a good deal.

Griffin
orders the platoon to occupy an abandoned French villa and report
any enemy movements. When Knott asks him if he has heard any reports
of German activity in the area, Griffin callously responds that
Knott will just have to learn that on his own.

As
the chain-covered wheels of their two jeeps chew through the ubiquitous
snow on the way to the villa, Knott wonders about the dubious purpose
of it all:

I'm not exactly
sure what country we're in. It could be Belgium, Luxembourg, France
or Germany. I don't know what day it is. I don't have a watch
so I don't know what time it is. I'm not even sure of my name.
The next thing you know, they'll be making me a general.

The
platoon arrives at the villa, where the men find wine, canned fish,
and beds with clean linens. Besides Knott and the insane Mother,
the rest of the group includes "Father" Mundy (Frank Whaley),
a seminary dropout who insists on a no-swearing rule; Bud Miller
(Peter Berg), a typical American blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy; Stan
Shutzer (Arye Gross), a Jew who wants revenge against the Nazis;
and Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon), about whom Knott says, "If
(he) hadn't gotten trench foot, he'd sure as hell be squad leader,
and that's how it should be. Or maybe he'd be dead."

As
they look out for the Germans, they find that the Germans are better
at finding them. Several confrontations occur, but no shots are
fired. On one occasion, three of the Americans encounter three of
their German counterparts and prepare themselves to be killed or
captured. Inexplicably, the Germans disappear without firing a single
round.

Perplexed
but curious, Shutzer finds that a map that Knott previously left
behind has been marked by the Germans in such a way that leads Shutzer
to believe that the Germans want a meeting the next day at noon.
He surmises that they no longer want to fight and that they may
want to surrender. When Knott indicates that he'll have to radio
in the information to Griffin, Shutzer wisely disagrees: "We
don't want to get officers involved in this, screwing everything
up."

Not
telling the others of the plan, they arrive at the location and
find that the Germans have indeed come as well. They regard each
other with an understandable level of suspicion, each side fearing
a double-cross. When one of the men asks Shutzer if he speaks German,
he replies, "No German, Yiddish." This information agitates
the Germans, who demand to speak to a commanding officer. Stalling
for time, he tells them that their CO is miles away but that they
will call for him. The Germans agree and set up another meeting
for the following day.

Back
at the villa, Miller is voted to portray an officer. They sew Knott's
unused stripes on Miller's jacket and coach him on looking like
a real officer. As he struts around assuming his new role, Knott
encourages him:

Knott:
You know, you actually look like an officer.

Miller:
Yeah, well I actually feel like an asshole.

Knott:
Well, that's about the same thing.

That
night, Knott and a couple of the others man their lookout foxhole.
When Knott thinks he spots enemy troops, he launches a hand grenade.
After a minute, what Knott believes to be a return grenade falls
into their foxhole. They duck and cover in anticipation of the impending
explosion, but it never comes. Instead of a grenade, it's a snowball!
A full-scale, junior-high snowball fight ensues. The Germans approach
carrying a tree festooned with candles and begin singing "O,
Tannenbaum." Soon after, they start singing "Silent Night."
The Americans join in, each soldier singing the familiar tune in
his respective language. They exchange gifts, the Americans trading
their wine for booze and sausages.

The
following day, Knott, Shutzer and the putative officer Miller meet
the Germans. When Miller asks Shutzer, serving as translator, if
he trusts these Nazis, the Germans object vehemently to the use
of that epithet, protesting that they are "regular army, just
like you." Indeed, they are probably all conscripts who would
rather be any other place on earth.

The
Germans want to surrender, but they insist on creating a phony altercation
because they don't want the Nazis to exact reprisal against any
of their family back home. After Shutzer observes that, "Things
must be pretty bad in the Waderland to have an army of old men and
little boys," Knott agrees to the ploy.

At
this point, the film offers a crucial twist that I shall not reveal
here. Suffice it to say that the bogus battle does not go according
to plan.

Griffin,
the civilian mortician and bumbling strategist, blames Knott and
looks out squarely for number one: he orders Knott to remove the
tire chains from his Jeep and place them on Griffin's. Before pulling
out, he orders Knott and his men to maintain their position at the
villa and report by radio when the German attack (The Battle of
the Bulge) commences, and then to get the hell out. Of course, Knott
will now have to make his escape through a snowstorm with bald tires.

The
rest of the film addresses the fallout from the ruined ruse. Knott
and Avakian discuss the fate of one of their fallen comrades. Avakian
tells Knott:

You know,
I've been thinking maybe (he's) the lucky one. I mean, is this
whole world run by shits like Griffin? If we get through this,
is this the way it's going to be?

Awaiting
the German attack, Knott is resigned to his fate. He muses, "We
try to turn off the war. We don't even keep a guard on. We figure
when the attack starts, we'll hear it."

A
Midnight Clear is a hypnotic anti-war film. Gordon disdains battle
scenes in favor of ratcheting up the psychological terror of war.
Even when a character dies, the camera doesn't linger on the condemned
man; instead, it focuses on the reaction of those who survive, those
who instinctively want to stay alive, but who intellectually wonder
if they would be better off dead.

Much
credit is owed to the director of photography, Tom Richmond, whose
stark images of the vast and foreboding forest lend a surrealism
to the horrors of war. Indeed, the film feels like a dream, floating
along until it is interrupted by sudden unexpected bursts of action.

The
young cast of actors deliver strong, convincing performances. Largely
unknown at the time, they have all since achieved varying levels
of success. Sinise, who founded the legendary Steppenwolf Theater
in Chicago, may be the best known, subsequently starring in big-budget
pictures such as Forest Gump and Apollo 13.

But
the real star is director Keith Gordon (The Chocolate War, Mother
Night, Waking the Dead), who has a flair for visual storytelling.
In one scene, the troops encounter something rather odd: two frozen
corpses, one American and one German, which have been propped up
standing in the middle of the road, placed in such a way that they
appear to be dancing. In another, Shutzer, the Jew who earlier in
the film was metaphorically aroused when he had a Nazi soldier in
the sight of his rifle, erects a snowman with a pine-needle Hitler
mustache (the snowman is later ironically obliterated by the advancing
Germans). In the interim between the ill-fated surrender scheme
and the German offensive, four of the characters each take a bath,
carefully washing themselves as if in an attempt to cleanse themselves
of the filth of war.

My
only criticism of the film, albeit a minor one, is the amount of
voice-over. One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is "Show
it, don't tell it." And while, as I mentioned, Gordon accomplishes
this with aplomb, he could have dropped half of Knott's voice-over
lines with no deleterious effect on the story.

Ultimately,
these intelligent characters realize that Major Griffin and his
fellow officers pose far greater danger to their lives than do the
German conscripts they are forced to fight. Similarly, those of
us who oppose the wars of the State recognize that politicians like
George Bush, Tom Ridge and John "Phantoms of Lost Liberty"
Ashcroft threaten our liberty immeasurably more than do Osama bin
Laden and his minions in terror.

Antiwar.com
is compiling a list of great anti-war films and books. If you have
a suggestion for a book or film that you think should be included,
send me an email with the
title and a one- or two-sentence synopsis or blurb. This will be
valuable not only to Antiwar.com,
but also to me as I write reviews for this series.

The
Great Anti-War Films:

December
25, 2001

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The
Valley News.

Rick
Gee Archives

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