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.
The Great Anti-War Films:
- All Quiet on the Western Front
- Paths of Glory
- Grand Illusion
- The Thin Red Line
- The Americanization of Emily
- The King of Hearts
December 25, 2001