A MIDNIGHT CLEAR (1992) *** 1/2
In a non-conformist move, the producers of "A Midnight Clear" had the courage to make a non-commercial war film at a time when the genre was not popular among the masses, and a film whose anti-war message, unlike the premise of most Second World War pictures, is that even the "cleanest" conflict in US. history, W.W.II, was not a Good War.
In style and substance the picture is halfway between the disillusioned, pacifist movies about W.W. I ("All Quiet on the Western Front," "The Man I Killed," "Grand Illusion," "Paths of Glory") and the few revisionist movies about W.W.II, mostly adaptations of sarcastic novels ("Catch-22," "Slaughterhouse Five" ) that underscored the surreal dementia of armed conflict.
"A Midnight Clear" comes from a semi-autobiographical novel, and it convinces. It was made with a young cast and by a then-30 year old actor directing his second movie. His first was "The Chocolate War" (1988), about a power struggle in a Catholic boys' school.
The setting is the Ardennes Forest -- Park City, Utah, doubles nicely-- a snowy no-man's land that could be France, Germany, Belgium or Luxembourg. The time is December1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last but devastating counter-attack
An Infantry and Reconnaissance squad of G.I.s is ordered by martinet Major Griffin (McGinley) to hole up in an deserted château (actually a fancy country house) and report on enemy movements. The soldiers had been trained for I & R because of their high I.Q.s--which automatically make of them skeptical warriors. From twelve the squad has dwindled to six . You take for granted that the "Ten Little Indians" syndrome will continue.
In the woods, the Yanks encounter a group of those last-ditch draftees (too old or too young) that the Third Reich called up for its desperate "Totalkrieg" (Total War). The Germans make with the "Amis" a deal that's unusual and will have unexpected consequences, but then strangeness is more rule than exception in wartime.
The squad is led by its junior,William Knott (Hawke). His name had been abbreviated to Will Not, then to Won't, but typically the film does not milk this for effect. Knott is puzzled and not especially pleased at having been made sergeant. He is the film's narrator and speaks matter-of-factly about his comrades and the absurdities and atrocities of war. We're close to Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim territory.
The group includes John Lennon-ish "Mother" Wilkins played by the co-founder of Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater, stage actor, then filmmaker Gary Sinise. This is his first role in a film. Here he is called "Mother" because at 26 he is the oldest, married and fussy about neatness. He is going crazy fast and his companions try to protect him. "Father" Mundy (Whaley), is a seminary drop-out who has made the men promise to keep their language clean. The others are called Bud Miller (a beerish Anglo name), Mel Avakian (Armenian), and Stan Schutzer (Jewish)
This, however, is not the old movies' motley group of G.I.s, (or the Dirty Half-Dozen), with the machine-stamped dosage of religions, ethnicities, professions, voices (one Brooklyn accent per movie was de rigueur ), or the sameness of their post-war dreams which invariably featured "dames" and "big, juicy steaks."
In "A Midnight Clear," neither the I.Q.s, nor the men's backgrounds, physical characteristics, temperaments, skills, differences or idiosyncrasies are highlighted. Partly on purpose and mostly, I think, by serendipity, there is about the soldiers a general vagueness that borders on impersonality, as if the mad tragedy of war made customary distinctions futile.
Some bits of religious symbolism seem unnecessary, as does a flashback of four of the boys losing their virginity, serially and in one night, to the distraught fiancee of a killed soldier. That's a most unhygienic sequence. Otherwise though, the film plays down melodrama and sentimentality, has a clever but not smartie-pants script and does not push its points. It even keeps a rein on the character of despicable Major Griffin, clearly suggesting that for the squad it is this fatuous commander who is the real enemy, not the Krauts.
The movie had an excellent critical reception, but given its seriousness and the lack of a promotional campaign it soon returned to the orphanage.
Written June 1992. Seen again October 1993. No changes in opinions.