Europe 1944, somewhere in the Ardennes on the border between France and Germany, and Sergeant Will Knott (Ethan Hawke) is bemoaning his lot as an American soldier trudging around a wartime winter, hoping not to get shot dead by the enemy. Because of his high I.Q., he was drafted into an intelligence squad, though having seen his fellow soldiers get killed in this platoon he now wondering whether being clever is any sort of blessing when you're on the ground during war. Still, what's left of his unit have been given a new order: seek out a chateau in the forests, and guard it until their superiors can find them again.
A Midnight Clear was based on a novel penned by William Wharton, whose previous war-themed adaptation for the big screen had been cult favourite Birdy, so after some umming and ahing an indie movie was set up with former actor and Brian de Palma protégé Keith Gordon at the helm. What he did for the time it was made, just coming off a warlike mood in the United States as the first Gulf conflict had come to an unsatisfactory end, was brave - essentially an anti-war movie when nobody was interested in seeing one - but also explained why this slipped under the radar with very few people aware of it, and particularly not catching it in cinemas.
Even braver was that here was an anti-war movie about the Second World War, the one pretty much everyone agrees was a righteous battle which was utterly necessary to have fought, though perhaps not quite as original as all that as if you were creating any story about such a situation, you had to acknowledge that there were a hell of a lot of people killed when they didn't need to be. So even the most gung ho flick would pause for a while to think on those fallen by the wayside, cut down in their prime, leaving the main difference between the pro and anti camps the amount of screen time given over to concerning itself with the dead and wounded, and here was a work which landed squarely in the rumination side of what was necessary and what should have been avoided.
Because Will and his comrades in arms are fresh-faced innocents plunged into the misery of this Hell on Earth, we feel their desperation at getting stuck there all the more keenly, so when an opportunity arises for them to actually save lives instead of taking them, it appeals to their nobility. The trouble being that it's German soldiers they have a chance to save, who introduce themselves by calling out from the forest surrounding the chateau, then rather than firing bullets they throw snowballs to show how playful they are and therefore not willing to shoot the Americans. Eventually, with shaky translations from Shutzer (Arye Gross) who speaks Yiddish they ascertain these men are no enemy, but anxious to surrender because being reclaimed by the Nazis will put them in a difficult position.
Difficult like getting shot on the receding frontline, for example, so a truce is worked out in an echo of the hands across No Man's Land Christmas Day ceasefire of World War One - it's surely no coincidence this takes place at Yuletide as well. However, just as that event ended with the enemies returning to the trenches and opening fire once again, the way this plays out is equally tragic. Though don't go thinking A Midnight Clear was some howl of anguish as it was a more meditative piece than that; certainly there was violence as you'd expect, but the overriding mood was one of sorrow and loss, and there was nothing glamorised about it unless you wanted to indulge your feelings of being very sorry for humanity, which was quite possible. Very well acted throughout by a cast of faces just beginning to break through, though some became more celebrated than others, the reflective tone was ideal for delivering its message about the debasement of war no matter if you were on the right side or otherwise. Music by Mark Isham.