Cocktails and Movies Take Out Theater: “A Midnight Clear”
by Tim Barley
One of the most overlooked Christmas films is this week’s “Take Out Theater” selection
War movies very rarely have anything to do with Christmas. It’s a fact. And, unfortunately, this movie has been criminally overlooked by audiences, even when it was released. It might have been the fact that it was released in April of 1992 or that it was rated R (today, this movie would have been rated PG-13). But, the mystery remains why this movie, with a superb cast and a beautiful message about warmth, human understanding and the power of the shared holiday of Christmas can break through even the horrors of war. To this day, it still holds an 86% freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes and when you ask those who have seen it they like, they’ll tell you it’s one of their favorite “Christmas” movies. Today’s Take Out Theater selection is “A Midnight Clear.”
Written/Directed By: Keith Gordon
Year Released: 1992
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon, Frank Whaley, Peter Berg, Arye Ross, John C. McGinley
Runtime: 108 minutes
Studio: Sovereign Pictures/InterStar Releasing
It’s mid December, 1944. During the height of WWII in the ETO an American Intelligence and Reconnaince squad is told to hold a house in the Ardennes forest and report on a large German incursion that is coming. The squad is led by Will Knott (Hawke), who narrates the film in a funny and poignant narration. Their squad has been decimated by the questionable tactics of Major Griffin (McGinley) and the six remaining members are slowly falling apart. “Mother” (Sinise) is taking it the hardest and the squad protects him from the horrors of war, trying to find a way to get him removed from the front. Days after keeping a lookout, a ragtag German platoon makes content with them, wishing to surrender rather than die in the German final war offensive. The two groups of men, isolated from the war at present, put aside their differences and spend Christmas together singing carols, having a snowball fight and setting up a way for the Germans to surrender. But, the plan turns bad and both sides incur casualties.
A Midnight Clear shares a lot with the more recent A Thin Red Line, which was also a WWII movie (set in the Pacific) about the introspective look at war through the eyes of a soldier. Whereas that movie was a lot more about war itself, Clear is more about humanity and setting aside differences, coming together during the shared holiday of Christmas. It’s also a great commentary about how removing a lot of the bureaucracy of the chain of command and letting the individual man-to-man reconciliation take control will lead to better things. Hawke’s narration is beautiful, smart and biting. He questions what exactly the war is about anymore:
“I’m not exactly sure what country we’re in. Could be Belgium, Luxembourg, France, or even Germany. I don’t know what day it is. I have no 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.”
Hawke’s narration also serves to comment on the rationales of war:
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.
Everything works in this film, and you can feel that the characters have been together far too long as they try to hold onto their old peacetime interests in order to just remain sane. While Will is the leader, Mel Avakian (Dillon) is the only true soldier in the bunch. Frank Whaley plays the former seminary student, turned “father” of the group. Each member has their own reasons for not trusting the Germans and for not trusting Major Griffin as well. They are stuck between two sides that are not necessarily on their side.
While this is a “war” movie. It’s light on actual war. There are one or two scenes of battle – one shown in flashback, and it is not necessarily hard battle. Which is nice, as it lets the director (who also wrote the screenplay, based on William Wharton’s novel of the same name), concentrate on showcasing the interplay between the characters. Shot in Utah, it substitutes nicely for the French/German border and the camerawork allows for the audience to concentrate on the actors and not misplaced scenes of battle.
I can’t highly recommend this movie enough. It’s criminal that this movie hasn’t been reissued on DVD or Blu-Ray with its stellar cast and great message. I had to find it on a Korean copy (through Amazon). But, if you can find it, it’s a great movie to watch with the family and celebrate that time can be taken out of life to celebrate a true Christmas can happen, even with opposing forces who want to kill each other.
Hot Spiced Wine
2 bottles light-bodied red wine
1 1/4 cups sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
3 black peppercorns, crushed
2 cardamom pods, crushed
One 3-inch cinnamon stick, crushed
1 clove, crushed
1/2 cup kirsch
In a large saucepan, combine the red wine with the sugar and the orange and lemon zests. Put the spices in a tea ball and add to the saucepan. Bring the wine to a very slow simmer over moderate heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat, discard the tea ball and stir in the kirsch. Ladle the spiced wine into heatproof glasses and serve at once.