A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents A Midnight Clear.

criterion logoSix inexperienced American soldiers are assigned to make camp at an abandoned château in the Ardennes forest in December 1944.  Their assignment is to monitor German activity in the area and provide early notice of an expected Nazi push through the region, but a troop of weary German soldiers hoping to surrender and survive the war causes the young Americans to reassess their assignment with tragic results.  Adapting William Wharton’s novel, Keith Gordon’s A Midnight Clear is a literate, anti-war fable and an unrecognized achievement in 1990s cinema, boasting a stellar cast including Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise and Peter Berg.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Keith Gordon, with DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Gordon and actor Ethan Hawke
  • A Winter’s War, Gordon’s 50 minute documentary on the making of A Midnight Clear
  • New interviews with actors Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, Keving Dillon, Arye Gross, Frank Whaley and John C. McGinley
  • Deleted scenes with optional commentary
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

Edmund Sears’s poem-turned-Christmas carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” tells of a heavenly song rarely heard by mankind over the din of war and strife.  William Wharton’s novel A Midnight Clear and Keith Gordon’s film adaptation evoke the carol and its message in the tale of 6 American soldiers posted in an abandoned château in the Ardennes Forest during December 1944.  Isolated there, they struggle to survive their hardships until they are met by German soldiers similarly disillusioned with fighting and afraid at the price for stopping.  The film version was a success with critics but was rarely seen by audiences at its release in 1992, despite a stacked cast of young actors that included Ethan Hawke, Peter Berg, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon, Arye Gross, Frank Whaley, and John C. McGinley.

The Criterion Collection is well represents with anti-war films – Wooden Crosses (Raymond Bernard, 1932), The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, 1956), Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) and others.  Like those films, A Midnight Clear is populated by soldiers too sensitive to the brutality of war and too awed by the beauty contained in the world.  At the film’s centre is an army intelligence unit specially collected from soldiers with particularly high aptitude test scores.  The conflict between personal intelligence and military intelligence is something of a running theme and a punishing joke in the film, as collecting these men together in a single unit offers something of a haven for them while further distinguishing these soldiers from the rank and file military culture.  Within their team, they create a new, de facto organization that acknowledges military promotion is often simply an accident of survival rather than a description of qualification.  In the face of that awareness, they relate largely by a kind of brotherly kinship, going so far as to nickname two unit members “Mother” and “Father” to complete the family dynamic.  Consequently, A Midnight Clear is a film that is not concerned with pacifists, cowards, or those who don’t believe in the ideals fought for in WWII, but simply depicts men ill at ease by the fact that wars need to be fought at all.

The film is probably most successful for its unpredictability.  A Midnight Clear frequently avoids easy choices or pat emotional catharses.  The snowy forest seems innocent and pure on its surface, but suggests hidden dangers deeper within.  Both the Germans hiding in the forest on one side of the château and the American forces based on the other side are not what they seem – the Germans want to surrender and survive the war, while the Americans’ commanding officer would be satisfied to see the unit sacrificed and himself free of them.  A Midnight Clear does well to ensure that the unit’s relationship with each side changes, often in risky and unforeseen directions.  There is a grim unreality layered over the very real dangers to which these Americans are exposed, adding to the uncanny sensibility of the film and creating a disconnection largely derived from Ethan Hawke’s sedate, resigned voice-over narration.

Midnight ClearA Midnight Clear would be a good addition to the Collection, which seems to be placing greater emphasis on films from the 1980s on.  The film was a critical darling that never found a broad audience and seems ripe for rediscovery.  Further, it is something of a Christmas film, despite being initially released in April and being a movie that puts our shared humanity to the fore in the kind of feel-bad holiday event for which Criterion is so fond.

Current disc releases of A Midnight Clear have some rather disappointing cover treatments, a particular travesty given the wonderful artwork initially used to promote the film at its theatrical release.  We’re fond of the attached poster for a Criterion cover.  The snow-on-black design is quite stark and arresting.  Clearing the poster of the additional text to leave just the title and the soldiers would make for a haunting image that feels very much in keeping with the Collection’s aesthetic.

Credits:  The commentary, A Winter’s War documentary, and the deleted scenes with commentary are all features included in the recent 20th anniversary UK and German editions of A Midnight Clear.  With the film’s extensive cast of young stars, current interviews with these now older actors reflecting on the experience of A Midnight Clear would offer some new insight from a variety of perspectives and seems like must have for an updated release.  Frequent Criterion contributor Jonathan Rosenbaum is an easy choice for an essay contributor, having favourably reviewed the film.

And that wraps up a year of longed-for special editions!  Happy Holidays everyone and we’ll see you in the new year!

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