A Midnight Clear

Christmas movies come in a number of different categories. There are movies expressly about the holiday, which generally advertise that fact right in the title: White Christmas, A Christmas Story, Jingle All The Way, Ernest Saves Christmas, etc. (Ditto anti-Christmas flicks like Black Christmas and Bad Santa.) There are movies that actually unfold over a long period of time, but which everybody nonetheless thinks of as Christmas movies due to one particular scene—obviously the classic here is It’s A Wonderful Life, but Meet Me In St. Louis, thanks to Judy Garland’s indelible performance of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” rivals that one for sheer Yuletide marginality. On the flipside are movies that are set entirely during the Christmas season, but for one reason or another still don’t quite seem to belong to the genre, with pride of place going to Die Hard and its doom-laden orchestral version of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy,” which itself is not expressly a Christmas tune but is often thought of as one. A friend of mine even recently pointed out that Hitchcock’s Psycho takes place in the days leading up to Christmas, though there’s no reference to that (apart from an initial date) in the actual film.

My own favorite Christmas movie falls into the last category, within the further subcategory of films so obscure that nobody remembers them well enough to think of them as anything at all. Adapted from William Wharton’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Midnight Clear, directed by former actor Keith Gordon in 1992, is fundamentally a WWII picture, albeit one of the least military specimens of that genre. Its ensemble consists of a group of soldiers (played by Ethan Hawke, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, and Arye Gross) who scored exceptionally high on the Army’s I.Q. test and form a special “intelligence” unit. It’s mid-December, 1944, and the unit has taken over an abandoned house in the middle of a forest, where soldiers spend most of their time just hoping not to get killed before the war ends. As it turns out, however, there’s a German unit in the area with precisely the same objective.

This isn’t the most Christmas-y scene in the movie, by any means—later on, the Germans actually decorate a tree near the house and sing “O Tannenbaum” to the Americans, and there’s even an exchange of gifts. But it’s the scene that best exemplifies the holiday spirit, assuming we agree that Christmas signifies peace and good will. (For the record, I’m an atheist, but I can still get down with everyone collectively being extra-nice at the end of each year.) Out on guard duty, Hawke and Whaley naturally interpret everything through the distorted lens of wartime belligerence—presented with a snowman, they immediately toss a grenade at it, and when a snowball lands in their foxhole they assume it must likewise be a grenade. The sudden revelation that their ostensible enemy is playing with them—not in a sadistic way, but in a genuine spirit of fun—conjures up a sense of wonder that’s sorely missing from most dedicated Christmas flicks. Weary soldiers regress into excitable little kids; their foxhole becomes a fort.

Gordon has to give us a clearer view of the Germans later in the film, when the two sides try to work out a scenario that’ll avoid any fighting while saving face for the brass, but in this scene he wisely keeps them at a distance. Usually, in a war movie, enemy soldiers represent a purely abstract threat—few are personalized in any way, unless captured (e.g. “Steamboat Willie” in Saving Private Ryan). Part of what makes this scene so oddly moving is that the Germans remain abstract even as their behavior demonstrates that they’re in no way threatening. In fact, I think it was a mistake for Gordon to show them a bit more clearly as they depart; the shot of them from Hawke and Whaley’s perspective, out of focus and partially hidden by trees during the snowball fight, serves the mood perfectly, keeping us as disoriented as our heroes. Their unexpected benevolence seems almost mythical, like that of Santa Claus. 

That said, the drawback of that particular shot—which I otherwise love—is that it makes the Germans’ placement of the Hitler snowman utterly implausible. I’ve never read Wharton’s novel—he also wrote the books on which Birdy and Dad were based, incidentally—but if this scene is taken directly from it, I assume that Wharton had little difficulty establishing the snowman’s sudden appearance in prose. On film, however, you can plainly see that there’s zero chance of anyone building—or, even more preposterously, somehow transporting to that location after building elsewhere—an entire snowman without Hawke and Whaley seeing them. It’s out in the open, and it’s just not that far away—you can throw a snowball from one spot to the other. So Gordon just plain has to cheat, and he does so in the hoariest possible way, by cutting not once but twice to a shot of clouds passing over the moon. I’m not sure whether this is meant to suggest a temporary cover of darkness or just time passing; either way, it’s pretty cheesy, and the SUDDEN! ZOOM! into the snowman doesn’t help matters. (As a director, Gordon has shown better taste in material—Mother Night, The Singing Detective—than in composition.)

Still, that’s an eminently forgivable misstep in a scene that never fails to put a big, dumb smile on my face. Maybe it’s just the incongruity of a wish-fulfillment fantasy (albeit one that turns heartbreakingly tragic later on) in what’s generally the bleakest and most brutal of genres. I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to serve in the military, and even the onscreen idea of it holds no excitement for me, as I’m both a chicken in terms of my own personal safety and a softie when it comes to others being hurt. (As a kid I was hugely upset to be dragged along on hunting trips by my stepdad. I’m a total hypocrite, though, because I eat meat every single day.) So a war movie in which neither side actually wants to fight—except as a kid’s game—could hardly be more appealing. What better Christmas gift could one ask for than the discovery that the folks you thought were trying to kill you actually want to play? Kindness is most touching when least expected, and here it rains down from out of nowhere.

Happy holidays, as the terrorists like to say.