Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex 5/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
Edmund H. Sears,
Keith Gordon both directed and wrote the film’s script, based on William Wharton’s 1982 novel. From the first scene, set in the snow draped Ardennes forest we know this is a WW 2 film, but what a different kind it turns out to be. It is December of 1944, and a six-man intelligence unit led by Will Knott (Ethan Hawke), who also is the film’s narrator, has been sent out to set up an observation post in an empty chateau and scout out the enemy in the area. Most of them are still in their late teens, and thus very inexperienced in the grim business of war,
Knott has just been made sergeant, so each member of the group has a say in the decisions. They have formed sort of a family with Paul Mundy as “Father” (Frank Whaley) because he had studied at a Catholic seminary; Vance Wilkins (Gary Sinise) called “Mother” because the almost paranoid young man is always worried about the others; Stan Shutzer (Arye Gross) is the obligatory Jew (for such war movies); and Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon) and Bud Miller (Peter Berg) round out the group. Although Mother gives in to battle fatigue in one scene, running naked through the snow, the others live in the hope that the war will soon be over.
They are soon surprised that the German soldiers nearby apparently feel the same way. When three German soldiers have the drop on three Americans, the Germans do not shoot, but slip away quietly. The G.I.s hear laughter and in another encounter the Germans throw back snowballs rather than grenades. It just might be possible, the G.I.s surmise, that the Germans want to surrender.
The most beautiful moment in the film is the night in which three of the Americans see flickering lights in the distance. Then seven Germans emerge from the darkness, and the man in the middle, oldest by far of the group, starts signing “O Tannenbaum.” The G.I.s watch in surprised silence, and then as they rise, the Germans start “Adeste Fideles.” The lights the G.I.s had spotted are candles attached to a pine tree. Suddenly Father, whom they had called about the lights, runs by them carrying some bottles as he joins the Germans in the carol. They exchange gifts. The German singer unholsters his pistol, which jolts the watching G.I.s, but he holds it out handle-first to the American, and then reholsters it. Father takes one of his grenades and hangs it on the tree. The German smiles in appreciation—the last of his German words of appreciation being “wonderful.” And so it is, what a symbol of swords into plowshares! The German starts singing “Stille Nachte,” and the Americans join in singing the English words. Father goes around wishing each of the Germans “A Merry Christmas: while shaking hands. A fifth G.I. joins the group, all but Mother now being present
I wish that this brief night truce could have been the turning point for the story. For a while it appears that it will be, the G.I.s later actually conferring with the Germans, Shutzer using his knowledge of Yiddish to converse with the Germans, Most of the latter are also teenagers, sick of the war and wanting to surrender. But they need to work out a plan to save their honor by staging a fake firefight and then giving themselves up. Because of his mental instability the G.I.s do not include Mother in their plans, and this…
For all too brief a time the words of Edmund Sears “A Midnight Clear” hold back the killing. What a beautiful interlude of sanity and brotherhood in the midst of the cruelty and madness of war!
Note: On the DVD the scene described above is No. 18 “Tannenbaum”