Moment of Grace

2 minute read
Richard Schickel



THE BOTTOM LINE: A wartime anecdote told with compelling modesty and originality.

LOST IN AN ENVELOPING WHITEness, two patrols — one American, one German — stumble warily toward each other through the snows of the Ardennes forest. It is Christmastime 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge.

The Yanks are, in their way, a family. They have a deserted chateau for a home. They have a designated Father (Frank Whaley), a sometime seminarian whose priestly aspirations have gone awry; a designated Mother (Gary Sinise), a fussbudget teetering on the brink of mental breakdown; and a favored son, Will Knott (Ethan Hawke), sergeant in command as well as the film’s narrator and controlling sensibility.

The Germans are a more ragtag outfit. Their command post is a forest hut, and their personnel are either overage or underage — the last scrapings of a nearly defeated nation’s manpower pool. It is they who begin a suit for a separate peace. When they get the drop on some of the G.I.s, they don’t fire. To test their intentions, one of the Americans builds a funny snowman-Hitler; the Germans respond by attacking their position — with snowballs. Next thing you know both sides are singing Christmas carols together, exchanging presents and trying to work out a way for the Germans to surrender honorably.

One fears the deadly approach of pacifist sentimentality, some variation on those World War I tales of Yuletide fraternization in no-man’s-land. A Midnight Clear, which is based on a William Wharton novel, evades that onslaught. Loopy Mother sees to that. And even if he had not come out of his half-mad nowhere to violently abort a very sensible arrangement, there is, after all, a war going on out there somewhere. What hope can there possibly be for humane gesturing?

The great virtue of Keith Gordon’s film is that it does not insist on its own metaphorical importance. It remains an anecdote, a memory of an odd moment of grace wrested from the rush of megahistory. Written, directed and acted with intelligently focused simplicity, it is a movie to seek out and to treasure.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at