Just before the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, US Army Major Griffin (John C. McGinley) sends a small I&R (Intelligence and Reconnaissance) squad to inhabit an empty chateau near the German lines to keep an eye on enemy deployments.
Losses from an earlier patrol have reduced the squad from 12 to 6 men: Sgt. Will Knott (Ethan Hawke), Bud Miller (Peter Berg), Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon), Stan Shutzer (Arye Gross), Vance “Mother” Wilkins (Gary Sinise), and Paul “Father” Mundy (Frank Whaley).
On their way to the chateau in two jeeps, they encounter an eerie, surreal sight on the road: the frozen corpses of a German and American soldier poised in a standing embrace, evidently arranged by the Germans as some dark joke – or ominous threat.
Settling into the chateau, they soon discover they are not alone. A group of Wehrmacht soldiers nearby reveals their presence that night with ominous laughter and taunting shouts of “Schlafen Sie gut!” (Sleep well!).
Out on patrol, Knott, Mundy, and Shutzer are suddenly confronted by a trio of German soldiers aiming their weapons at them.
The Americans panic and put their hands up in surrender, but the enemy just as suddenly vanishes.
At first, the Americans think the Germans – a small group of teenagers commanded by a middle-aged noncommissioned officer (NCO) – are mocking them but then realise the Germans want to surrender to survive the war.
They ask the Americans to pretend to have captured them in combat to protect their families back home from retribution. The Americans agree but elect not to inform Wilkins, who has become half-crazed since learning of the death of his child stateside.
The two groups meet at a forest cabin and fire their weapons into the air to simulate a skirmish, as planned. Unfortunately, Wilkins, nearby, hears the gunfire. Thinking the engagement is real, he rushes to the scene and opens fire on the Germans.
Naturally, the Germans start to shoot back. As the situation spirals out of control, Knott’s men are forced to eliminate all enemy soldiers, but not before Mundy is fatally shot and Shutzer badly wounded.
As he is dying, Mundy begs the others not to tell Wilkins that the skirmish was staged.
The always petulant Major Griffin arrives, harangues Knott, and takes Shutzer back for medical treatment (who later dies). The four remaining soldiers ritualistically bathe Mundy’s body.
The soldiers are left with no choice but to flee from the chateau as German forces advance.
Knott’s men dress as medics and carry Mundy’s corpse back to American lines. There Knott learns that Wilkins has been recommended for the Bronze Star and transferred to the motor pool, while the rest of the squad will be sent into the frontline to fight as regular infantry.
A low-budget independent production, A Midnight Clear initially earned a mere $1.5 million at the box office – less than half of what it cost to make. Shown occasionally on television and eventually released on DVD and Blu-ray, the film has since found a somewhat larger and more appreciative audience.
Originally planned to be filmed in Yugoslavia (present-day Slovenia) in 1990, a lack of snow there necessitated a change of location and a year’s delay. Snowy evergreen forests near Park City, Utah, substituted nicely for the Ardennes Forest.
Based on a novel by William Wharton.
Cpl. Mel Avakian
Sgt. Will Knott
Vance ‘Mother’ Wilkins
Paul ‘Father’ Mundy
John C. McGinley
Older German Soldier