In this week’s episode, the Roundtable goes to war with the tragically underrated 1992 Brotherhood War movie A Midnight Clear, written and directed by Keith Gordon, and based on the 1982 novel by William Wharton. Share your thoughts on our analysis or ask questions on Twitter @StoryGridRT.
You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 6).
You can find the movie via YouTube. The recording quality isn’t great and part of the frame is cut off. You may want to adjust the settings (with the gear in the lower right corner). But if you can adapt to the less-than-optimal viewing conditions, the story is worth the watch.
Here’s a synopsis adapted from Wikipedia:
The story takes place toward the end of World War II in the early phase of the Battle of the Bulge, and centers on a small US Army intelligence and reconnaissance squad (selected for their high IQs). Losses from an earlier patrol has reduced the squad from 12 to just six men. One is nicknamed Mother, played by Gary Sinise, because he constantly on them for their sloppiness, and another nicknamed Father, because he dropped out of the seminary and has a no swearing rule. The protagonist and the main character is Sgt Knott, played by Ethan Hawke, who is the youngest but has begrudgingly been put in charge of the squad.
The squad is sent to occupy a deserted chateau near the German lines to gather information on the enemy’s movements. On their way to the chateau, they discover the frozen corpses of a German and an American in a standing embrace, seemingly arranged by the Germans as a grim joke.
Settling into their temporary home, they soon discover they are not alone. A group of German soldiers has occupied a position nearby. While out on patrol, three of the American soldiers see a trio of German soldiers aiming their weapons at them, but the enemy then vanish without shooting.
The Germans, clearly more skilled and experienced than the young GIs, soon leave calling cards, start a snowball fight one evening and offer a Christmas truce. At first, the Americans think the Germans are taunting them but it eventually becomes clear that the enemy want to parlay.
One of the American soldiers speaks enough German to communicate with the enemy who turn out to be a small group of youngsters still in their teens, commanded by an aging NCO. Having survived the Russian front, the Germans say they wish to surrender. But they ask that the Americans pretend that they were captured in combat so as to protect their families back home from possible retribution for their desertion. The Americans agree, but keep the plan from Mother, who has been mentally unstable since learning of the death of his child back home.
The two groups meet and proceed to fire their weapons into the air as planned. However Mother hears the shooting and thinks the engagement is real. Arriving at the scene, Mother opens fire at the Germans whereupon the latter, thinking they have been tricked, immediately shoot back. The situation immediately goes out of control and the American squad are forced to kill all of the enemy soldiers but not before one of their own Father Mundy, is fatally hit and another is badly wounded. Father’s final words are to beg the others not to tell Mother that the skirmish was intended to be fake.
The squad’s superior officer arrives, reprimanding them for their conduct, before taking their wounded man back for treatment (they later receive word that he died in hospital). Left alone again, the four remaining soldiers quietly reflect as they try to celebrate Christmas, cleaning Father’s body in a bathtub.
Shortly afterwards, the Germans attack the area in strength and the squad is forced to flee. Carrying Father’s corpse, they disguise themselves as medics and escape back to American lines. There the squad leader is informed that Mother has been recommended for the Bronze Star and transferred to the motor pool, while the rest of the squad will be sent into the front line to fight as regular infantry.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre? War > Brotherhood
The Global genre for A Midnight Clear is the external genre: War > Brotherhood. The Global Value is Honor/Dishonor. The range of value is Victory with Honor > Defeat with Honor > Defeat with Dishonor > Dishonorable Defeat Presented as Honorable.
Here is a note from Shawn Coyne about the values in the War Story:
For War the positive spectrum is victory with honor (most positive), defeat with honor (that is positive even though the external loss in the war is negative … honor is the global value, not the result of the battle) the negative moves from defeat without honor to victory without honor (more negative) to the negation of the negation which is victory or defeat that is dishonorable, but presented as honorable. Like Nixon’s wanting to get out of Vietnam “with honor.” That was absurd as we had already waged a dishonorable war. Whenever you get stuff with the negation of the negation, think of the global value as a lie.
There was some disagreement about the internal genre:
- Worldview > Disillusionment: We can rule this out because Knott never believed in the war. In the opening voiceover, Knott is already disillusioned by war (half of their troop were killed to “gain a few miles of European real estate and they lost the beginnings to generations of very bright people. I think the army considered this a good deal”).
- Worldview > Maturation: Knott is completely naive at the beginning when he goes into the war. The squad has a Mother (Wilkins) and a Father (Mundy), is sensitive to profanity, won’t approach the frozen bodies (Miller does), doesn’t make decisions or give commands, though he’s the highest ranking member of the squad. As the film goes on, he makes more and more decisions and takes on more responsibility (protecting Mother, respecting Father’s last wishes, deciding to help the German soldiers and overriding Miller’s objections). In the end, he comes up with the plan to masquerade as medics. Being sent back to the front line as infantryman is the ultimate maturation though—and it’s a lesson hard learned.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
These Obligatory Scenes assume that the antagonist is the regimental commander, Major Griffin and an army that would allow a tyrant to enact dangerous and ridiculous policies, such as filling intelligence squads with the soldiers who score the highest on intelligence tests (regardless of their actual experience).
- An inciting attack: “The first map-inspired, ill-conceived recon patrol” that ends with their losing half their squad.
- Protagonist(s) deny responsibility to respond: Knott doesn’t wear his sergeant stripes after promotion.
- Forced to respond, the protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy: Snowman incident
- Each protagonist learns what their antagonist’s object of desire is: Knott tells LT Ware about the strange events with the Germans, they’re ordered to go find the command post.
- Protagonists’ initial strategy to outmaneuver antagonist fails: Germans won’t surrender to them, but want to stage a fake battle.
- Protagonists, realizing they must change their approach to attain a measure of victory, undergo an All Is Lost Moment: Mother isn’t aware of the plan for the fake battle and shoots at the German soldiers, who return fire, killing Mundy and mortally wounding Shutzer.
- Big Battle Scene—the Core Event, when the protagonists’ gifts are expressed: Knott and his men escape by disguising themselves as medics.
- The protagonists are rewarded with at least one level of satisfaction for their sacrifice: They survive, Mother gets a commendation and transfer to a safer place; Knott protects Mother from the truth.
- One central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that character’s personality traits. The protagonist is Will. If you squint you can see his fear of losing control, his desire to be a good leader and his dubious relationship with faith in the other members of his squad.
- Big Canvas. Either a wide scope external setting or the internal landscape. This is the internal landscape. The canvas is the end of World War II, but the grand ideas of that war are played out internally through the tightly knit intelligence unit.
- Overwhelming odds … the protagonists are substantially outnumbered. The story doesn’t meet this convention directly. The actual enemy is only a handful of German soldiers, teenagers led by an old officer. But the real antagonist is their own commanding officer–his incompetence and dishonor–who has absolute control over their action and choices at the crucial moments in the story. Of course, secondarily there’s the overwhelming presence of the Battle of the Bulge. It’s so huge that we don’t even see it, but it’s the reason why the six young American soldiers are left so significantly on their own, making such impossible decisions.
- A clear “Point of No Return” moment, when the combatants accept the inevitability of death. When they reach agreement with the Germans to stage a fake skirmish and surrender, but fail to tell Mother about it, Mother opens fire on the Germans, and shoots and kills his own comrade Mundy in the process. The Germans began firing back, and when the remaining four Americans return fire, killing all but one of the Germans, they have accepted that though they’re supposedly an intelligence unit, they aren’t safe from being killed, or from killing.
- The sacrifice for brotherhood moment. One protagonist sacrifices himself for the good of his fellow soldiers. While it’s true that Mundy is shot trying to stop Mother from killing the prisoners, it’s Will who sacrifices the truth and his own honor by telling a story about the fiasco that will protect Mother’s mental health and his honor.
Leslie added the following conventions for consideration from Alternative Scriptwriting (Dancyger & Rush):
- Object of desire: survive (could be personal, national survival or survival of values)
- Character’s values are tested
- Polarities of human behavior: barbarism and altruism coexist
- Violence plays a central role.
- Relationships take on particular importance.
- Political perspective on war (expressed over the course of the story): Some are critical; others suggest that the extreme conditions of war bring out the best and worst in people.
- There is a primal quality and intensity to personal behavior (this isn’t explained, but I suspect it’s something about how behavior that’s not a big deal at home can get you killed in war).
- Antagonist might never appear “onstage”
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device?
First person, complete with voiceover, from the point of view of Will Knott. We know he survives by virtue of this voice.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?
Wants: Knott wants to keep his troop safe. Survive.
Needs: Knott needs to understand that he is most definitely a part of the army (note opening voiceover comment “we want to make it clear we’re not part of this army”).
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
Honor prevails when you’re loyal to your brothers even in the face of dishonorable leadership.
Honor is expressed through rule following and maintenance of order (they hold themselves to a higher standard: no obscenity, no destruction of government property—won’t cut down stripes, etc.).
The theme is also expressed in the following moments:
- Title: From the poem “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” written in 1849 by Edmund Sears during a period of personal melancholy, with news of revolution in Europe and the US war with Mexico (1846-1848) on his mind. It’s a poem about contemporary issues of war and peace.
- Hero: William Knott > Will Knot > Won’t. He won’t be part of the war or the chaos it brings (won’t swear, won’t even cut down staff sergeant stripes because it’s destruction of government property). He symbolizes peace and order at every turn.
- Supporting Characters:
- Mother: (whose baby has died) nicknamed because he bugs the squad about being sloppy and leaving things around). He survives, is a bronze star nominee, sent to motor pool.
- Father: (dies) no obscenity rule
- Avakian: agrees to fake battle with the Germans.
- Shutzer: (dies in hospital) figures out that the Germans want peace. Ultimately an advocate for peace (and he’s Jewish).
- Miller: (dies when sent back as infantryman) Agrees to fake battle with the Germans.
- German soldiers: resist war at every turn. They want peace and honor.
- Villain: Major Griffin – the angel of death. In civilian life he was an undertaker.
- Inciting Incident: Will is non-confrontational. He doesn’t want to turn Mother in, but wants to help him. He wants peace. Mother doesn’t want to break the rules of the army—breaking the rules would lead to chaos, and Mother wants order. He doesn’t even intentionally break the squad rule of no obscenity.
- Climax: (botched truce with Germans), the hero’s gift is revealed. Knott honors Father’s request to protect Mother (no one is to tell him that the battle was fake). In fact, Knott recommends Mother for a bronze star.
- POV: Will Knot (voice over). Story is told from the POV of the character who wants peace. It would be a very different story from Griffin’s POV.
- Mood: Images of dark and blinding white.
- Steven Pressfield has a blog series on theme (published February – May 2016) that I highly recommend. He talks about what theme is and how it informs a story. He says that a theme gives us the climax, the villains, the point of view, the hero, the title, the inciting incident and the supporting cast of characters. (Blog series starts here.)
What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
- Inciting incident: Sergeant Knott gets his mission to go to the Chateau.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Mother sees something on the road. It’s a German and American corpse position so that they are embracing.
- Crisis Question: Should we kill the German soldiers who approach them?
- Climax: It would be easy to kill all three and get away with it.
- Resolution: No. They could have killed us all last night.
- Inciting incident: The German soldiers want to meet.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: They can’t tell mother about the meeting since he’s not mentally stable.
- Crisis Question: Do we trust the German soldiers (and ourselves) enough to meet them?
- Climax: The meeting is tense. Shutzer translates and finds that there are seven people who don’t want to fight any more.
- Resolution: They light a Christmas tree, exchange gifts, and sing carols
- Inciting incident: The germans want to surrender but they need to fake a battle to save their honor
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Mother shows up and shoots the germans
- Crisis Question: Do they tell the truth about what happened
- Climax: Major Griffin shows up. They are asked what happened. They all keep quiet. They have to stay and wait for the pending attack
- Resolution: They find their way back to their unit. The secret is safe with them
This story has a lot going on in terms of subplots, and the characters are well done and deep with lots of complex interactions. Really great brotherhood story.
7. Additional Story-Related Observations
- Anne: The soldiers from opposing armies meeting each other as human beings or otherwise seeing the humanity in the enemy is a feature of many anti-war stories, including All Quiet on the Western Front.
- Anne: Similarly, the image of soldiers, deprived, hungry, cold, etc., stumbling on a cache of relative luxury—here, actual bedding and a fireplace—and enjoying a respite. (Also seen in All Quiet on the Western Front, by the way.)
- Jarie: This story has a great battle scene innovation. The fake battle is so spot on.
- Leslie: It’s interesting that this is about WWII, a war we think of as honorable. The stories in the context of this war usually focus on honor, rather than incompetence, ridiculous policies, etc.
- Anne: Once you pare the movie down to its skeletal components, all the things that aren’t technically necessary to the story structure take on great significance, and will be of value to our writer clients struggling to add substance to their own stories.
For instance, expressing the blood from Father’s dead body to mark the red crosses on their white snow gear; the ritual washing of Father’s body, the Army coroner’s brutal forcing of the dog-tag into Father’s dead mouth. None of these moments was technically necessary to the story, but taken together, those specific choices present the theme: “We’re different from the Army. We’re honorable even when the Army isn’t.”
These aren’t just “details” and “extras”. They’re the lifeblood that circulates through the bone and sinew of story structure and makes a good story great.
Next week, we’ll tackle what we believe to be a Society Story: Thelma and Louise. You can find it via Amazon.
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