There have been many powerful anti war movies made over the years. Perhaps the grandaddy of them all was Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front". But there were others that were just as good like Kubrick's "Paths of Glory", Renoir's "La Grande Illusion", Cimino's "The Deerhunter", and Malick's haunting "The Thin Red Line". This film is not perhaps in that league, but it is certainly a powerful piece of filmmaking. I am very surprised that it is so little known and hard to get hold of. It certainly deserves to be much better known.
The film is set in the Ardednnes during the winter of 1944, towards the end of the second world war just before the Germans last desperate throw of the dice with "The Battle of the Bulge" offensive. An American intelligence unit is sent forward to carry out reconnaissance duties. Each of them has an IQ of a 150 or more, so they are well qualified for their duties. During their patrol they come into contact with a small German unit who wish to surrender. The groups exchange Christmas greetings and a truce is observed between them. But will the peace last?
The film is based on William Wharton's semi autobiographical novel, and the screeplay and direction was by Keith Gordon, a young actor making only his second feature film. Much credit should go to Gordon's flair for visual storytelling. There is one powerful scene of a dead German and American soldier caught in a last frozen embrace as if dancing, which reminded me of a scene from Siegfried Sassoon's great book of the First World War "Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man". Gordon also recruited a fine ensemble cast of young actors who were largely unkown at the time, but who all went on to varying degees of success. Gary Sinise of "Forrest Gump" fame, Ethan Hawke and Kevin Dillon being the best known. All the cast give strong convincing performances. Tom Richmond's stark photography of the frozen forest is also worthy of special praise. The film cleverly rathchets up the suspense without resorting to the usual action associated with war movies. The fear is more psychological, and all the more powerful for that.
One reviewer mentions the Burt Lancaster film "Castle Keep", which it strongly resembles in its almost surreal quality, and also in its Ardennes setting. The more recent film "Silent Night", also concerns a truce between German and American soldiers in the Ardennes at Christmas time. Christmas has often been used in anti war films for added poignancy. Another recurring theme in these films is the common soldier recognising that the greatest enemy to him is his own commanding officers. Something that this high IQ unit recognises quite quickly. One recalls Geoffrey Palmer as Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig in the TV series "Blackadder Goes Forth" casually swatting down hundreds of toy soldiers on his board, in a bitterly dark slice of virtuoso humour. This is an intelligent and at times hypnotic film, that packs a powerful punch. An excellent effort by all those involved in its making.