I am writing in regard to Roger J. Spiller’s article “War in the Dark,” which appeared in the February/March issue of American Heritage. Like many (if not most) World War II veterans, I experienced that conflict in several different ways: first, as a frighteningly real threat to my immediate well-being; then as a montage of recurrent, if fading, memories; and, finally, through its many historical and fictional re-creations in print and on film. The problem I face in trying to reconcile my own all-too-real World War II experience with Hollywood’s, is that its versions occasionally seem more real than what I remember.
My worm’s-eye view of the war as a nineteen-year-old infantry soldier and then as a POW involved little of the Olympian “big picture” that films such as The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far depict. Those of us at the last raggedy end of the chain of command knew only what we could see between the rims of our helmets and the edges of our foxholes. And that wasn’t much. Nor do such prison camp movies as Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Great Escape reflect much of what I knew about being a prisoner. Life in a stalag (or, in my case, temporary work camps) was a kind of “gray soup” that sorely lacked the elements of a good story.
Two films did reflect my youthful misadventures fairly closely, however. One was Battleground , which did in fact appear on Mr. Spiller’s list of “The 10 Best.” The other—which would be my top choice among WWII movies— is a relatively unknown 1992 film titled A Midnight Clear. Like The Thin Red Line, it was originally published as a novel. Neither the novel nor the film cast anyone in a heroic mold, nor do they pose issues of military and patriotic polarities such as good and evil, friend and foe, or victory and defeat. They deal instead with simple mistakes and with confusion. The film and the novel both deal openly with the fear, the unpredictability, and the sense of being manipulated by forces beyond one’s control that come with being in combat. As in Saving Private Ryan, the film also portrays death and dying without flinching from the bloody mess of torn flesh. Finally, the cast of A Midnight Clear seems appropriately anonymous and believably young, which cannot be said about most war movies. Moreover, as the credits roll, the small war in an incongruously beautiful snow-covered forest seems destined to go on forever.