May 11, 1992 12:00 PM

Ethan Hawke, Arye Gross, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, Frank Whaley

Its antiwar subtext would have made it seem more appropriate 35 years ago, but this film about a real incident that occurred near the end of World War II is involving, always focused and affectingly acted.

Hawke (White Fang), who has a John Wayne-like deliberate style and a Dukeish physical stature, is world-weary way beyond his years as the squad leader of an exhausted unit of GIs operating in Belgium in 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge. Sinise, a Chicago stage actor, suggests profound despair in his screen debut as the squad’s oldest soldier, who has recently learned that his infant son has died back in the States. Sinise’s emotional breakdown is the event that sends Hawke’s squad into a surreal series of events culminating in a scene in which they sing Christmas carols with a group of German soldiers in a snowy field, then conspire with the Germans in an unofficial, localized truce.

Director Keith (The Chocolate War) Gordon adapted the script from William Wharton’s novel A Midnight Clear without making the allegorical parts of the story—including a ritualized foot washing—more heavy-handed than they have to be. Nonetheless John C. (Platoon) McGinley all but carries a sign reading EVILS OF WAR as the by-the-book commander whose unit includes Hawke’s squad.

Gross (Coupe de Ville) generates great intensity as a Jewish GI motivated to kill Germans. Berg (Late for Dinner) is the squad’s joker, while Dillon (The Doors) is a corporal whose natural leadership qualities seem to outrank Hawke’s stripes. Whaley, another Doors refugee, plays a judgmental seminary-school dropout with admirable understatement.

While Patton or Ken Annakin’s Battle of the Bulge will tell you more about how that savage campaign really happened, this fanciful film will show you how things might have gone if otherworldly sanity reigned more often on this troubled planet. (R)

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