With Christmas coming next week, holiday movies rule quite a few TV channels. There are great classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, romantic newcomers like The Holiday and Love Actually, and comedic diversions ranging from the wholesome (the Muppets’ Christmas Carol) to the not-at-all-wholesome (Bad Santa). Naturally, there’s also that Grinch bastard.
Many people have go-to favorite Christmas movies, and I’m no different… though I’ve lately been informed by friends and colleagues that my picks aren’t necessarily the most popular ones. Go figure, I have weird taste… but as I reflect on my favorites, I can see what draws me to them.
First up, it’s White Christmas –– a musical from the 50s that is about as gritty and realistic as Singin’ In The Rain… perhaps not an obvious choice for someone who has lately declared Ripper Street to be one of his favorite shows. I’ll explain why I like it after I name the second: Joyeux Noel. Exploring the Christmas truce in 1914, this 2005 Academy Award nominee is absolutely masterful –– it’s neither nostalgic nor gentle, but instead is very gritty and uncompromising.
So we have a Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye musical romp on one hand, and a modern film that starts with a vicious trench raid on the other. You’d be forgiven for declaring me bipolar (or not, I hear it’s politically incorrect to use that term), but they have more in common than you might think.
See, White Christmas revolves around two U.S. Army veterans who become song and dance men after the Second World War. In the midst of their stardom, they discover that their beloved General (an excellent combat leader) has been put out to pasture –– running a hotel in an isolated corner of New England, desperately missing times during which he felt of use to anyone. They therefore set out to reunite his old Division on Christmas Day, so he can see that his care for his men during the war would never be forgotten:
There’s no violence in White Christmas… and I think that’s because those making it had fought the war upon which the story was based. While we modern audiences (who thirst for insight into the combat we were never a part of) like our war movies to be visceral, those veterans seemed to decide that their commemoration should focus on their battle-forged fellowship, and how that gained extra meaning for them around the holidays.
It’s like an Easy Company reunion, with some singing, dancing, and sharp dialogue. If you view the old-fashioned musical through that lens, you’d have to be awfully cynical not to appreciate the story. Indeed, I bet you’ll even enjoy it.
You’ll also enjoy Joyeux Noel –– but for very different reasons. Because the First World War is much more distant to us, it’s easy to forget that the men involved in the trenches on both sides were, by today’s standard, virtually the same. Granted, they spoke different languages, but they prayed to the same God, sang the same carols, and on Christmas night in 1914, those bonds were stronger than the politically-instituted hate that separated them.
Never have I seen this reality realized so well as in Joyeux Noel. It features three casts –– French, Scottish and German –– all speaking their own languages, and living their own stories, until this moment:
And from there, the consequences of enemies discovering they are more alike than different are very vividly explored. Believe me, no punches are pulled –– this one doesn’t end with Bing singing, or Danny Kaye kissing Vera Ellen. But as a film meant to show us why veterans of a world war might want to make a film focused on fellowship (like White Christmas) it is masterful. Indeed, Joyeux Noel is one of my favorite movies of all time.
I suppose it’s strange that I associate the holidays with war, or veterans… but then, I’m awfully biased when it comes to those who have served. Perhaps that’s latent respect for my grandfather, or perhaps it’s a desire for perspective.
After all, most of us tend to view the holidays as a stressful time. Shopping at busy malls, dealing with family drama, commuting to and fro… I know I complain about these things, and I’m sure most of us do. But we need to remember that we’re damned lucky to call such trivial things ‘stressful’, because some of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had Christmases that really, truly, put our concerns to shame.
So Merry Christmas, everyone –– be happy, have fun, and take care.
Oh, and remember: the best things happen while you’re dancing…