Carol For Another Christmas
I was talking to Spider Robinson one evening in late December and he hipped me to this oddball movie, with a fantastic cast: Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Steve Lawrence, Robert Shaw, Peter Sellers. Directed by Joe Mankiewicz. Screenplay by Rod Serling. Made back in the ‘60s, presented without commercial interruption (a very big deal back then), a “United Nations Special,” sponsored by the Xerox Corporation, shown once on TV and never seen again. I thanked him for the info, and we chatted a bit, then hung up. I turned on the TV … and discovered that while we were talking, Turner Classic Movies had been showing the movie for the first time in 48 years! And I missed it! Is that a weird Christmas story, or what?
Fortunately, it has a happy ending, just like It’s a Wonderful Life and every other Christmas movie. Spider had recorded it, and sent me a copy, so we were able to watch it. Thanks, Spider!
What it is, is an updating of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a scene-by-scene reconstruction of the story we all know so well. Scrooge becomes Grudge, and Marley is not his dead partner but his dead son, killed in WWII, in which Grudge also served. He is a bitter old man, and in spite of his son’s wasted life, he believes strongly in staying on “our side of the fence,” and building faster bombers and bigger nukes to defend ourselves. Ben Gazzara, his nephew (sort of Bob Cratchit), is one of those com-symp pinko do-gooders he hates, who wants a “cultural exchange” with a professor in Poland. Goddam commie. Blow ‘em all up!
He sees Marley’s reflection in the glass of his door, and then we’re off on the familiar journey with Steve Lawrence as the Ghost of Christmas Past. But we’re on a troop ship, a generic troop ship carrying home the bodies of soldiers who died in every war. Christmas Present shows him the millions who are starving while the lucky few waste food. Naturally, Christmas Future (Robert Shaw) shows him a world after a nuclear war when almost everyone is dead.
The leader of one of the small groups of survivors calls himself The Imperial Me (Peter Sellers having a great time camping it up), and is urging his followers to make war on those “down yonder” and “across the river,” because they’re different. This is the most striking scene, as Me’s pronouncement made me think of a libertarian paradise, with no government to get in the way of one’s desires. That, or a Republican National Convention. If the speaker had been female, she could have been Ayn Rand. “I’ve got mine, Jack, screw you all!”
Okay, if you want subtlety, Rod Serling is not your man. He always hammers home his point, in this case that it’s always better to keep talking, even to your enemies, than to quit talking and go to war. Who could argue with that? (Well, actually, at this very moment the fucking Republicans in the House and Senate are going to fight the nomination of Chuck Hegel, a Vietnam vet who knows what war is like, for Secretary of Defense, because he’s willing to talk to Iran, among other bleeding-heart cowardly positions.) Serling has written a talky, repetitive script … but that aside, I quite liked it. In particular I was happy that, after his experiences, Grudge does not become a delirious do-gooder like Scrooge, dancing around in his nightgown. He is considerably sobered, and makes up with the nephew, and we can see his views have changed, but he’s not a happy man. He probably never will be. I think that provides more food for thought than an overnight conversion.
And to give Serling his due, he can also write a very powerful scene. Christmas Past takes him to Hiroshima, where he was in September, 1945, and he sees himself with his driver, Eva Maria Saint, visiting a hospital filled with schoolgirls whose faces have been burned off. Burned off, can you imagine that? Little children? They are ghostly presences under gauze, an indictment to all humanity.