Rod Serling’s Adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’: Its Spirit & Still Relevant Message to Americans
Posted in: Film Review
Nearly fifty years ago, a version of the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol set during the Cold War to promote the United Nations and greater diplomacy between nations to prevent all-out nuclear war aired on ABC. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) aired it on December 16 and December 22, offering Americans two rare opportunities to see this fairly unknown production.
A Carol for Another Christmas was adapted for television by Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone and premiered in 1964, the same year that Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe were released. It was produced to support the United Nations and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who at the time had just directed Cleopatra.
After having the privilege of viewing this ambitious and daring project, it is clear from the content why the movie had not aired again since its premiere. It is very hard to find and view, which makes it worth recounting in detail.
Sterling Hayden plays the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as Daniel Grudge. Grudge fought in World War I. He was a commanding officer in World War II. His son died in World War II. Grudge has not been able to move on and sits in his son’s bedroom listening to records. He also allows this experience to determine his worldview that it is better if America stays out of getting involved with other countries.
Fred, played by Ben Gazzara, comes over to talk to him on Christmas Eve and confront him over his role in making sure the Board of Trustees at the university did not allow professors to participate in a cultural exchange program. This 18th Century European Literature professor was to exchange positions with a professor at the University of Krakow in Poland. However, the “political climate” leads him to believe it is best to not allow the exchange, even though the program is valued at the university.
The two get into an ideological debate. Grudge tells Fred he only wants to be on one side “first, last and always: our side.” He does not want to have anything to do with the national or international orders of the bleeding heart. He does not want to be involved with any causes and tells Fred, “Mind your own business and let everybody mind theirs.”
To those in need, “Tell them to help themselves. Let them know the case drawer is closed and, if they can believe it, you’ll be surprised how much less needy and oppressed the needy and oppressed turn out to be.” He continues to rant saying people like Fred “mouth the kind of platitudes that get us into war” and people like his son go off to fight them. He adds, “Every two decades we seem to pay for your indiscriminate affections for the lives of our sons.” Fred tells him he should acknowledge “all men have sons” and “that grief for the unnecessary dead is not exclusive to this country, this town or the House of Grudge.”
The argument is powerfully written and culminates as they get into deeper issues of why mankind allows war to happen. Grudge rejects this idea of a “world brotherhood” of yellow, black and white people where people live in “peace and putrefaction.” He finally tells Fred to put his “efforts, sweat and faith into developing the fastest bombers and the most powerful missiles on Earth. They’ll provide a lot more security for our young and for the rest of the world’s young” before his “debating society’s forums, treaties, pacts and other forms of surrender and handout.” (A reference to the United Nations.)
When the Ghost of Christmas Past, who is played by Steve Lawrence, appears, Grudge is on a “troop transport” that carries those killed in action. Coffins draped with the flags of all countries of the world filled with the dead from all past wars fill the deck of the transport. As the Past says, “I’m the dead. All the dead.”
Grudge expresses his frustration with making the world “safe for democracy” and sending Americans to die in wars. The Past confronts him about his lack of concern for people dying in wars between countries, which America is not involved. He admits that is better than having American blood spilled. The Past professes war is a “contagious disease.” The only way to keep it from spreading is “to keep talking.” And the Past recounts how after World War I Americans became fed up with American kids being blown to pieces out of sight in foreign places with strange sounding names so, prior to World War II, there was no will to confront Adolf Hitler and the spread of fascism.
This is the central message of the movie: if people talk, there will be less killing. When people stop talking, the bloodshed starts up.
There’s an incredibly powerful scene where the ruins of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped appear in front of Grudge and the Past. Grudge sees himself pull up with Wave (Eva Marie Saint), a female officer, to check up on a doctor (James Shigeta). A girl is singing. Grudge hears her. The doctor invites him to go in, but the doctor warns that when planes flew overhead the children looked up at the sky and suffered flash burns. They were hit by thermo-radiation and have no more faces. When Grudge and Wave enter, a shot of their reaction appears and then the camera shows their wrapped faces. After a few minutes, Wave loses her composure and runs out.
Grudge tries to tell her she needs to “keep a perspective.” Repeating a prevalent post-war myth, he declares, “The President of the United States found it necessary to drop that bomb because there would have been 500,000 casualties and 1 million Japanese dead had he not dropped” the bomb. “Harsh as that may sound,” Grudge says, in his book “that makes simple arithmetic.” To which Wave reacts, “We are standing in the middle of what was once a city, when on one given morning 100,000 people were killed. People, commander—That’s almost as many dead as the Confederates had in four years of Civil War. Quite apart from anything else, sir, doesn’t that suggest to you from this second on if the world decided to go to war again it could kill itself off in a couple of afternoons?” War is obsolete, she says, and don’t call it arithmetic.
During the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle), Grudge is told he represents the human race. He sits at a long table feasting on food, being a glutton. At the same time, he claims to Grudge that he is, like humanity, warm, contented and healthy but much of him is cold too.
This character has typically been jolly and gigantic, but in Sterling’s depiction, he is neither. He is aggressive and, perhaps, the state of the world makes it difficult for him to be a more jovial character.
“Barbed wire nomads,” displaced persons, people whose only crime was that they lived in a country at war, appear in a caged area next to where the Present is feasting. Grudge asks how he can do this and the Present counters by noting Grudge may not have seen them but he stuffed himself with mashed potatoes or buttered his bread while people like this went hungry elsewhere before. What is the difference?
Commenting on selective morality, the Present confronts him on “the ease in which you strip off your conscience like an overcoat and let your satisfied belch drown out the hunger cries that fill the air around you.” He continues, “How do you create this exact science whereby you disinvolve yourself from all the anguish of the world that doesn’t have to be in your direct line of vision?” The answer is it doesn’t take a special breed of human at all. The Present surmises this is man’s “normal condition.”
Grudge tells the Present he can be concerned, but the Present doesn’t believe him. He plays back what he said on Christmas Eve to Fred about closing the cash drawer. When he claims that was taken out of context because he was talking politics, the Present reacts angrily, “Politics? Now grasp this if you can: humanity is no longer a political thesis. It is not a subject for debate. There are no pros and cons, no arguments and rebuttals. We are talking about human want and human need and this is a fact of life.” And, when he asks if many people live lives in camps behind barbed wire because they’re displaced, the Present become even more furious and rattles off a laundry list of statistics on hunger and poverty while at the same time forcing Grudge to keep his eyes on those behind the wire.
The movie culminates with the Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw). The town hall where Grudge lived has been destroyed by nuclear war. It is Christmas Eve, some year in the future. The clock is stopped and most people do not care.
What happened? “At a given time, we thought that they’d drop some bombs,” the Future answers. “Or they thought we’d drop some bombs. Anyway, somebody thought somebody had dropped some bombs. By then, everybody had the bomb. They’d all been wanting it, remember. It got so with no controls nobody was really anybody if they didn’t have the bomb.” And, the United Nations could not save the world from Doomsday because countries dropped out and stopped talking.
In a classic performance by Peter Sellers, the Future shows Grudge a scene where the Imperial Me is brought out on a throne. He is wearing a Santa suit, but no beard and a hat that says “Me” in glitter. He ascends to a position high above his Me followers and gavels in a meeting of the “non-government of the Me people.” They are meeting to discuss the “business of people down yonder and people cross river wanting to come and talk about what they call our mutual problems” and “common differences.” They want to “talk, talk, talk about our problems” and “want to debate, debate, debate about solutions until somehow they get their problems solved. They want to waste our time. They want us to commit ourselves to that kind of surrender.”
The Me followers erupt in a scene that now seems like a Tea Party rally. The Imperial Me warns of what will happen if “do-gooders” or “bleeding hearts” are allowed to “propagate their insidious doctrine of involvement.” He asserts this must not be permitted because “we have now reached a pure civilization. The world of the ultimate Me is now within our grasp.”—a world where only the strong exist. “We will stamped out and become I forever.”
With the rancor growing louder and louder now that dear Leader has proclaimed, “We are each the individual Mes,” Grudge’s butler (Percy Rodriguez), Charles, steps up to stop this madness. He eloquently calls for the group to realize this is all humanity has left. He urges them to talk to others, to embrace law, ethics, honor and decency. His speech is met with the maniacal laughs of ideologically opposed people. Charles is then sentenced to death after the mass call for him to be put to death. He tries to escape, but when he climbs up high and has nowhere to go, he is told to, “Jump! Jump! Jump!” so the group can see him fall to his death. Finally, the child of the wife of the Imperial Me pulls out a gun and points and shoots. Charles is hit and falls to the ground.
The group leaves the area to go follow their philosophy to its end: a world where everything belongs to one individual. They plan to deal with the interlopers and talkers and then get down to killing one another until their remains “one individual Me.”
Grudge wakes up as the Scrooge character does in most films. Yet, it is not clear that he has undergone as stark of a transformation as the Scrooge in other adaptations. Fred comes back over to talk to him and Grudge tells him he is not sure involvement through the United Nations is the answer but it is a possibility. He says he realized “no man is an island” and “every man’s death does diminish” him. He will not try to ignore the world so much anymore. But, what does this mean? That now Grudge is conflicted and will have to control this as he goes about his business indifferent to suffering in the world during future Christmases?
It is a United Nations propaganda film and doesn’t cease to be one, however, there is a universal message in there, not to mention it is the product of Serling’s frustration with the Cold War. It cautions against using force to solve problems. It condemns unilateralism and to some extent American exceptionalism.
The dominant idealism in the movie is if all countries participated openly and honestly in the United Nations the world would be safer for mankind because countries with good diplomatic relations would not go to war with one another and that is a reflection of the fact that about twenty years after its establishment the UN had not been able to stop conflicts from occurring yet.
The criticism of this movie is that it was too didactic, the themes way too overdone. However, it features many socially conscious themes that were in Serling’s Twilight Zone. Recall, multiple episodes dealt with the post-apocalyptic nature of a world after nuclear war. His show always had a subtle way of folding in messages about political or social issues of the period.
Given the current state of the world, especially with President Barack Obama presiding over a country at war in Afghanistan, which also has undeclared wars in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen with drones killing people at least every other week, it is worthy of an update. Libertarians and Tea Party followers believe much of the ideology of the Me followers. War also is arithmetic for the Obama administration. Use drones to bring terror to cities because it is better than attempting military occupation and risking the loss of many US troops. As Joe Klein put it, “What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”
That logic bears little difference from the logic expressed by Grudge after seeing children severely and possibly fatally injured by the bombing of Hiroshima. Though the world may not be on the brink of nuclear conflict as it was in the early 1960s (with the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh in the public’s minds), the use of force has become viable through different mechanisms. Special operations and covert missions along with secret torture, rendition and detention of people by the US takes place unchecked and as this infuriates parts of the world, this Christmas our leaders would say it is all part of some calculation to ensure we get Them before they get Us.