For almost the entirety of this century, I've been touched by the emails I receive this time of year from US, Canadian, British and other troops spending Christmas in such unfestive climes as the Hindu Kush and the sands of Araby. Seasonal soldiering is tough on the warriors, and on their families back home - as Linda Purl noted on our Christmas Show just before her beautiful rendition of "I'll Be Home Christmas". For our seasonal edition of Mark at the Movies, here are a few Yuletide movie moments with a military theme:
The best "White Christmas":
The quintessential Hollywood Christmas image is homesick young GIs in their fox holes, chins on rifle butts, thinking of family and friends and girls next door thousands of miles away. It's in a hundred pictures, but we might as well salute the song that says it best in White Christmas (1954). Irving Berlin had written "White Christmas" for the earlier film Holiday Inn (1942), which had no military content whatsoever. But it was the boys shipped out to the Pacific who fell in love with it, and 12 years later Berlin, in building a movie round the song, wanted to pay tribute to the men who made it a hit, and the biggest-selling record of all time. In a film with some very loud and vulgar stagings, the title song gets the simple treatment â€” Captain Bing Crosby singing it in the rubble of a burnt- out building as part of a Christmas Eve entertainment for the troops, accompanied only by Private Danny Kaye winding up a music box. Very poignant.
The best wet Christmas:
On the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, here's a film that follows part of the preparations for the Doolittle Raid, the morale-boosting if strategically inconsequential strike on Tokyo that the US mounted a few months later. Destination Tokyo (1943) is set on board the submarine USS Copperfin, where Cary Grant and his men celebrate Christmas under the sea deep in Japanese waters.
The best "Silent Night":
Music is at the heart of the most famous wartime Christmas anecdote â€” the truce in the trenches, on the western front one century ago this Christmas Eve, when German and British troops sang their bilingual version of "Stille Nacht". There's an eastern reprise of that moment in Balalaika (1939). It's Christmas on the Russian front, and in his trench Cossack Nelson Eddy begins singing "Silent Night". From across enemy lines, the foe respond with choruses that echo across the stillness. Then the song ends and the killing resumes.
The best Christmas Day message to the Empire:
To be honest, John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987) is such a dream-like cinememoir of childhood in the austere British Forties that I tend to fall into a trance somewhere around the bit where they do "Slow Boat To China". But, as an accumulation of authentic details of life on the home front, it's hard to beat: the scene of Boorman's family on Christmas Day listening to King George VI on the radio gamely struggling to control his stammer as he addresses his subjects around the world captures a genuine Britannic folk memory.
The quickest German anti-Nazi Christmas movie:
The end of the Second World War presented certain obvious problems for the German war-movie genre. But the Berlin studios quickly reinvented the form, cranking out a string of pictures in which all the villains are lurid Nazi sadists. In Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (1945), a vicious German officer decides to celebrate Christmas Eve by having a lot of Polish partisans rounded up and killed.
The best Korean War Christmas:
The Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) is set on a US aircraft carrier with a Christmas scene built around an oddly contemporary technological gimmick: the pilots and crew have been sent video messages from their loved ones back home. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Commander Ted Dodson (Keenan Wynn) is shot down the day before and there's a lump-in-the-throat moment when his family's Christmas tape is inadvertently played and the greetings and images of Ted's wife and children fill the room.
The best war movie tree ornament:
In a spirit of goodwill to all men, even you hopeless peaceniks, here's one of my favorite anti-war movies. A Midnight Clear (1992) is less plonking than most pacifist parables and stays focused on the story: two platoons, one German, one American. circling each other in the Ardennes in the snowy Christmas season of 1944. The Germans know the war is lost, and are looking for a way to give up without being either shot or humiliated. In a conscious echo of that Great War truce of 1914, the Yuletide scenes include carols drifting on the wind, a snowball fight, a snowman Hitler, and an American-German Christmas tree on which a German soldier tenderly hangs an American grenade.
The second best "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas":
You can't beat Judy Garland introducing the song in Meet Me in St Louis, but there's an ironic reprise in Carl Foreman's The Victors (1963), a big sprawling drama of George Hamilton, Peter Fonda, Albert Finney and co on the march through Europe, loving and leaving Melina Mercouri, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Elke Sommer and other Eurototty en route. The most memorable moment is the execution of a deserter by a firing squad. Anyone who thinks Quentin Tarantino started this sort of thing with "Stuck In The Middle With You" should check out the scene where the guy's comrades are driven through the snows to witness his dispatch to the accompaniment of Sinatra singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas".
The best Boxing Day:
There are, sadly, no Christmas scenes in Sylvester Stallone's Afghan adventure Rambo III, nor in the other insightful masterpiece on the region, Carry On Up The Khyber. But you can see Sly in "Baby, It's A Cold War Outside" mode in Rocky IV (1985), in which the camp champ â€” after the usual don't-do-it speech from Mrs Rocky â€” flies to the Soviet Union to take on a steroid-pumped robotic super-Slav... on Christmas Day! Sly prays in the toilet before going out, just to underline the devout-Christian-vs-godless-Commie message.
The best Oliver Stone Christmas song never filmed:
Fun fact: The official signal for the scramble to evacuate the US Embassy in Saigon a quarter-century ago was the playing of Bing's "White Christmas" â€” and no one's ever put it in a Vietnam movie (excepting one British TV adaptation).