- Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)
World War I was arguably the most vicious and bizarre display of that human activity we call “war.” After a brief period of German advance, armies on all sides dug ever deeper into the earth to spend the next four years in trenches filled with mud, vermin, blood, and more often than not the bones and body parts of fallen comrades. There seems to be little to choose between the two sides. Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims were arraigned in like proportions on either side. Both alliances included nations that held free elections, while neither was above being allied with brutal absolute monarchies. For all the grand-sounding nationalistic slogans, it may have been U.S. President Woodrow Wilson who had it right when he asked, “Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?”
In recent years, at least, the magic of the cinema has been less than enchanted with the First World War than with the Second, in which there were nice clear-cut monsters to boo. It is difficult for most people to be overly sympathetic to a devout Nazi. That said, there have been notable films made about the “War to End all Wars.” The classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front immediately comes to mind. Moreover, if we broadened our focus to all films about all wars, the amount of material would be overwhelming. For all of the countless miles of celluloid exposed to produce images of war, most war films fall into a few discernable categories. Among these are the “war is hell but necessary” movie, often only slightly different by degree from the “war is hell and how does it happen” flicks. Even openly anti-war movies tend to follow the same sort of formula as pro-war movies. We see blood, bravery, horror, cowardice, and nobility of sacrifice.
What has seldom been shown is resistance. Based on actual events which occurred Christmas 1914 on the Western Front, Joyeux Noel shows that there existed the possibility, a slim one of course, of an end to the war that did not require the slaughter of millions. An early, and radically different, end to the war may have redesigned the historical stage so as to preclude fascism and the Second World War. Of course, this redesign was not to be, but this film is tantalizing precisely because it suggests a question that is seldom, if ever, asked. That is, what if soldiers had refused to fight?
Beginning with a conventional display of war’s fury, Joyeux Noel moves to the eve of Christmas, 1914. After months of butchery, in which European men threw themselves against machine guns, barbed wire, and artillery barrages as if courting death, Christmas Eve arrives. Hoping to gain a respite from the horror, French, German, and Scottish soldiers prepare to celebrate the traditional Christian holiday. As the sound of Christmas carols float above the now-silenced battlefield, the erstwhile enemies recognize the songs coming from the opposite trenches.
Slowly, the troops begin to look out of their trenches, wishing those they had sought to kill, only hours before, a Merry Christmas. Before long, a truce is organized, and, rather than staying in their own trenches, the soldiers warily meet in no-man’s land, trading alcohol and bits of chocolate. They show each other pictures of their loved ones. They bury the rotting corpses of their dead and even hold a soccer match. They see their common humanity rather than the uniforms that separate them.
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We are so accustomed to thinking of armies as irreconcilable enemies that many may find these scenes hard to accept. Yet they did actually happen, and not just in 1914 on the Western Front but also, for example, in 1917, on the Eastern Front. Naturally [End Page 65] such an island of...