Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is a wealthy American industrialist who served in World War II and who, despite seeing first hand the horrors of Hiroshima, still believes that war is sometimes the only answer. He spends his Christmas Eve sitting in darkened study, thinking about his dead son (who was killed in combat) and listening to an old record. When his nephew, Fred (Ben Gazzara), stops by, it leads to an argument about American foreign policy. (Who stops by their uncle’s house on Christmas Eve to argue politics?) Fred is do-gooder. Daniel Grudge hates do-gooders.
So, naturally, it’s time for Daniel Grudge to be visited by three ghosts! The Ghost of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence) takes Grudge first to a troop ship that is full of coffins, representing the dead of World War I. Then he forces Grudge to relive his own callous reaction to Hiroshima. Grudge sees how his actions upset the nurse (Eva Marie Saint) who was traveling with him. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) invites Grudge to eat a feast in front of a camp full of refugees. The Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw) takes Grudge to the future where, after a devastating nuclear war, a buffoonish leader (Peter Sellers) encourages his followers to continue to make war and to live only for themselves. Grudge watches as his former butler (Percy Rodriguez) is murdered for advocating for peace. Back at his mansion, Fred shows up again and Grudge must now decide …. will he support the work of the United Nations?
YEEEEESH! What a heavy-handed movie! Really, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how unsubtle the film’s message was. Originally made for television, A Carol For Another Christmas was actually co-produced by the United Nations. It was the first of four UN-produced films that aired on ABC between 1964 and 1966. Seen today, with all that we know about the UN’s signature mix of corruption and incompetence, the film’s message seems almost laughably naïve. “Only the UN can bring peace,” the film says. Tell that to Israel, the next time that the UN passes a resolution condemning it for existing and defending itself. Say that only the UN can make the world a better place when some of the worst dictatorships on the planet are sitting on the Human Rights council.
The heavy-handed message aside, A Carol For Another Christmas was full of talent both behind and in front of the camera. This was the only TV movie to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and, whatever else one might say about the film, he was responsible for some intriguingly moody shots. The script was written by Rod Serling who, unfortunately, allowed his didactic tendencies to get the better of him and wrote a film where characters didn’t have conversations as much as they just gave speeches. The cast, however, is uniformly strong. Sterling Hayden, Robert Shaw, and Steve Lawrence are obvious stand-outs. Pat Hingle does fine until his role is diminished to one long harangue. Playing the so-called “Imperial Me,” Peter Sellers brings so much needed unpredictability to the film, even if his character is saddled with the film’s most heavy-handed moment. The Imperial Me teaches his followers that the individual is more important than the state and that everyone should focus on “me” instead of “we.” Cutting-edge satire this is not and again, there’s something rather offensive about the UN being held up as humanity’s last hope against rampant individualism.
This is very much a film of its time. The fear of nuclear war runs through every frame. The disillusionment that came with the assassination of John F. Kennedy is present in the film’s open-ended conclusion. What good is convincing one man when the rest of the world continues to think for itself? the film seems to be asking. Dickens, I think, would probably say that Serling missed the point of A Christmas Carol and it’s hard not to feel that Dickens would be correct.