Oh, what a joyous season that I forgot about because snow has abandoned the Earth. With or without the visual reminders of the holidays, there are plenty of traditions to keep up the spirit. For many of us here at Rooster Illusion, watching Christmas movies (preferably with hot chocolate) are a favorite. You can imagine my joy, then, when I learned of A Carol for Another Christmas, a 1964 TV film written by Rod Serling (of The Twilight Zone fame). While that alone would be enough to entice me, you can imagine my joy when I learned that it’s a United Nations-sponsored remake of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where Scrooge is an isolationist. Sometimes, the world is just too kind.
While that description might appear odd for a Rod Serling project, his pre-Twilight Zone filmography contextualizes it. Serling was famous before his seminal sci-fi show hit American televisions, having won two Emmys for hard-hitting social dramas like Patterns, a deconstruction of corporate America’s dehumanization. Serling’s decision to pen a science fiction anthology series was not a break from this work. Censorship at the time was high (you can see Serling discuss this here), and he knew that science fiction would let him make pointed criticisms of society and the government without censorship, because he was indirectly making these criticisms. Even journalist/media personality Mike Wallace didn’t get what opportunities sci-fi can afford: in that same interview (at 10:57), he says to Serling in regard to The Twilight Zone, “for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?” Serling does say he won’t be delivering social criticism, but I think he’s being coy here, as plenty of episodes don’t shy away from big social issues (see: “The Shelter,” “Deaths-Head Revisited,” and really any other episode he wrote).
A U.N.-sponsored remake of “A Christmas Carol,” then, makes a surprising amount of sense. He’s established the skills to work with social commentary through the supernatural, and his anti-war beliefs lined up with what the U.N. was selling. Clearly the U.N. and broadcaster ABC were going for the best names they could find, too. They hired director Joseph L. Mankiewicz—who also directed All About Eve and A Philadelphia Story—and cast such names as Sterling Hayden (The Godfather; Dr. Strangelove), Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront; North by Northwest), and Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther). This was no throwaway project.
The final result, though, never captures all of that talent. I actually might have to blame Serling here, because the biggest problem is the theatricality: so much of this movie is just people espousing politics at each other. When he deviates from the dialogue-driven lesson about how the U.N. will save the world, his talent shines. There’s a moment early on where a record plays “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me),” and our Scrooge, Daniel Grudge (Hayden), shuts it off. As he walks away, the record starts up again, skipping and repeating the same bit. The eeriness is compounded by Mankiewicz’s excellent use of shadows to create a sense of uncertainty and dread.
While moments like this are peppered throughout, they take up minimal runtime in comparison to the ghosts explaining the flaws of Grudge’s isolationist views. These parts go between redundant, boring, and confusing. That confusion, though, actually appeals to me as a modern reviewer—not because of excellent writing, but because of how well it functions as a time capsule. Many today might be surprised that Grudge’s “conservative” politics consist of not getting involved with the rest of the world. This means forsaking philanthropy because the “needy and depressed” are apparently just beggars according to Grudge, which is familiar in the modern political paradigm. But it also means not going to war, not getting involved in international problems like the World Wars. His views, in effect, involve not treating the U.S. as world police, a conversation that is now put forth by American Democrats.
Moments like this make A Carol for Another Christmas relevant today, because it posits that globalization and the U.N. are the answers to world peace. Now, of course, we know that those problems still exist (and, in terms of globalization, might have been made even worse). It’s an important reminder that we can only view the world and its problem through the context of our times, and what seems like the only solution today might be overstated or misguided tomorrow. Still, though, it’s hard to argue against Serling’s thesis that we have to try to talk to each other to avoid more fighting.
And really, Grudge’s “screw you, I’ve got mine” philosophy is still a huge issue today. When we take a journey with the Ghost of Christmas Future, we see a world devastated by nuclear holocaust. This scene reflects Serling’s strengths as a writer more than the monotonous back-and-forths between Grudge and the previous ghosts. Serling portrays a society run by Imperial Me, who is played brilliantly by Sellers. The famous comic actor brings out the hilarious contradiction of “individuals” lining up behind an emperor, cheering “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!” at his command. It’s a satire that anyone who has spent time with College Libertarians will get a kick out of.
But lest that last jab seem to contradict my comments that we should be wary of certainty in our political beliefs, I want to emphasize that A Carol for Another Christmas is ultimately too messy to leave a distinct impression. And while it’s not exactly the ideal holiday movie, it is ridiculous and sprawling enough to bring some joy and laughs to a roomful of modern-day viewers. While I don’t think I’ll be watching it every year, I’m glad that I such a bizarre piece of history exists. If one thing can be said of Rod Serling, it’s that he’s always interesting.