Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)
In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the "War on Christmas." There are many fronts to this battle, from department store clerks required to say "Happy Holidays" to schools limiting song selections to "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Frosty the Snowman." Obviously, these are serious matters, but as wars go this one might pale a bit compared to World War I.
Joyeux Noel, a French film from 2005, is set at the beginning of that war. The film opens in a church in Scotland.
When one thinks Scotland, one thinks Reformed Protestantism, so I was assuming the church would be Presbyterian. We see a young man burst through the doors of the church and shout excitedly to a clergyman and another man (who we find is his brother), "We're at war!" He rings the church bell to celebrate. The pastor doesn't look like he's in a celebratory mood.
What puzzled me about the church is that it has a statue of Mary, a crucifix, and candles; things one expects in a Catholic church. But otherwise, it doesn't have the look or feel of a Catholic church, and Pastor Palmer (Gary Lewis) doesn't have the feel of a Catholic priest. The Scottish brothers sign up for the war, and Pastor Palmer signs up with the Red Cross to go with them.
The film is based on a true story, but the characters and specific plot points are fictional.
On Christmas Eve of 1914, at several places along the front lines, soldiers on opposing sides declared their own ceasefires for the night and celebrated Christmas with their enemies. The film imagines what that was like.
We are introduced to three groups of soldiers on the line; a Scottish troop with the pastor and brothers fighting alongside a French troop, opposed to a German troop on the other side of the line.
On Christmas Eve, tensions are still high as everyone assumes that, although their soldiers would like to celebrate the night in peace, surely the other side is plotting a sinister attack -- but it is Christmas. The Scots bring out their bagpipes, and several soldiers (and the pastor) play. On the other side of the line, a German soldier, a professional tenor in civilian life, sings. The singer and the pipes join to play "O Come All Ye Faithful." The tenor boldly climbs out of the foxhole and walks toward the enemy line, still singing.
The officers of all three units are emboldened to meet together and agree upon a truce for that one night. Soldiers from all sides pour out of the trenches to share drinks, chocolate, and photos of wives and girlfriends.
The men then gather for one of the most wondrous and yet perplexing worship services we have reported on for Movie Churches. The Scottish pastor performs a Latin Mass, yet he seems quite awkward saying it, as if the words are new to him or he’s quite rusty with the language. All the men, the French, Germans and Scots, respond in Latin and cross themselves at the appropriate times. Now, you'd expect the majority of the French to be Catholics. On the other hand, you'd think a majority of the Germans would be Lutherans and the Scots Presbyterian or Anglican. I guess since the film was made by the French, they expect everyone to be like them, and for the film, it works.
It's a beautiful picture of Christian unity. I really can't say if the beauty of the image is hampered or enhanced by the many snow covered dead bodies still on the ground from an earlier battle.
The Scottish pastor says, "These men were drawn to that altar like a fire draws men in the middle of winter." He suggests that the men might have wanted, just for that night, to forget war. But an officer responds that "the war won't forget us."
A German Jewish officer (a bit of a shock to remember there were such men in WWI, but there were many) says, "This was wonderful, I'm Jewish, but I will never forget this night."
When the Germans are told the French and Scots will be shelled with artillery, they invite them into their trenches, and the French and Scots return the favor. They know they must return to fighting, but they can't bring themselves to attack these men with whom they have just enjoyed fellowship.
But the ceasefire does end. The troops are disciplined for their unauthorized peace. Regiments are broken up and officers demoted.
The Scottish priest is called back to Scotland. His superior comes out to see him (Palmer kisses the man's ring) and tells him he has left the straight and narrow path. We see this superior (Bishop?) address the new troops telling them that Christ said he came not to bring peace but the sword (some context there would really be helpful in his preaching). He says they are fighting for civilization and the Germans are not the children of God. (So good to be confident of whose side God is taking.)