Now, I’ve been noticing a lot these days that religion is going out of fashion. Christmas, like most other holidays, is becoming more and more about buying stuff that you don’t need. I’m all for presents, but only if they actually mean something. Notice how December 25th isn’t called “Presents Day?” That’s because it’s about a little more than wrapping paper and candy canes. Those are just there to help set the mood.
So this week, I’m going to dedicate my column to movies that remember what Christmas is really about: Jesus’s birthday. More broadly, it’s about actually being nice to people for a month. Sharing and loving and doing all those things that decent human beings are supposed to do all the time, but that we sometimes forget about when faced with the immense, suffocating pressure that is life. It’s about salvaging that little bit of good that’s inside all of us and briefly making the world a better place.
Anyway, in honor of all that, here’s some Christmas movies that actually get it right.
3 Godfathers (1948):
John Ford directed a Christmas movie with John Wayne. Sadly, not many people know that. 3 Godfathers is beautifully shot, with a solid script and nuanced performances. John Wayne is a very underrated actor, and I think that might have something to do with the fact that most audiences tend to overlook subtlety. People don’t like having to think, and so actors like Wayne and movies like this tend to go overlooked.
The film is about three bank robbers — John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, and Harry Carrey Jr. — on the run from the law across a bleak and inhospitable desert. On their journey, they encounter a dying woman and her baby. Not being completely heartless, they promise to take the baby to safety, even at the risk of their own freedom.
That’s a pretty sparse synopsis, so you’ll have to actually watch the movie if you want to know what happens. I highly recommend it, not just as a well-directed film, but as a Christmas movie that gets at the heart of the holiday. The characters, though outlaws, are basically decent human beings. As they cross the desert with the baby, their rough exteriors are slowly stripped away to reveal the fundamental goodness underneath.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992):
Muppets + Michael Caine = greatness. If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of A Christmas Carol, then here it is in a nutshell: Ebenezer Scrooge is miserly and bitter. On Christmas Eve, the mean old man is shown the error of his ways by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.
The Muppet version follows this story pretty closely, with the added bonus of good music and, well, Muppets. It’s funny, heartwarming, and sometimes a little creepy, which suits the material perfectly. This movie, like the other two that I’ve reviewed, is about redemption. Who better to remind us that there’s even something good inside the Scrooges of this world than the Muppets? The fact that someone who isn’t quite a puppet or a frog and is married to a pig can remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds makes me feel really optimistic about the world.
So what do these movies have in common? Well, if you haven’t already noticed, they remind people that there’s far more to Christmas than buying people stuff. There’s some serious themes going on here, like redemption. That applies to everybody. We all slip a little over the course of the year. I mean, nobody’s perfect. But that doesn’t mean that nobody can be better than they are now. And* that, ladies and gentlemen, is what Christmas is all about. It’s looking inside ourselves and realizing that even if we’re not perfect we can still be good. It’s about trying to be a better person, even if it’s just for a month, or even a day. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that there’s good in humanity. Have a Merry Christmas and a pleasant vacation. See you next year.
One more thing: I didn’t have time to review it, but I highly recommend the film The Bishop’s Wife (1947). It’s got Cary Grant and David Niven, and it fits in with the whole “redemption thing.” It’s about an angel who comes to help a work-obsessed bishop reconnect with his family and his humanity.
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*Note: this column was written by a somewhat experienced professional, trained in the art of beginning sentences with “and.” Kids, don’t try it at home. Or in papers. That path just leads to the dark side.