Football in the Trenches
As a child I often heard mention of an extraordinary game of football which took place during WWI where the enemies fighting on the frontline called a truce for Christmas and played football in no man's land. It is this football game and some other real incidents surrounding the Christmas Eve of 1914 which are brought together in the impressive "Joyeux Noel", also known as "Merry Christmas", a war movie more about humanity rather than war.
In a way "Joyeux Noel" is a three part movie, delivering the build up to the First World War as we watch men from different professions and countries heading off to fight, the collection of extraordinary events which lead to the frontline cease fire and then the consequences of those actions. And all these three elements, draw on real life but embellished and moulded into a drama working to create a fascinating, touching and haunting drama which takes you a back and brings the human side of war to life.
"Joyeux Noel" starts off in a powerful manner as we witness 3 children from different nationalities reading patriotic war poems, before witnessing various civilians heading off to war. We see two Scottish brothers, one excited by the thought of war, the other unsurely following his brother's enthusiasm whilst their priest looking on in horror at the eldest's excitement. We see a German opera singer about to perform only to have his performance interrupted by the announcement of war and that men were expected to fight. And in those brief scenes we discover the patriotic fervour which was instilled into people to not just fight but also hate the enemy.
But "Joyeux Noel" isn't a movie about hatred and in the next scene we witness French Lieutenant Audebert preparing to lead his men to advance on the Germans, he's physically sick in his private quarters in the trench as the thought of war turns his stomach. We see others as well from the Scottish Priest acting as a stretcher bearer dealing with the dead whilst the Germans shoot at all that advance, with the injured left in no man's land their agonising cries audible whilst no one is able to help. I tell you what "Saving Private Ryan" gets a lot of praise for the opening scenes and "Joyeux Noel" deserves as much praise as it paints a frenetic and painful picture of fighting during WWI. It takes you a back at the killing but also makes you realize that those involved may have been fighting as soldiers but were still humans.
And that leads us to the collection of events brought together as we have an extraordinary cease fire, and whilst these events are a collection of stories which happened up and down the front line it is worth remember they are based on fact. So we have the opera singer entertaining the German troops, his wife present in this version, and on hearing him sing the Scots join in leading to an uncomfortable situation as the singer and officers end up in no man's land. What plays out is tense, emotional but strangely beautiful as the officers call a truce for Christmas Eve, the enemies meet in the middle and tentatively chat, share photos and the priest takes Midnight Mass. This continues and further events which include the legendary and much speculated football game take place and much more and we get a real picture of humanity as these men, not soldiers become friends, help each other bury their dead and pass on letters to loved ones on the enemy side.
But whilst we have this stunning and emotional series of events which leads to unlikely friendships being formed it doesn't end there because "Joyeux Noel" also delivers the aftermath. On one level we have the difficulty of war recommencing between these official enemies who have bonded but also the consequences of their unapproved actions. Without giving too much away the Priest and many others end up being severely disciplined, removed from the front line for fraternising with the enemy. And again all of this is emotional and hard hitting not only in the cruel way we see these people being treated but also the obscured view of war from others, most notably the Bishop who arrives to reprimand the Priest for not preaching war.
There are things that are wrong with "Joyeux Noel", at times it is overly romanticized, it occasionally is a little bit too amusing when German soldiers chat with the French and a whole series of scenes surrounding a cat feel wrong. But none of that matters because this interpretation of what happened during Christmas 1914 as the truce is called is brilliant, powerful, touching, amusing and educational. It opens your eyes to the human side of war and keeps you engaged from start to finish, with big scenes of powerful warfare and then the minute detail such as why a French soldier keeps an alarm clock set to 10am to remind him of coffee with his mum before he went to war.
What this all boils down to is that "Joyeux Noel" is a seriously impressive movie about an extraordinary time when enemies shook hands, passed wine and are said to have played football in the middle of no man's land. It is embellished and some of the things don't work but yet the heart and humanity of the story never fails to come across as well as the inhumanity of war.