The Rod Serling Christmas Movie You Never Saw
The Twilight Zone creator made TV movie of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol featuring Peter Sellers, and it’s almost completely forgotten
A Christmas Carol is the definitive Christmas story. Yes, you might try and argue it’s the nativity, but the volume of movie adaptations begs to differ, and I can tell your heart’s not in it. And yes, I see those of you rushing to the comments to tell us it’s Die Hard and I think you’re very big and clever.
But A Christmas Carol has everything, all the trappings of Christmas, that sliver of darkness running through the whole thing, and above all a strong seasonal message to remind us what Christmas is about. The story has been reimagined and retold endless times since Charles Dickens’ book came out, from textually accurate recreations such as A Muppet Christmas Carol (seriously) to modern-day reimagining like the Bill Murray vehicle, Scrooged.
And across all of these different retellings, the seasonal message is usually the first casualty. Scrooge’s lesson is often softened into “charity is good” or “don’t be mean to people,” or, at its worst, Scrooge’s sin is made out to be that he doesn’t like Christmas.
But A Christmas Carol itself is unflinching in its look at poverty, and poverty as a direct result of the actions of the powerful, and Scrooge’s argument for “decreasing the surplus population” still wouldn’t look out of place in several mainstream journalism outlets today. Very few adaptations of the book, even the faithful ones, capture the anger that runs through the original story. It’s not a general anger at the idea of “meanness.” It’s a very specific anger targeting political ideas and rhetoric that people held then and now.
Over 100 years later, Rod Serling was another writer who wasn’t afraid of using his writing to express political anger. Anyone who’s seen even a handful of episodes of The Twilight Zone will know Serling used his platform to target McCarthyism, war, bigotry, and conformity.
The opening narration of one of the most famous episodes, ‘To Serve Man,” reads:
“The world went on much as it had been going on, with the tentative tip-toeing alongside a precipice of crisis. There was Berlin to worry about, and Indo-China and Algeria and all the other myriad of problems, major and minor, that somehow had lost their edge of horror because we were so familiar with them.”
That atmosphere of dull, routine, existential terror will sound familiar to anyone who has just lived through the post-2016 Hell Years.
But while Serling was determined that The Twilight Zone would tell stories about the issues he cared about, he also had to fight tooth and nail against networks and advertisers that wanted nothing less than to be associated with anything “political”. So Serling’s political messages were frequently veiled in magic, “Men from Mars,” and hypothetical futures.
So it’s surprising that, in all 156 original Twilight Zone episodes, most of them written by Serling himself, that the show never tried its own twist on the classic Christmas story that was in many ways tailor-made for the Twilight Zone treatment.
Except Rod Serling did write his own take on A Christmas Carol, as a TV movie featuring Peter Sellers, and it’s been almost completely forgotten.
A Carol for Another Christmas
A Carol for Another Christmas was a TV movie, aired on ABC on Dec. 28, 1964. It was the first in a planned series of movies promoting the United Nations. The final one of these films, about a UN narcotics agent, is believed to be the last story written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming before his death.
That A Carol for Another Christmas was part of this series is probably why Serling was free to be far more openly and explicitly political than we’ve seen in even the angriest episodes of The Twilight Zone. It takes the line “Mankind was my business!” from Charles Dickens’s story, and turns it into a tale about America’s role on the international stage. It doesn’t linger on the trimmings of Christmas, instead taking a long, hard look at the dead, the dying, and the suffering. At times it feels like a Christmas special from the makers of Threads.
The film also boasts a turn by Peter Sellers as a terrifying post-apocalyptic cult leader.
Peter Sellers appears in a modern remake of A Christmas Carol penned by the writer of The Twilight Zone and Planet of the Apes seems like a genuine piece of television history, and yet it’s virtually impossible to find today. Since its first broadcast in 1964, the film was only available to view at the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles and the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles, and rare bootleg copies.
In 2012 TCM broadcast it for the first time since its original showing, and has done annually since, and has made it available for limited-time on-demand streaming via TCM.com. But there has never been a home video or DVD release and the film has never been broadcast elsewhere.
So as we go into a recap of the film itself, we’ll issue the standard spoiler warning, but also beware that if you’re waiting to watch it yourself you might have a long search ahead of you.
Three Very Different Ghosts
Watching A Carol for Another Christmas is a strange experience. The film is both frighteningly relevant but also weirdly dated, and extremely of its time. The structure of the story is the one you already know.
Scrooge – here called “Daniel Grudge” – is approached by his nephew, argues with him about Christmas, then is approached by three ghosts bearing the three usual messages, “You weren’t always this way,” “Others are not like you,” and finally “This is what will happen if you continue this way.”
Grudge, a wealthy industrialist, is approached by his nephew, Fred, who is furious because Grudge has put a stop to a foreign academic exchange scheme, and we’re already seeing here where Serling is leaving the source material behind.
Grudge’s sin isn’t mere miserliness. He’s an all-out American isolationist. He wants the foreigners to stay behind their fences while America stays behind its own, and Fred’s argument that America has no choice but to engage in the international community falls on deaf ears.
Grudge’s motive for this is that his son, Marley, is a soldier who has died fighting a war elsewhere (based on the timing we can reasonably guess it’s Vietnam). He’s angry that every 20 years the US gets dragged into a foreign war, and sees the UN and foreign exchange schemes and similar as getting involved in and giving handouts to places where it isn’t America’s business. His ideal is for the USA to stay behind its fence, building faster jets and bigger bombs so that other countries know to leave it alone.
After seeing a brief apparition of Marley, Grudge is transported to a boat, filled with coffins covered in the flags of different nations. The Ghost of Christmas past that introduces himself to us is as the war dead. Not just the American war dead, but an amalgamation of everyone who ever died in a war.
In a line that will have unexpected resonance for modern viewers, Grudge describes the war dead as a “sucker brigade.”
It’s a fascinating but confusing exchange. Serling, through his stories and his words, was openly against the Vietnam War, and yet his proxy, the Ghost of Christmas Past, makes a passionate case for America’s involvement in foreign wars “every twenty years” with a clear nod towards the combat in Vietnam. Ultimately, the Ghost of Christmas Past is arguing for the importance of talking. “When you don’t talk, you fight,” he says.
The most chilling moment comes when the Ghost reminds Grudge of his comment that other countries need to know America “isn’t too chicken to use the bomb,” and points out that they already know it.
The next scene takes Grudge back to his naval service, inspecting a hospital in Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped, and for a piece of 1960s prime-time Christmas viewing, it does not pull its punches. Rod Serling served in the occupational force in Japan and he has no time for sugar-coating this.
A doctor introduces young Grudge to Japanese children who looked up as the bomb detonated and had their faces flash-burned off. The film lingers on these children and refuses to move on until you get a sense of the true horror of Hiroshima. It’s something you can’t picture TV doing today, and definitely not on ABC on the 28th of December.
“Watching Makes all the Difference”
The Ghost of Christmas Present at first seems far more like the one we remember from the Muppets. A man in a dressing gown gorging himself on a banquet. The Ghost of Christmas Present isn’t here to take Grudge on a rooftop flight, however- even with 1960s TV budget permitting.
Instead, the dark background lights up to reveal this banquet table is right next to the barbed wire fence of an internment camp for displaced peoples, another image that is horribly resonant for modern audiences. As Grudge criticises the ghost for eating his feast while starving refugees watch, the Ghost simply responds that the “watching makes all the difference.”
Once again, Serling isn’t here to talk about “the needy” as some vague concept to make people feel better about themselves. He talks about giving people around the world vaccinations for their children, rolls off figures such as 13 million people with tuberculosis, 130 million with malaria, three billion suffering from hunger. He talks about people closing their windows as violent crimes occur in the street- mere months after the murder of Catherine Kitty Genovese, the story which would eventually lead to the codifying of the “Bystander Effect”.
The Ghost of Christmas Past says “You were not always like this,” the “you” is America, the “were not always like this” is (even with Hiroshima) a somewhat rose-tinted view of America’s foreign policy interventions.
The Ghost of Christmas Present says “Others are not like you,” and in this case shows us the suffering around the world and the USA’s responsibility to it.
Anyone who’s seen a version of A Christmas Carol before knows what comes next, and it doesn’t take a Ghost of Christmas Future to guess what the next vision will entail.
Grudge finds himself in his local town hall, a bombed-out wreck. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a far more verbose spirit of Christmas future than we’ve come to expect, points out that in this future people have “less need for a platform for debate.”
One of the things that most jars with a modern audience watching this film, aside from an oddly uncritical perception of America’s role on the world stage, is the film’s constant refrain that “debate” is a good thing. In this film “debate” is what you do instead of fighting, it’s a way to find compromise, to solve problems. It rings very strangely in a time when “debate” is mostly associated with rhetorical games played in bad faith, and the idea we have some sort of duty to listen to and validate even the most toxic ideas.
We learn, unsurprisingly, that when the talking stopped the fighting started, and now the last few humans are living in the radioactive ruins of the civilization that came before.
Then we meet Peter Sellers’ character, the Imperial Me. This is Sellers at his most comic and sinister, dressed up like an 18th-century pilgrim wearing a huge hat with “ME” written on it in giant sequins. Sellers is leading a horde of post-apocalyptic cultists to war against a nearby community that wants to “talk” and “debate.” The Imperial Me takes Grudge’s philosophy to its ultimate extreme, all that anyone should look out for is themselves. The Individual Me is above all, and after this tribe has killed off all the other rival tribes, they will set to killing each other, until the last individual is alone in the perfect society.
I’ve friends who work in the NHS with patients who won’t wear a mask “because it protects you, it doesn’t protect me,” so this scene hasn’t lost any of its bite.
Anyway, you know how the story goes from here. Grudge asks if these are things that will be or things that may be. He wakes up at home on Christmas morning. He reconciles with his nephew, admitting that “no man is an island.”
But one thing this version misses is Grudge doesn’t then go on to eat a fabulous feast with his family. Instead, he takes his morning coffee in the kitchen, while his Black servants work around him (and probably wish he’d sod off back to his study). It’s an oddly sparse ending compared to what we’re used to with our Christmas Carols.
Carols for Other Christmases
At the time this strange, didactic retelling of A Christmas Carol saw mixed reactions. It’s a film that doesn’t mind lecturing its audience, and quite a few reviewers took against it for that. The right-wing advocacy group the John Birch Society particularly took against it, organizing a letter-writing campaign against the film before it was even broadcast.
Is the film preachy? Hell yes. But so is the source material. Where it differs from the source material is that it offers far less comfort, far less of the warmth we see with Fred and Fezziwig and Bob Cratchit, while the threats it warns of are a great deal more severe.
Perhaps it’s a film that is most interesting as an artefact of a particular time and the anxieties it had.
But also it’s an example of the power of Charles Dickens’s story when it’s allowed to be more than a twee festive tradition. It’s a story that should have a sharp political bite as much as warm fuzzy nostalgia. As much as it’s a Christmas story, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, and ghost stories are meant to be scary.