Stephen Arnell

Peace on Earth? 10 films about Christmas on the front line

  • From Spectator Life
Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead [Alamy]

Christmas may ostensibly be a time of goodwill to all men, but war rarely takes a break for the festive season – as events in Ukraine sadly demonstrate. Here are ten films set during Yuletide where the front line is front and centre:

Castle Keep (1968) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Sydney Pollack’s (Three Days of the Condor) Castle Keep is set during the Germans’ failed Ardennes offensive of December 1944 and stars Burt Lancaster as one-eyed US Major Abraham Falconer. But if from that description you expect a meat-and-potatoes world war two actioner, think again. The picture is an elliptical, surreal mediation on art, war, mortality and time, with Falconer’s battered group assigned to defend a Belgian chateau stuffed with priceless art against the Germans, while the impotent Count of Maldorais (veteran French actor and real-life war hero Jean-Pierre Aumont) conspires to protect his collection and beget an heir by hooking up the major with his wife (Astrid Heeren). Shot in glorious baroque technicolour by Henri Decaë (Le Cercle Rouge), and with a suitably modish score by the late Michel Legrand, Castle Keep has gradually achieved cult status over the years. If you prefer a more traditional view of the Ardennenoffensive, you may opt for 1965’s The Battle of the Bulge, a Boy’s Own take on events starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Robert Shaw.

Jarhead (2005) – Amazon Rent/Buy

US marine Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir provided the basis for Sam Mendes’s (1917) film set during Operation Desert Shield/Operation Desert Storm of the first Gulf War (1990–1991). Jake Gyllenhaal’s bored marine sniper Swofford causes mayhem when he organises an impromptu Christmas party with unauthorised booze, never a clever idea when there are crates of live ammunition in the vicinity. Although a relative box-office failure, Jarhead spawned a slew of direct-to-video sequels. As with many of the director’s middlebrow efforts, Jarhead is distinctly under-powered when compared to the likes of David O.

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