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Is This the Weirdest, Best Christmas Special Ever Made?

'Peace on Earth,' an eerie ode to pacifism starring squirrels, blew my young mind.

Peter Tupper 22 Dec

Peter Tupper is a Vancouver-based journalist. Read his previous Tyee articles here.

One of my strongest childhood memories was a Christmas fable about the extinction of humanity and the birth of a new world.

Back in the early 1980s, many Washington state TV stations broadcast into British Columbia, including the classic Warner Bros. and MGM cartoon shorts. I loved to watch them after school or on Saturday mornings, delighting in their energy and fluid animation, perhaps a little too much; I actually had a few of them memorized at one time.

Some of those cartoons were weird, in hindsight. In those days, they would still broadcast the old cartoons with the racist gags from the 1930s and 1940s. I watched Tom and Jerry put on blackface and dance like minstrels, and Bugs Bunny fought Japanese soldiers resembling buck-toothed, bespectacled ants. Only years later did I really understand what I had seen, an uncanny experience as the context of a memory changes. I was looking into the dreams and fantasies of people back then, before even my parents were born, unfiltered by political correctness.

One of them, an obscure entry in the classic cartoon canon, blew my 10-year-old mind when I saw it one weekday afternoon.

Peace on Earth (1939, directed by Hugh Harman, MGM) begins with a slightly modified version of "Hark! The Herald Angels" sing, juxtaposed with the still, snow covered remnants of machines guns and barbed-wire fences. We track into a village inhabited by familiar anthropomorphic woodland creatures, though there is the disquieting detail that the miniature houses use soldiers' helmets for roofs. An old squirrel walks by three young squirrels singing the Christmas carol. Still singing, the old squirrel enters a helmet-house and wakes up two little squirrel kids with "Good will to men!"

"What are 'men,' Grandpa?" asks a squirrel child.

"There ain't no men in the world no more, sonnies," says the grandfather. That's when I knew this wasn't an ordinary cartoon.

Grandpa squirrel proceeds to tell the harrowing tale of the fall of mankind through war. The scene shifts to a nightmare world of smoke-filled skies and dark mud and ruined buildings, of marching boots and rolling tanks and rows of bayonets, of formations of airplanes against a grey sky. "Men" are monstrous creatures under heavy coats, helmets and gas masks. This is First World War trench warfare writ large, and must have had even more impact on an audience who could still remember the previous conflict.

The wars go on and on, until finally, in this dark, blasted, lifeless wasteland, the last two human beings left stalk each other with bayonets and rifles, their identities obscured by gas masks. One soldier takes aim with his rifle at another and shoots.

Though there's no blood visible, the second soldier convulses in pain and anguish. His last act is to raise his own rifle and shoot back, presumably killing the first shooter. Following orders? Habit? Sheer spite? Regardless, he is mortally wounded, and slumps into the mud, one bare hand reaching up to the sky. With a final death-spasm, the hand sinks into the muck, gone.

Remember, this began with cartoon squirrels singing Christmas carols.

'A mighty good book of rules'

There's a surprisingly long beat of silence, showing an empty, still world in contrast to the preceding violence. Then the music starts up again, and the woodland creatures emerge from the forest and find a ruined church and a Bible. The wise old owl reads from the Ten Commandments, starting with "Thou shalt not kill." The owl comments, "Looks like a mighty good book of rules. But I guess them men didn't pay much attention to it."

The owl also reads, "Ye shall rebuild the old wastes" (Isiah 61:4). Inspired, the animals put on clothes, walk on their hind legs, and build their own civilization in the debris of human war, a town called "Peaceville," which brings us back to the squirrel family. The squirrel kids have gone back to sleep, reassured that the monsters wiped themselves out. Grandpa squirrel goes back to "Peace on Earth, good will," but doesn't add "to men," curiously.

Made in 1939, with the prospect of another bloody war in Europe a near-certainty, this was an impassioned, if confused, statement of pacifism to an American audience. It could not have been made a few years later, when cartoons were decidedly pro-war: Bugs Bunny made Hermann Goring look like Elmer Fudd with a German accent, and Donald Duck showed the horror of life under Nazism. None of them showed this kind of apocalypse.

This strange combination of Ragna Rok and cuteness stayed with me for years, even though I only saw it once. Given the disturbing imagery of the middle part of the story, it isn't surprising that it wasn't shown much.

Part of me already knew that evolution didn't work like that, and I accepted the part about the large-eyed meek inheriting the Earth as poetic license. The cycle of devastation and inheritance did put all other funny animal cartoons and comics in a strange light. Did all those stories really depict a world in which humanity had already annihilated itself? If you dug under Mickey Mouse's house, would you find a mass grave of human skeletons?

What really stuck was the vision of Armageddon, which wasn't so easily dismissed when I was a kid in the early 1980s, when the Cold War was at its chilliest. Educational TV shows like Carl Sagan's Cosmos showed me just how big and complex the universe was, but also how small and fragile our world was too, and that our time on this planet could be terminated by nuclear war. Even worse, a nuclear winter could theoretically end all life on earth, with no squirrels or even cockroaches there to rebuild.

Growing up with the Bomb

If you were a kid growing up in the early 1980s, this sort of idea was in the air. It was a "fact of life," and one even harder to talk about with parents than the traditional ones. When I asked my father about this, he said if it was going to happen, it would have happened already. I appreciated what he said, but it didn't help much.

Some boys I knew obsessed about war, poring over books on guns and the like. The 1980s comics incarnation of GI Joe promised that the soldier team's underground headquarters could survive a nuclear strike, so at least something would survive and presumably rebuild. I read the Diagram Group's Weapons book and studied the map showing the impact of a nuclear warhead on the Pentagon, then transposed that onto my own map of Vancouver. Though there was the usual adolescent male machismo driving this, there was also an attempt to manage this diffuse, helpless fear.

Decades later, as an adult, I looked up Peace on Earth on YouTube, not sure if I had only imagined it. I watched anew the images that had lodged in my mind. While the woodland creature renaissance looked even more twee, the war scenes still had impact.

I also discovered that there was a remake. Good Will to Men (1955, directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbara, MGM) generally follows the same story as the original, though with mice instead of squirrels, and an even stronger Christian theme. The biggest difference is that the human race is exterminated through nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, represented by two explosions spreading over the planet.

Though updated to reflect the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, Good Will doesn't have the same impact on Peace on Earth. The destruction and death of the original, horrifying precisely because it came down to a very personal, physical level, is replaced by an abstract, general destruction. There was nothing comparable to witnessing the last two human beings murder each other.

That's what it came down to, I thought: humans were so flawed that even without nuclear weapons, even without corrupt leaders, we would eventually slaughter ourselves to extinction, one by one, billions of acts of individual violence. All it would take would be one person to stop it, but there was no one. In this vein, science fiction movies like Quatermass and the Pit or the Planet of the Apes series depicted the universe as locked in an endless cycle of genocide, slavery, war and rebuilding. Man, or sentient ape, or scaly-faced H-bomb-worshipping mutant, or even Martian, was damned from creation, I learned. It was a secular form of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, but without a saviour.

Post-apocalypse cartoons

Though even as a child I didn't take the Age of Squirrels literally, those parts of Peace on Earth were integral to the narrative, a necessary redemption. The flip side of my child's response to the threat of annihilation was the vision of what would come after the apocalypse, informed and reflected by cartoons and books and games.

The animated series Thundarr the Barbarian presented a world that came after ours (though because of a natural disaster, not war), yet bursting with life and adventure and cool stuff. Largely designed by the great Jack Kirby, who created the Kamandi: Last Boy on Earth comics series in the 1960s, it featured spectacular images like multiple aircraft carriers lashed together into a gigantic barge that dominates the Eastern Seaboard, or the Statue of Liberty coming to life and stalking the ruined landscape.

As fantastic as Thundarr and its ilk were, at least they presented the idea that if there was an apocalypse, there would be some kind of life afterwards, that the world would be transformed, but not annihilated. I remember the map of North America that came with TSR's absurdist post-apocalypse game Gamma World, with my home renamed as "Kouver," presumably inhabited by giant mutant beavers with laser-eyes or something. From a kid's point of view, that was a kind of comfort.

As I grew older, I gradually weaned myself off these comforting illusions, though there was always the possibility of retreating to them. As I grew up, before the end of the Cold War, I didn't so much resolve this fear as just develop a mental callus over that particular thought; a part of growing up is just learning to not think about certain things.

I don't mean to play the my-generation-had-it-tougher-than-yours game. Kids today face a constant, low-level awareness of the threat of terrorism in the foreground, and the looming threat of global climate change in the background. Yet that's not the same as realizing that, at any moment, a chain of events might begin that could literally end the human race, if not all life on Earth. It's a heavy thing to deal with the idea of total extinction when I was still grappling with the idea of individual mortality. Compounding it was the awareness that the adults around me didn't have any better answers. In English class, we were assigned to read a non-fiction book that dramatized the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, following the paths of several Japanese people on that day, but we were still faced with the fact that those missiles were out there, ready to go at any moment. When faced with a reality of total helplessness for adults as well as children, fantasy takes the edge off.

Little neotenic friends

Peace on Earth was made when the First World War was still in living memory, and only a few months before the second began in Europe. It's possible to read the vision of when squirrels rule the Earth as a hopeful plea that the next generation will look upon the destruction wrought by the present, and do better. Cartoon animals are typically drawn with neotenic features, that is, they bear traits of human infants, with disproportionately large eyes and features compressed into the lower half of the face. They represent both children and the childlike parts of adults.

After the end of the Cold War, Peace on Earth's message is actually more relevant, when warfare occurs on a more individual level, and one person's decision to kill or not can have a huge impact. I'm not sure I'd want my niece and nephew to watch until they were older, but it would be a moment to start talking about the big stuff of morality and mortality.  [Tyee]

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