The consumer splurge that is Christmas is upon us again. For most people – most Europeans anyway – the festival has no religious significance. It’s simply marked for its original purpose predating Christianity: a time of celebrating the winter solstice, the turning of the year, in a spirit of eat, drink, generally overindulge and be merry. And it’s a time for family-get-togetherness and Peace and Goodwill to all Men. That’s great. Fine. I’m all for that.
As for the commercial tackiness of it all: well, that’s a matter of taste. Each to their own. It’s also of course the season of lavish, expensively produced TV commercials by the big retail chains, to part us from our money. This year there seems to be a battle going on (not that I’m really interested) between two of the big British players in particular: Sainsbury’s and John Lewis.
Sainsbury’s WW1-themed inducement – sorry, advertisement – is undoubtedly an excellent production in technical, albeit visually ‘clean’ terms (immaculately clean uniforms, pristine soldiers’ faces and so on). And if it was a film, not an advert, it would have a certain haunting quality. It was clearly eye-wateringly expensive to make.
And it was obviously designed to have great emotional impact. Which is what I object to. That, and the idea of using such a subject at all.
Is that ghastly stain on European history, like all wars the ultimate obscenity, a valid subject for what is, let’s face it, simply a marketing exercise for the Festival of Excess? It goes without saying that, for all Sainsbury’s pious intent to donate all profits from the schmaltzy ‘period’ chocolate bar featured in the film to the British Legion, the underlying object is to boost their flagging sales. That’s what commercial advertising is for, after all. There’s no nobler motive. One can imagine some little marketing smartarse suggesting gleefully, ‘Hey Guys, let’s get a bit more mileage out of the Great War commemorations before they end. Shake the patriotism tree some more. It’s bound to bring in loads of lucre.’
So poignant scenes of young, fresh-faced, British and German soldiers shaking hands and exchanging names and a gift, and the opposing forces singing Silent Night before having a jolly, boisterous football game, are intended quite simply to generate sales of turkey and tinsel.
No attempt is made to portray the nightmare reality of that war: the violent death, appalling injury, blood, spilled guts, misery, fear; the squalor of faeces and mud, rats feasting on torn-away limbs. Of, as dignified old Harry Patch described it: the legalised murder.
But then of course, and quite rightly, they couldn’t do that. They wouldn’t be fitting subjects for the Season of Goodwill. And not suitable for family viewing. So what Sainsbury’s offers is a sanitised, bloodless, heroic, patriotic, completely atypical snapshot, a single instance of heart-warming humanity amidst the carnage (the following day it was back to slaughtering each other, and it never happened again) purporting to offer a ‘message’ about Christmas being a time of giving; a mawkish vignette with the sole intention of selling groceries.
It is a ludicrous and inappropriate illustration of the concept of giving, if ever there was one. Those of us with the ability to think for ourselves will not be deflected by a crass advertisement like this from our revulsion at the horror and stupidity of war.
This film is a cynical, exploitative, tasteless, emotions-manipulating, sales-boosting stunt. As another writer has said: it makes the hideously ugly and cruel beautiful. Shame on you, Sainsbury’s. Stick to honest materialism. I’ll take my shopping custom elsewhere.
Here is the full, unexpurgated version of the song The Green Fields Of France, not the antiwar sentiment-expunged abbreviation performed at the Festival of Remembrance.