Issue 12: Article—Festive Fact-Based Films

Each issue, RSL offers up that perennial internet favourite: the themed list. As this is our last issue before Santa makes his annual rounds, we decided to get in the festive mood and offer up a few fact-based films that feature Christmas…

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Lion WinterWhat’s the story? The film is set during Christmas, 1183 as an aging King Henry II plans a reunion to name a successor to the throne. Cue lots of conniving, scheming and the occasional sword fight. Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole head up the cast of this weighty historical drama, which was directed by Anthony Harvey and adapted for the screen by James Goldman, from his play of the same name.

This is fiction, but based on characters from history, so just sneaks in to the ‘fact-based’ category. The film picked up three Oscars (including for Goldman’s writing and Hepburn’s performance) and was nominated for four more. For Oscar buffs, it’s interesting to note Hepburn tied for the Best Actress award with…any ideas?…yep, that’t right, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (which is, of course, also a fact-based film).

The Impossible (2012)

ImpossibleWhat’s the story? *Spoilers* A family heads off to Thailand to spend Christmas in exotic climes, only to get caught up in the devastating 2004 tsunami. J.A. Bayona directed Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, from a script by Sergio G. Sánchez and a story by Watts’ real life counterpart, María Belón. The family on which the story is based were present during the shooting, which partly took place at the actual resort where the real life events unfolded and featured survivors as extras.

Critics praised the performances and powerfully-told story. However, the film did attract criticism for ‘whitewashing’ the story by making its characters less ‘ethnic’ (the real family are Spanish) and for singling out one triumphant story of survival amid all the death and destruction the tsunami caused.

Joyeux Noël (2005)

Joy NoelWhat’s the story? Set during World War One, this tells of the unauthorised and unofficial 1914 Christmas truce that was declared on the Western Front. The pause in bloody fighting led to soldiers from different sides getting together for some peace and goodwill – although this did not extend to the superior officers. Daniel Brühl, Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann and Guillaume Canet feature in the film, which was written and directed by Christian Carion.

Inspired by the book, Batailles de Flandres et d’Artois 1914-1919 by Yves Buffetaut, the film was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The screenplay also inspired an opera, 2011’s Silent Night.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Greatest storyWhat’s the story? The life of Jesus Christ, told on an epic scale. Max von Sydow leads a ‘night sky’ of a supporting cast (i.e. full of stars!), which  famously features Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. It was directed by George Stevens (with uncredited scenes by David Lean and Jean Negulesco). It was based on Fulton Oursler’s book and Henry Denker’s source writings, with a script by James Lee Barrett and George Stevens.

Not surprisingly, this is a perennial favourite on the Christmas TV schedules. Whether or not you classify it as a ‘fact-based’ based film, it’s still worth a look simply for the scale of the production and the scope of the story, which unfolds over a nearly four-hour running time.

29th Street (1991)

29th stWhat’s the story? We finally arrive at some feel good Christmas whimsy! Supposedly based on the true story of Frank Pesce, the first person to win the New York Lottery, this tells of an unlucky father with Mob debts and his lucky – and suddenly extremely rich – son. Will the father give up his son’s lottery ticket to pay off his debts..? Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia play father and son. The film was written and directed by George Gallo, from a story by the real Frank Pesce and James Franciscus.

This is something of an underrated cult classic and a film that rarely (if ever) enjoys a festive airing outside the US.

The Legend of Silent Night (1968)

Legend Silent NightWhat’s the story? In 1810, Austrian pastor, Josef Mohr, wrote a poem and the local church organist, Franz Gruber, added some music to create one the best loved Christmas Carols. At the time, many attributed the musical work to famous composer, Josef Haydn, but the real originators eventually received their due credit.

OK, technically speaking, this is a TV show (and a rare one at that) – but it does star James Mason and features narration by Kirk Douglas. It’s based on a 13-minute short from 1953, Silent Night: The Story of the Christmas Carol.

Issue 13 of RSL is out on 28 December.