Friday A/V Club

The Cuddliest Post-Apocalyptic Tale Ever

Friday A/V Club: Christmas in the ruins

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It begins with the silhouettes of soldiers moving against a war-wrecked background, but that lasts for only a few seconds; you might not even notice it if your eyes are drawn instead to the film's title. Then a somewhat more comfortable scene appears: snow falling, the stained glass of a church, a Christmas carol on the soundtrack. Except the church is a ruin, and you can see some barbed wire in the snow, and the camera is soon panning past the wreckage of a tank.

But that surreal setup doesn't last long. A minute into the film, we're watching a warm and friendly village filled with cute anthropomorphic animals. A trio of carolers is singing, and Christmas wreaths are hanging in the windows. Inside one home, a squirrel knits near a cozy fireplace; two children rest happily in a cradle rocking at her knee. The boys' grandfather comes home and they scurry into his arms, wishing him a merry Christmas. "A very merry Christmas!" he agrees. "Peace on Earth, goodwill to men!"

And that prompts the squirrel children to ask: "What are men, Grandpa?"

So begins Hugh Harman's Peace on Earth, an animated short released in theaters a few weeks before Christmas in 1939. It's one of those cartoons that would have played before the feature film began, but this one is a bit darker than the adventures of Porky Pig or Mickey Mouse. Asked what exactly what the "men" in "goodwill to men" are, the grandfather squirrel replies, "There ain't no men in the world no more, sonnies." He chuckles. "Nope. No more men."

Men were "like monsters," he recalls, and now the camera shows us a World War I grunt wearing a gas mask and armed with a bayonet. He tells them about our wars, and especially about the big one that wiped all the people out. He tells them about the last two men left on Earth, and he describes how they killed each other. And he tells about the woodsy creatures who entered the ruins of civilization, building houses from the helmets of dead soldiers, reading a Bible in that bombed-out church and feeling wonder and puzzlement when they came to the words "thou shalt not kill." He remembers an owl remarking, "Looks like a mighty good book of rules, but I guess them men didn't pay much attention to it."

It is the cuddliest post-apocalyptic tale ever, like someone decided to cross Winnie the Pooh with The Day After. And it's kind of great:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. Our last installment was also Christmas-themed; if you want to turn this into a really bizarre double feature, you can check that one out here.)

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  1. Hurrrrrr the human race will destroy itself

    2deep4me

  2. No role for the coyotes, wolves, foxes, raptors, snakes, and other predators? What did the squirrels, mice, and cuddly woodchucks do to eliminate them?

    1. Men were “like monsters,” he recalls, and now the camera shows us a World War I grunt wearing a gas mask and armed with a bayonet.

      “Sacco’s name will live in the hearts of the people and in their gratitude when Katzmann’s and yours bones will be dispersed by time, when your name, his name, your laws, institutions, and your false god are but a dim remembering of a cursed past in which man was wolf to the man.”

      Bartolomeo Vanzetti, shortly before his execution in 1927

      Man is still wolf to the man, but wolves too are still wolves.

    2. No role for the coyotes, wolves, foxes, raptors, snakes, and other predators? What did the squirrels, mice, and cuddly woodchucks do to eliminate them?

      They were presumably eliminated by the same force that allows the cute woodsy creatures to talk and read.

      1. I must have watched this cartoon a dozen times on TV as a kid. It was part of the syndicated packages of Tom & Jerry, Droopy and other MGM cartoons they showed on local stations. Turner’s Channel 17 used to show these (mixed with Warner Brothers, Paramount etc ) long before he aquired the library.

        There’s a 1955 Hanna Barbera remake too.

        It’s a shame kids don’t watch this stuff today.

        1. And when Foghorn Leghorn came on, SIV got a funny feeling down there, and that’s all she wrote.

          1. Foghorn Leghorn had great one-liners:

            “This is going to cause more confusion than a mouse in a burlesque hall”

            “The boy’s like Paul Revere. A little light in the belfry.”

            And many others.

            1. “I say, there’s something about a boy that doesn’t like baseball that’s a little bit…sheeeesh.”

              They couldn’t say that today.

        2. My daughter grew up on Beatrix Potter, where everyone was being eaten, killed or put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.

        3. siv i still tune into T&J on boomerang @midnight once in awhile. never not funny,

    3. >>>snakes

      Riki. Tiki. Tavi.

  3. He remembers an owl remarking, “Looks like a mighty good book of rules, but I guess them men didn’t pay much attention to it.”

    And then the owl crushed the squirrel’s skull with his strong sharp claws and disemboweled the squirrel with his sharp strong beak as the squirrel squirmed and twitched and gasped his last breath.

    1. But that’s just what the owl does to eat, and it doesn’t prey on other owls. I’m sure the squirrels understand that, just as they understand any number of other causes can kill them; it doesn’t give them reason to kill other squirrels.

      1. If the owl and the squirrel are both self-aware, intelligent entities capable of rational thought, it’s pretty damn bad.

        1. The owl thinks like an owl, the squirrel like a squirrel. Can the squirrel help it if the owl thinks it’s delicious? Can the owl help it if it finds the squirrel so? And what else are you going to do when you’re an owl and a squirrel? The movie exaggerates their social lives, they’re not that cultured. Those are just the ones who are good in films, not a random sample.

      2. Imma just gonna leave this here:
        Killer squirrel eats bird

  4. And that prompts the squirrel children to ask: “What are men, Grandpa?”

    Would you say this is a feminist tale?

  5. Notice he didn’t say there weren’t any more women…

    1. With no men around they all weigh 300 lbs and dress like slobs.

  6. I always loved the bank they made out of the old gun breach

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