Unable to come to their senses and to share the soldiers' visionary desire to see the dawn of peace, their respective (clueless) generals take things into their hands and punish the soldiers outright or deport them to bloodier fronts.
The first nine tenths of the movie — which is vying for best foreign film oscar — is as good as a film can be, even if its depiction of the top brass is not as much fake as it is misleading. While it may be true that the officers sipped champagne in the cosiness of heated homes in 1914 while the troops suffered and shed their blood in the freezing trenches, it may not, offhand, have been because the former were unconscionable hypocrites, warmongers unwilling to fight themselves, but because they had done their bit of fighting, suffering, and bleeding in their own day (when they undoubtedly complained about their officers, and so on, back ad infinitum).
Now, you may agree with war or not (war in general or this one, specifically), but older officers not being in the frontlines simply amounts to the fighting being done by a younger generation. Besides, nations wanting to win wars (and their leaders, civilian and military, wanting to be popular) do not do so (and do not remain so) by putting untrained bouffons or cowardly idiots at the head of their armies (which does not mean that one or two don't make it there from time to time).
(Un long dimanche de fiançailles took this a step further, showing "widowed" lovers wreaking personal (and, in the directors' minds, fully justified) vengeance against their loved ones' military officers, killing them in the most sadistic fashion.)
If this officer demonisation had been Joyeux Noël's only fault, it would still have made an entertaining piece of cinema.
That leaves us with the story.
Needless to say, the message is pacifist and at the end, the film turns into an out-and-out propaganda movie (as even Le Monde's Jean-Luc Douin is forced to admit).
Unfortunately, subtlety is hardly integral to the peace movement nowadays, but then, what can you expect, what with the monstrous president in the White House? A British bishop shows up and proceeds to hold a speech for a company of fresh and innocent-faced soldiers newly arrived on the front, who, he wants to make sure, harbor no treasonous sentiments of the pacifist kind.
His eyes flaring, the religious fanatic that the bishop is spits and sputters as he refers to God, to religion, to good and evil, and to the monstrous enemy; from this, he segues naturally into the exhortation to kill. The audience thus accepts that it is wholly natural that a religious man like he should deliver the following "message": Godless Germans should be cut down, every man, woman, and child.
As the credits rolled when I saw Merry Christmas at the Cannes film festival, the audience erupted into applause and Bravos. And why wouldn't they? Doesn't the film show exactly what Bush is all about?
What the film doesn't bother to ask, of course, and what its artists don't bother to think about, and what its cheering audiences don't bother to ponder is how the film would work if it were transposed to… World War II.
They have a vision of peace, and the armies stop fighting?
Leaving Hitler's Gestapo and Japan's occupation administration to continue their depradations in Eastern Europe and on the Asian mainland? Dictatorship. Terror. Murder. Mass murder. Genocide. All with impunity.
War is often referred to as murder and insanity. But soldiers, no matter how weak they are and no matter how strong an enemy they face, have weapons and, to a certain extent, can defend themselves and have a chance of surviving beyond the mere will of an all-powerful opponent.
Unarmed civilians and prisoners of conscience in dictatorships have none and cannot.
They had none and couldn't under Hitler, and they had none and could not, more recently, under Saddam Hussein.