The Little Drummer Boy (1968) is a Beautiful Work of Art

The Little Drummer Boy (1968) is one of five VHS tapes I grew up with from the “Family Home Entertainment” series. They seem to have brought a lot of Christmas specials to home video, from Hello Kitty to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though my parents stuck to their Rankin/Bass collection. I saw Drummer Boy every year until I was maybe 13 and then almost never again. Even as a kid, it was never a favorite of mine, and if I had to guess at why not, it’s probably because the story was too depressing in a time of year where I just wanted to be happy and look forward to presents. This special is more “Christian Nativity” than “Secular Santa” and I always resented religion growing up. At that age, Christianity was just a series of meaningless, unpleasant rituals that my mom would force on me with no rational explanation, so I learned to dislike everything associated with it. I’m referring to: sitting through boring church services (with a monsignor who turned out to be a pedophile) reciting arcane dogma, going to Sunday school to be taught ancient myths as though they were factual for two hours at a time, having to arbitrarily give up things I enjoyed for Lent and watch seasonally appropriate religious media every year. How could any kid appreciate Christianity when it’s just another excuse for mom to boss you around and make you feel ungrateful for not enjoying its tedious observances?

To get to the point, this year I saw Drummer Boy again on a whim, since it came up on YouTube’s recommendations around the holidays. (For all the site’s faults, their algorithm has rarely steered me wrong before, so I figured “why not?”) As my readers should know, I’ve recently rediscovered my spirituality as well, albeit in a Gnostic flavor, which means that watching religious media no longer feels like I’m submitting to my parents’ will, nor chasing society’s validation. Drummer Boy and Jesus of Nazareth (its Easter equivalent my mom would force me to watch at Lent) are no longer authoritarian obligations anymore, they’re works of art I can reestablish a connection with on my own terms. Needless to say I did, and because Drummer Boy doesn’t seem to have inspired much discussion online, at least compared to its peers in the Christmas Special pantheon, I wanted to say a few words on its behalf.

Anyway, consider this a spoiler warning, because after scrolling beyond this point, I will carry on with the assumption that you are familiar with the story. This is your last chance to watch a 54 year old Christmas special!

A Half-Lost Film

At first I sought out the best quality upload I could find, but immediately I knew something was missing–the drum! Alas, when the time came to do a full restoration for the Blu-ray, it was discovered that the 35mm master print had gone missing from the vaults. In its place they had to rely on an inferior 16mm copy, with missing soundtrack. This means all audio of the drumming is now lost, as are a few other sound effects and a crucial piece of dialogue from the narrator. (Instead, they had to “fly in” vocals from a scratch track by a completely different male voice, supposedly Jose Ferrer, which is nothing short of immersion breaking.) Needless to say, it’s pretty jarring to see our protagonist, Aaron, playing the titular instrument with no sound coming out, especially when I’ve memorized the script from childhood and know exactly when there’s a beat missing every time it happens. This may not sound like a big deal to some, but it is, especially when I’m aware of what the film is supposed to be. It just feels unfinished now, and while some purists may scoff at the idea, I wish the restoration team would’ve improvised with flying in new audio effects in the absence of the master print.

While the new “restored” version looks…fine…with noticeable grain and somewhat muted colors to my eyes, I consider these omissions to be unworthy of the tradeoff for slightly better image quality. That’s why, for me, the definitive cut is still the standard definition release from the ’90s I grew up with, which is just inexcusable at 30 years later. While Drummer Boy may be just a “silly” stop-motion Christmas special to many, it’s devastating to think that such crucial artifacts for a beloved piece of TV history could go missing within the last 50 odd years. Besides the occasional Nickelodeon oddity, I never expected something I grew up with–and a major network release that’s still aired yearly–to become a piece of “half-lost media,” but I suppose nothing should surprise me at this point. I can’t say it enough, visual media is far more fragile than most laymen realize and not even the classics are safe. The continued existence of ANYTHING can not be taken as a given, so you should always hold on to physical media and back up your tapes/hard-drives as often as is feasible. The studios don’t take care of this stuff, which means its up to us fans and amateur film historians.

A Gritty Coming of Age Story, in an Impossibly Brutal Time

Besides the religious overtones, Drummer Boy is probably best remembered today as “the time Rankin/Bass got dark.” This turned me off as a kid, but needless to say I appreciate the balls it took to tell this story a lot more now. This one has it all: we open with a kidnapping, move on to a “murdered parents” backstory, then there’s forced servitude, angry mobs, theft and reckless endangerment from a careless driver. It’s a genuinely scary world for our young hero and he’s so helpless against the selfish designs of wicked men around him, almost like Disney’s Pinocchio, another favorite of mine. Yet, to its eternal credit, Drummer Boy never feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy. This is a lesson which a lot of modern media could stand to learn from, such as the post-2005 DC movies, Crimes of Grindlewald and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to name just a few. Not one element of this story, which in lesser hands would be reviled as joyless misery porn, feels gratuitous or out of place. Ben Haramed provides just enough levity in the first act (another lesson for modern media–comic relief isn’t a bad thing) and the hopeful sight of the Nativity Star at the 13:00 mark reminds us there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.

The other factor which prevents Drummer Boy from descending into dreaded “grimdark” territory is that it’s historically accurate to how brutal life could be for the average person in the Iron Age. It’s easy for us in the modern first world to forget, but ancient civilizations were a very unfair, terrifying place. I study Roman-Carthaginian history for fun and sometimes I’m blown away upon reading just how depressing it could really be. There were few social programs as we understand them today: no police, hospitals, CPS or public schools (flawed as they all may be). There was your family, maybe friends/clan and the nebulous concept of hospitium to rely on. If you were traveling even the main roads, or just out after dark, you could be overpowered and sold into slavery with no way to prove your status after the fact. (It’s not like there were government IDs or bureaucratic databases to prevent such miscarriages of justice). To be a woman or child was to live at the mercy of men, and even men had to watch their backs away from major population centers unless they had sufficient backup. Large crowds of people were unpredictable and dangerous. Even the powerful elites often feared the mobs, for better or worse. There was little recourse if you were wronged, and nothing but the tender whims of strangers if you were destitute.

The Little Drummer Boy centers on one such unfortunate child, who’s lost all but the clothes on his back, a drum and some animal friends thanks to a bandit raid on his family farm. I never gave this backstory much thought before, but now as an adult who adores children, the thought of one alone and desolate sincerely moves me. Like, I see how adults treat even their relatives’ or friends’ children with open condescension at best, outright disdain at worst sometimes and it’s not unrealistic for me to imagine a world where no one helps this poor orphan. The special doesn’t dwell on it, but who knows how long Aaron traversed the dunes before the story begins, what he’s been reduced to in order to survive, or how he manages to subsist in the wilderness. Anyway, this weary setting puts the film right at home amongst the Biblical stories and ancient myths it’s paying homage to. That element of “man’s inhumanity to man” is prominent in the Passion of Jesus, the plight of those he preached to, his Old Testament forebears and it’s something I tried hard to emulate with The Acts of Mary.

Of course it all serves a narrative purpose when Jesus arrives to soften mens’ hearts and show us the way to be kind, but we should never forget that the drummer boy’s backstory could and did happen in real life. The only kernel of implausibility is the idea that Aaron, apparently well-known to the likes of Ben Haramed and Ali from the first, hasn’t yet been sold into slavery or robbed of his animals by men far worse than our antagonists. But, of course, certain suspensions of disbelief have to be taken in any story and based on his appearance in the flashback it does not seem as though Aaron’s been wandering the desert for too long. It’s not implausible to imagine him scrounging by for a few weeks or even a few months on his musical performances, petty theft and odd jobs before rumors began spreading among the populace about the local oddity. (And once that happened, it’d just be a matter of time for someone bigger and stronger to take advantage of his vulnerability, as Ben Haramed does.)

Notice the lack of drumming sounds in the opening to the track, from where our hero emerges through the crowd to where he begins to sing. This omission completely destroys the buildup to the number, in my opinion. However, it should be noted that you can’t hear his drumming during the song proper even in the original version. I think Rankin/Bass were somewhat constrained by having to use a drum as the instrument for our protagonist, since it can’t carry a melody alone like, say, a fiddle, piano or lyre could.

Characters Who Are Haunting Even in Their Brevity

I don’t think it’s possible to dislike Aaron, even despite his bitterness, considering his age and simple desire to go his own way. I find the character infinitely relatable in his messy response to such formative hardship; I’ve hated other people for years and sometimes it’s hard not to fall into such thought patterns even now. My parents mutilated my genitals at birth, I had friends abandon me for coming out, others ditched me for minute political differences, I’ve been bullied, I see piles of trash right next to a perfectly good bin every time I go outside, the system is designed to milk us dry and the list goes on. I suspect many people have felt the same way towards others at least sometimes, though they’re socially conditioned never to say so aloud. (Seriously, try expressing your hurt and resentment towards other people without having listeners shame you for your feelings, tell you to get over it, victim blame or just say “go to therapy.”) It’s pretty soul-crushing to be a lost boy in a world that still, even post-Jesus and post-civil services, has such little regard for the hardships of other men. This special has a lot of guts giving its protagonist a backstory and disposition that’s traditionally reserved for antagonists, and I can’t think of too many other stories that do the same thing without writing an outright antihero. (Which I don’t believe Aaron is, considering his youth and selfless intent to just be alone.)

If there’s one weakness with the character (performed by Ted Eccles) it’s in the flashback scene where Aaron is living happily with his parents. Even as a kid, my sister and I would always make fun of his stiff line delivery there. The rest of the time he’s solid; I really felt the anger in his voice when he yells at the mob, his joy at finding Joshua again and my heart broke when he begged the kings to save his injured lamb. I’ll also admit that functionally, Aaron is one-dimensional: the victim of heartbreak and the carrier of hate for Jesus to inevitably mend with love. (At the end of the day this is still just a 22 minute religious special about God bringing light into a beleaguered world, after all.) What sells it is more the idea of having to watch an innocent child get taken advantage of time and again, falling into discouragement, yet not being able to do something about it. We want to reach through the screen and protect this poor kid (at least I do) and I believe that’s meant to put us in God’s shoes. Where, if you believe in that sort of thing, He just finally had to reach down and take matters into His own hands because He was sick of seeing innocent people done wrong for no reason.

Notice that Aaron only has one song of his own in the entire runtime, and despite the conventional wisdom of musicals it is not an “I want” song. It’s arguably not even an “I am” song, though I do think he’s indirectly revealing his true feelings, albeit wearing an artificial expression to please the crowd. “Why Can’t the Animals Smile?” is perhaps the only time we see Aaron offering any commentary on himself or the world around him in a script where he’s largely helpless and reactive to the injustices inflicted upon him. It’s both his most and least genuine moment in the entire film, defending the natural state of things NOT to smile despite the expectation of humans to do so, thereby implying that the smilers are the true misfits. Aaron, so jaded at this point in life, has come to perceive the act of smiling itself as inherently insincere, even maliciously deceiving. In his mind, the world is so cruel that the only reason to smile would be to conceal one’s evil intentions or revel in them after the fact. To him, it’s a performative, fake gesture used to fit in with people who are inherently unworthy of such efforts. (And haven’t we all felt the same way about arbitrary social conventions at some point in our lives–especially in our youth?)

Moreover, “Why Can’t the Animals Smile,” to me is the perfect microcosm of what it’s like to live in the so-called “civilized” world. You had a bad day, a bad life, mountains of trauma to sort through? Oh well, go pretend to enjoy your soul-crushing customer service job. (And if you don’t push the company credit card or impulse items with enough mock enthusiasm, the undercover boss with seemingly nothing better to do, despite making literally 500x your salary, will denigrate, humiliate and then fire you!) You feel miserable and have no earthly reason to be happy about the state of our dying world? Shut up and take these pills, stop bringing people down with your depressing observations, talk to a paid psychiatrist! (‘Cause that’s all so easy and not expensive or time-consuming to do, and exorbitant counseling wouldn’t even need to exist if our social networks weren’t totally gutted nor our society so fundamentally broken.) Just wear this fake smile and pretend to be happy so your lousy parents can pretend they didn’t scar you for life; stop being inconvenient and dance for your supper, you stupid performing monkey! Nobody cares about your problems, they force me to contemplate how shitty the society we built really is. Gotta make money, gotta turn your beloved hobby into a draining “side hustle,” gotta kiss ass on LinkedIn, gotta “network” with strangers you don’t even like who would gladly sell you out to get ahead themselves. That’s the plight of the domesticated man in a nutshell, and this special only had so little screentime to get it across, but they absolutely nailed it. (A perfect example of economical storytelling, which is yet another lesson modern media could learn from with their abundance of bloated 2.5-3 hour features these days.)

We, as human beings trying to take away a lesson here, ought to consider that the true test of men is to rise above our hatred, justified as it is, and extend kindness to others like Aaron in the absence of God. Also, I’d argue that the renewal of life that is the baby, whether it be divine or not, represents the promise of a fresh start someday. With each generation there is a chance at a world free from the resentment and bias of our forebears, slow though that progress may be. It all starts with someone taking a stand and saying “No, I won’t exploit others for material gain or cut my son’s dick just because it happened to me. I’m not my elders and their inter-generational trauma is not my legacy to fulfill. I choose to be different, I choose to be better.”

Although brief, and despite the fact that there’s never a question of Aaron reaching the kings again, the sequence where he chases the star is genuinely moving. The song is absolutely gorgeous and I love the way he says “The kings were following that star; if we follow it, we are sure to catch up with them!” It’s the first time Aaron shows any hope or earnestness in the entire special. There’s nothing like this in the vastly overrated Rudolf or Frosty, that’s for damn sure.

The real scene-stealer though has got to be Ben Haramed, played by Jose Ferrer. He strikes a rare balance between love-to-hate and strangely likable. This comes from a combination of the writing and Ferrer’s charismatic performance. Haramed’s just so self-important in the way he carries himself, strolling along the desert with his nose upturned like he owns the place, dancing around like a bird in flight despite his heft. Then his grandiose entry in Jerusalem, convinced everyone will love his mediocre troupe, blaring horns and barking orders. I like how he addresses the crowd as “fellow taxpayers” as if trying to ingratiate himself to them by doing the bare minimum as a (non-Roman) citizen. He hates other people as much as Aaron but masks it in smiles and flattery, which is exactly the hypocrisy Aaron chooses to condemn in his song. I like how he tries desperately to keep up enthusiasm even as his players botch their respective acts. His reactions to Ali’s failed juggling routine and the disgruntled “Philistine!” upon receiving a half-eaten apple from the crowd always made me laugh as a kid. I even like the detail at around the 10:47 mark, where he stops biting his lower lip in relief once Aaron takes the stage, recognizing the kid’s talent.

It’s just hard to hate someone who’s so obviously down on his luck yet so good at putting on a jovial front about it. Ben Haramed is like the Falstaff of the Rankin/Bass canon, a lovable trickster who’s fun to be around despite himself. Even though he kidnaps a child, forces him into performative servitude and sells his beloved camel, I also can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. I choose to believe Ben when he says “do you think I love people? What a world it would be without people,” and even more so when he tells the kings “I’ve had a hard life.” I think of him as someone who’s suffered similar heartbreaks as Aaron throughout life but never shed his cynicism, so he’s become “a wily old jackal” adapting to the harshness of the world around him by being harsh in turn. He represents the kind of person Aaron could’ve become had he not learned to love again, someone whose desperate need to scrounge and save as a peasant grew into a single-minded greed with time, perpetuating the cycle of trauma onto others. He is never punished for his actions in the story, but we can assume that without Aaron in his show caravan, life will amount to little more than failure and always chasing the next minor payday without any real joy. It’s almost like just existing as someone as miserable and single-minded as Ben Haramed is punishment enough.

Like Aaron, Ben Haramed only gets one song in the movie (“When the Goose is Flying High“) and ironically it could be considered an “I want” song usually reserved for protagonists. (It’s a bit of both I’d say, but I’m not an expert on the conventions of musicals.) Like Aaron’s, it uses the imagery of animals to illustrate the nature of the singer. Unlike Aaron, he refers to himself directly throughout its lyrics. What’s interesting here is that Ben Haramed freely admits that on good days with fair weather and favorable omens, he’s gleeful at the opportunity to be his true self: obsessed with money, full of mischief and envious of the rich. It’s when the goose is flying low that he feels restrained and must abide by lawful expectations (for some reason). Normally you’d think a villain trying to justify himself to someone would phrase things in the opposite way, as if to say “I have to take extreme measures because I’m down on my luck.” Yet Ben seems to revel in his selfishness and considers that his true calling. I’m still not sure how the song was supposed to convince Aaron to go with the caravan as opposed to a simple lecture about the need to obtain money so he (Aaron) can survive in the desert alone…but that’s musical logic for you.

I say the lesson we can take from Haramed’s character is that we should be wary of how our struggles might rob us of nobler qualities with time. (IE don’t become a villain in someone else’s story just because there have been villains in yours.) We have to be mindful of how our actions impact others and set a better example than the one our elders set for us, even if it’s not fair or easy. Also, I think his character is meant to embody the maxim that “hurt people hurt people” as opposed to, say, the wealthy elites. (That’s not the case in real life, since the rich destroy the planet, profit from conflict and take our children to Epstein island, but it seems to be the ethos of the special itself.) Notice how kind Gaspar and to a lesser extent the other kings are in comparison to Ben; they traveled great distance to pay homage to someone worthier than themselves, comforted Aaron, presumably let him take his camel back and I like to believe they became his caretakers after the events of the film concluded. (I know there’s an official sequel where Aaron joins Melchior but it sucks, just like most of the Rankin/Bass shorts unfortunately do. Plus they got the model and voice for Aaron all wrong and so, I don’t consider it canon. Sorry guys, but you should’ve stopped milking that Christmas carol cow after the dozenth outing, because it got old real fast.)

Ironically, the only song I don’t enjoy is the title track. I also couldn’t help but feel like, from a narrative standpoint, it would’ve been more meaningful if he had to give up the drum as a present to save Baba. Regardless, where I used to read this ending literally and consider it cheesy (you do a nice thing for God, you get a freebie) I now see it as symbolic. Baba’s a lamb, Jesus is the Shepherd, love and acts of kindness shall grant the lambs of the world life everlasting. It’s a good ending despite the song, and one of three genuinely great Rankin/Bass cartoons.

1 Comment

  1. Well written Review, Cassandra. I never saw the depth in this story before we watched it together. Everything becomes more special when I do it with you. You did a good analisis of the characters and plot. I now appreciate this story more than I ever did before.

    Liked by 1 person

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