Serbian “Great Retreat” Begins

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 210th installment in the series.  

November 17-24, 1915: Serbian “Great Retreat” Begins

By the second half of November 1915 Serbia was staring annihilation in the face: on November 16 the victorious Bulgarians captured the town of Prilep and the Babuna Pass, opening the way to Monastir in southwestern Serbia (now Macedonia). On November 20 the French relief force, cut off from the Serbs by the Bulgarian conquest of the Vardar River Valley and its strategic railroad, began withdrawing to their base at the Greek port of Salonika, while to the north the Austro-Hungarians conquered the territory known as Novibazar (which was, in a convoluted way, one of the main causes of First World War). 

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There was no question about Serbia’s fate now. But rather than accept defeat the Serbian government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pasic, made the heroic decision to abandon their homeland and fight on from exile. From the beginning they knew this plan would mean death for many thousands of soldiers and civilians. As the armies of the Central Powers closed in from the north and east, the only possible avenue of escape lay to the southwest, over the towering Korab and Prokletije mountain ranges of Albania, both part of the Dinaric Alps (below, part of the Korab range). 

The “Great Retreat” (not to be confused with the Russian Great Retreat earlier in 1915) would take the remnants of the Serbian Army, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, across some of the roughest terrain in Europe in the middle of winter (“Prokletije” translates as “Accursed Mountains” in Serbian; image below). They set out on this journey, challenging under the best of circumstances, with no more than a week’s rations and insufficient cold weather gear. Pack animals struggled to climb mountainsides turned to trackless wastes by several feet of snow, and what little shelter there was belonged to hostile Albanian villagers, who robbed and killed stragglers (perhaps in retribution for Serbian brutality in the First Balkan War).

No surprise, then, that the Great Retreat is still remembered as one of Serbia’s worst ordeals, as around 70,000 soldiers and 140,000 civilians froze, starved to death, died of disease or were killed by bandits between November 1915 and February 1916. Out of around 400,000 people who set out on the journey, just 130,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilian refugees arrived at the Adriatic coast to be evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu. 

By late November the weather was already turning against them, with autumn rains turning primitive roads into expanses of mud, followed not long after by snow. The British war correspondent Gordon Gordon-Smith described the miserable conditions as Serbian troops retreated from the town of Mitrovica in the middle of the night: 

By the light of the guttering lantern swinging above the door of our café, I could see company after company, squadron after squadron, and battery after battery pouring past. Hour after hour the steady “tramp, tramp” of thousands of feet echoed in the narrow streets. It was four o’clock in the morning when the last battery rumbled through, the roll of the wheels drowning the soft patter of the oxen drawing the guns. And then it began to rain, and such rain!... It came down in sheets, it came down in buckets, it rained ramrods. The gutters in the centre of the streets became rushing torrents, while Niagaras poured from all the overhanging eaves. 

Even before they reached the mountains, freezing weather was taking its toll on the starving animals, according to Gordon-Smith, who witnessed the final passage over the famous Kosovo Polje, or Field of Blackbirds, from November 20-25: 

As far as the eye could reach, the snow-covered plain of Kossovo extended on every side. Every feature of the landscape was blotted out by a shroud of snow feet deep. Over this, long lines of snow-clad figures could be seen moving, the columns extending for miles… By this time the wind had fallen, and the curious silence which accompanies heavy snow reigned everywhere. In every direction were the ghostly columns plodding in single file over fields and long roads. On all sides were dead horses and oxen, singly and in heaps, half buried in snow, with swarms of carrion crows whirling and croaking overhead. 

Olive Aldridge, a British nurse following the same route, remembered passing the first corpses by the roadside, as well as the suffering of prisoners of war even worse off than their captors: 

A few hours after leaving Prishtina and within a few miles distance of each other, five men were stretched out stiff and lifeless across our path. Nobody took any notice of them: all passed by, just stepping over or round the dead bodies. The driver of my ox waggon caught my glance as we passed the second man, but the only comment he made was “Niye dobro” (not good)… One saw, too, many hungry Austrians… Many of them were literally starving. They would come to us with clasped hands begging for bread, but we had nothing to give them. It was terrible, for in many cases we knew that within the next few days they would be dead, and would never see their homes or their country again. 

On November 23, as Pristina and Mitrovica fell to the Central Powers and the Serbian government abandoned Prizrend, its last temporary capital in Serbia, the defeated Serbian Army split into four columns and headed west into the mountains of Albania and Montenegro. Their only hope was reaching the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where Allied ships would rescue them from the Albanian ports of San Giovanni di Medua, Durazzo, and Valona. 

The army’s rock-bottom morale was boosted somewhat by the presence of the ailing, 71-year-old King Peter, who had stepped aside in June 1914 to let his son Prince Alexander rule as Regent but now resumed his throne to face the crisis with his people. The elderly monarch, who was almost blind, traveled through the mountains riding in an ox cart (below). 

In the snow-covered mountains, hunger, exposure and disease killed Serbian soldiers and civilians, as well as POWs traveling with them, by the thousands. Donovan Young, a British junior officer attached to the Serbian Army, recalled: 

We awoke one morning to the fact that snow lay from three to four feet on the ground… Day and night we were exposed to the full blast of the blinding sleet and cold… Our rations became increasingly short, and very soon we were faced with hardships which was impossible to contend with. Men went down in dozens from frostbite. It was a common event to see a man suddenly fall into the snow, frozen stiff and insensible, or a man half lying, half kneeling at the entrance of the hole he had scraped for himself, quite unconscious. 

Similarly, Gordon-Smith described the horrifying scenes that greeted refugees following in the footsteps of the retreating columns: 

Up and up we went, thousands and thousands of feet. Every few hundred yards we came on bodies of men frozen or starved to death. At one point there were four in a heap. They were convicts from Prisrend penitentiary, who had been sent in chains across the mountains. They had been shot either for insubordination or because they were unable to proceed. Two other nearly naked bodies were evidently those of Serbian soldiers murdered by Albanians. 

Despite everything, like some other observers and participants in the war, Gordon-Smith was still able to recognize transcendent beauty in the midst of horror, highlighting the insignificance of humanity in the face of nature:

By midday we reached the summit of the mountain, a wind-swept plateau several thousand feet above the level of the sea. For fifty miles extended range upon range of snow-clad mountains, the crests of which had never been trodden by the foot of man. Nothing could be seen but an endless series of peaks, glittering like diamonds in the brilliant sunshine. The scene was one of undescribable grandeur and desolation.

But these moments of beauty were fleeting, while the scenes of suffering became ever more frequent and shocking:

After traversing the plateau we began the descent, skirting the edges of precipices of enormous height and traversing narrow gorges running between towering walls of black basalt. Every few hundred yards we would come on corpses of Serbian soldiers, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. One man had evidently gone to sleep beside a wretched fire he had been able to light. The heat of it had melted the snow, and the water had flowed over his feet. In the night during his sleep this had frozen and his feet were imprisoned in a solid block of ice. When I reached him he was still breathing. From time to time he moved feebly as if trying to free his feet from their icy covering. We were powerless to aid him, he was so far gone that nothing could have saved him. 

Britain Implements “Derby Scheme” with Threat of Conscription 

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Britain was unique among the Great Powers in having an all-volunteer professional army that was much smaller than the conscription-based forces maintained by the continental states – reflecting the centuries of security afforded by Britain’s “Splendid Isolation,” behind the protective barrier of the Channel. 

By autumn 1915 the traditional system was under attack, however, as the war’s vast manpower requirements quickly outstripped Britain’s tiny army. The British Army that went to war in July 1914 had been virtually wiped out by the end of that year, much of it at the desperate First Battle of Ypres; and while hundreds of thousands of patriotic young Britons enlisted voluntarily to form Secretary of War Lord Kitchener’s “New Army” in 1914-1915, grievous casualties at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert, and above all Gallipoli and Loos had once again cut wide swathes in the ranks. 

Indeed, Britain was rapidly catching up with the other belligerents in terms of both military strength and casualties, although huge discrepancies remained. By November 1915 Britain had mobilized 94 divisions and sustained well over half a million casualties, including around 150,000 dead (with over 100,000 of these on the Western Front), over 60,000 taken prisoner, and 340,000 wounded. For comparison, by November 1915 France had mobilized 117 divisions and suffered around two and a quarter million casualties, including roughly 680,000 dead, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 1.5 million wounded (may of the wounded returned to duty and sustained multiple wounds, so they are counted twice). 

On the other side the Central Powers, led by Germany, were doing their utmost to mobilize untapped manpower as well, relying almost entirely on conscription. Bulgaria’s entry into the war in October 1915 immediately added twelve divisions, and millions of new recruits inducted by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in 1915 would allow them to begin fielding dozens of new divisions beginning in early 1916. 

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At the same time, after a promising start in 1914 and the first half of 1915 Britain’s own voluntary recruitment efforts were lagging, as the first burst of patriotism wore off and horror stories from the front filtered back via letters, news accounts and men on leave (as the aftermath of Loos showed, there was only so much censors and propaganda could do to cover up the truth). 

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This was especially ominous because, looking ahead, Lord Kitchener estimated Britain would need at least another million men to carry on the war in 1916, as France was fast approaching its maximum strength and Russia (though still able to draw on massive reserves of manpower in the long run) was temporarily out of the game following huge losses in the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive of mid-1915. In short, disaster was looming if British recruiting continued to fall short. 

This was the background to the “Derby Scheme,” a last-ditch attempt to fill the ranks through voluntary recruiting alone – although “voluntary” proved to be a relative term. The scheme was named for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who was appointed Director-General of Recruiting on October 5, and oversaw a national program whose goal was to strongly encourage eligible men to enlist, using every means short of compulsion, including social pressure and public shaming. 

The Derby Scheme built on earlier efforts to come to grips with the manpower problem. In August 1915 a small army of 40,000 census takers had surveyed the population and drawn up a registry of around 5.1 million men of military age in England and Wales. Of these, it was determined that 1.5 million were in “reserved” occupations in some way essential to the war effort. Another quarter were assumed to be probably unfit due to physical or mental shortcomings. That left somewhere between 2.7 and three million men of military age who qualified for military service but had not yet enlisted. 

Public Shaming

Beginning October 16, Derby’s office sent forms to every household in England, Wales, and Scotland, encouraging all men ages 19-41 to either join the army immediately, or make an official declaration of their willingness to join at a later date if needed. In order to “persuade” young men to embrace their patriotic duty, the Scheme employed a range of high-profile tactics including posters, banners, flag ceremonies, parades, announcements before and after music hall performances, and newspaper editorials. 

Beyond that, in each town and village it also relied on local notables, friends and family members – especially women and children – to cajole and if necessary shame young men into signing up. Men who had signed up, declared their willingness to do so, or received exemption because they were in war essential industries received a khaki armband to wear in public (below); everyone else was fair game, and “shirkers” were liable to be given a white feather by women in a public place, signifying cowardice. 

It would be hard to exaggerate the intense feeling in all the belligerent nations around the subject of “shirkers” or “slackers.” In August 1915 Private Robert Lord Crawford, serving as a medical orderly on the Western Front, wrote in his diary: 

Talking with men back from leave. They all seem to have had words with slackers they met everywhere at home. I observe the growth of resentment against this desertion of us – I hear threats of what should and will be done after the war, and I doubt not that, though many would forgive, there are some who will carry their threats into effect… The excuse that the country doesn’t realise the situation can no longer be pleaded, unless indeed we acknowledge ourselves to be a nation of idiots. 

Meanwhile John Ayscough, a Catholic chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force in France, wrote to his mother, complaining that “there are two or three millions in Great Britain who could and should come, but they stick at home, and let married men and only sons and widows’ sons come. Lots of the wounded we get here are quite old fellows.”

Even worse, foreign troops couldn’t fail to notice the reluctance of some young British men, heightening public embarrassment among the proud English. Yusuf Khan, an Indian soldier, wrote a letter home in October 1915 that combined contempt with a bit of inaccurate rumor-mongering: 

The news here is that the white men have refused to enlist… An Indian black man went off to preach to them. He asked them if they were not ashamed to see us come from India to help the King while they, who were of the same race, were refusing to help him. But really, the way these whites are behaving is a scandal. Those who have already enlisted have mutinied. 

Again, these attitudes were evident across Europe. In his play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus includes a scene in which “The Grumbler” dismisses a naïve statement by “The Optimist” asserting that young men in Vienna were eager to go to the front. Thanks in part to the rickety public telephone system, “The Grumbler” gets to listen to the plans of draft dodgers taking advantage of official corruption to stay out of the trenches: 

I don’t get around much. But my phone is on a party line… Ever since the outbreak of the war, which has in no way improved the national telephone service, the conversations concern yet another problem, and every single day, whenever I am called to the telephone to listen to other people talk to each other, which is at least ten times every day, I hear conversations such as these: “Gus went up and got things fixed.” “And how is Rudi doing?” “Rudi went up, too, and he also got things fixed.”…

It’s worth noting that these attitudes, while common, weren’t universal; a strong current of pacifism, especially among socialists, positively discouraged military service. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, was on sentry duty in the Baltic port of Memel as 1915 drew to a close, and recalled one occasion when:

… a lad aged about seventeen came along and chatted with me. He wanted to volunteer to join the army. I advised him not to and described life on the Front to him in a way that made his hair stand on end. “No, if it’s like that, I would rather wait until I am called up.” “Even then it will be too early,” I said. He thanked me and went away. I had the feeling that I had done a good deed. 

In the same vein, in his novel and memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque bitterly criticized schoolteachers like the unflattering character Kantorek, who pressured their students into joining the army early: 

There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best – in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly. For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future… The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more human wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces… We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through. 

It was apparently a common occurrence for teachers to shame students into joining up before they were conscripted. In Arnold Zweig’s novel Young Woman of 1914, the character David Wahl noted the activity of one particularly disliked teacher, “The Bedbug”: 

“The fact is,” he went on, “no one can hold out any more at school. The masters treat a fellow with open contempt. There are now only eight left in the Lower Sixth, all the others have given in… The Bedbug honored them with a funeral oration, which contained sundry hidden threats and allusions to certain football players and swimmers who would do well to take a lesson from those departing.” 

Many young people privately lamented the unfairness of a situation in which old men declared war but young men had to do the actual fighting and dying. The English diarist Vera Brittain later recalled: “The war, we decided, came hardest of all upon us who were young. The middle-aged and old had know their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled.” Similarly in April 1915 a German soldier, Wilhelm Wolter, wrote in a letter home:

People are always saying that it is easier for the young men to face death than for the older ones, the fathers of families and others. I hardly think so, for such a man knows – at least, if he has been conscious of any mission in life – that he has at any rate partially fulfilled it, and that he will survive in his works, of whatever kind they are, and in his children. It can’t be so hard for him to die in a just cause.

The Derby Scheme Fails 

In Britain the Derby Scheme soon ran into some difficulties. Most importantly, it was widely assumed that single men without families would be the first to be called up, but married men (and their wives) wanted guarantees they wouldn’t have to go until all the available single men had enlisted. On November 2, Prime Minister Asquith made a vague statement to that effect in Parliament, but the lack of specifics only generated more confusion and anxiety. Above all, married men wanted to know, what would happen if not enough single men volunteered? The answer would inevitably involve conscription. 

On November 19, 1915, Lord Derby wrote a letter to Asquith to clarify the terms under which married men promised to join the military. According to the press bureau which publicized the letter and Asquith’s response (see poster below), the prime minister confirmed his statement on November 2, promising: 

Married men will not be called upon for war service before young unmarried men. If the latter do not offer themselves in adequate numbers, voluntarily, the married men who have offered as recruits will be released from any pledge, and a bill will introduced compelling young men to serve. If this Bill should not pass, the married men will be automatically released. Mr. Asquith, in his reply, says the letter correctly expressed the Government’s intention. 

In short, it was up to Britain’s male citizens whether the country would retain its tradition of voluntary military service or be forced to resort to conscription; either way, however, young men were going to join the army. Also on November 19, Lord Derby extended the deadline for men to declare and be attested from November 30 to December 11, 1915; this marked the beginning of the final phase of the Derby Scheme, with the threat of conscription hanging over the country if voluntary enlistment failed. 

Fail it did, as many expected (including Lord Derby, in private). From October to December, the Derby Scheme produced 215,000 direct enlistments in the military. Furthermore, out of 2.2 million single men of military age, only 840,000 declared themselves willing to serve if necessary – and over 200,000 of these were in “reserved” occupations (which might explain their willingness to volunteer, since they were much less likely to actually be called up) while another 220,000 were rejected as unfit. Meanwhile over a million unmarried men had not made any declaration or openly refused to enlist, of whom 650,000 were not in reserved occupations; in other words, the men most liable to service had (unsurprisingly) stayed away. 

Now there was no way around the issue: on December 14, 1915 a Cabinet committee began considering how to implement compulsory conscription, and on December 20, Lord Curzon and Leo Amery began drafting a bill to introduce to Parliament in the New Year. One of Britain’s proudest traditions was about to become a casualty of war. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

25 Surprising Facts About Love Actually

Bill Nighy stars in Love Actually (2003).
Bill Nighy stars in Love Actually (2003).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Though it’s officially classified as a romantic comedy, Love Actually—Richard Curtis’s intertwining tale of love and loss in London in the midst of the Christmas season—has become a staple of holiday movie marathons everywhere. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the hit 2003 film.

1. Love Actually‘s airport footage was shot with hidden cameras.

Footage of passengers being welcomed and embraced by loved ones at Heathrow Airport was shot on location with hidden cameras for a week. In the film’s DVD commentary, writer-director Richard Curtis explains that when something special was caught on camera, a crew member would race out to have its subjects sign a waiver so the moment might be included in Love Actually. This was a fitting production device, as Curtis claims that watching the love expressed at the arrival gate of LAX is what inspired him to write the ensemble romance in the first place.

2. Four plot lines were cut from Love Actually.

Curtis initially aimed to include 14 love stories in the film. Two were clipped in the scripting phase, but two were shot and cut in post. Those lost before production involved a girl with a wheelchair, and one about a boy who records a love song for a classmate who ultimately hooks up with his drummer. Shot but cut for time was a brief aside featuring an African couple supporting each other during a famine, and another storyline that followed home a school headmistress, revealing her long-time commitment to her lesbian partner.

3. A fifth of Love Actually is commonly cut from television broadcasts.

Martin Freeman in ‘Love Actually’ (2003)
Universal Studios

It might be of little surprise that the raciest element of this holiday movie rarely makes it on TV. The love story of John and Judy has Martin Freeman and Joanna Page playing a pair of stand-ins on an erotic drama. Their scenes have the pair mimicking sex acts, but even as simulations of simulated sex, their storyline is usually deemed too hot for TV.

4. Martine McCutcheon’s role in Love Actually was penned just for her.

Curtis wrote his screenplay with some stars in mind, including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and McCutcheon, the charismatic English ingénue best known for her role on BBC drama EastEnders. So sure was Curtis that he wanted McCutcheon for the role of the love interest to the Prime Minister that he had the character’s name as "Martine" in early drafts. Curtis explained in the DVD commentary that the name was changed to "Natalie" before McCutcheon’s audition, "so she wouldn’t get cocky."

5. Richard Curtis sent request letters to his American talent.

Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, and Denise Richards received letters asking them to consider a role in the film. Both actresses were impressed by the unconventional move, but Linney told The Daily Beast she was even more flattered by its contents.

"I got a letter in the mail from Richard Curtis saying that he’d been trying to cast this part, and he’d kept saying to his partner, Emma Freud, that he’d been looking for a ‘Laura Linney-type,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you ask Laura Linney?’"

6. Bill Nighy didn’t realize he had auditioned for Love Actually.

Bill Nighy in ‘Love Actually’
Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures

This was the first collaboration between Nighy and Curtis, with the former playing the shameless, comeback-seeking rocker Billy Mack. On the film’s 10-year anniversary, Nighy recalled to The Daily Beast, "I did a rehearsal reading of the script as a favor to the great casting director, Mary Selway, who had been trying to get me into a film for a long time. I thought it was simply to help her hear the script aloud and to my genuine surprise I was given the job."

7. Love Actually‘s actors had their own trailer park village during production.

"We didn’t all film together, but we had a big trailer park for all the cast," Nighy told The Guardian. "There were so many famous people in there, we used to talk about being on Liam Neeson Way or Emma Thompson Road or Hugh Grant Avenue. And it was a masterpiece of diplomacy, too; we all had the same size and type of trailer." Linney remembered the place having a warm sense of community.

8. One scene from Love Actually was lifted directly from Four Weddings And A Funeral.

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, also penned by Curtis, there was a scene where Hugh Grant’s character Charles flirts with a woman at a wedding by mocking the terrible catering, only to discover that she is the caterer. The scene was cut from the 1994 film, but was reshot nearly a decade later with Kris Marshall acting out the flirtatious faux pas. In the commentary track, Curtis admits that some drafts of the Love Actually script still had Charles’s name on portions of the scene.

9. The late Joanna was played by a real-life Richard Curtis crush.

In the commentary, Curtis also confessed his affection and admiration for writer-director Rebecca Frayn and how it led to a heartbreaking scene in Love Actually. She’s uncredited in the film because she never has a scene to perform. But when Curtis needed images to create a slideshow of Sam’s beloved mum/Daniel’s departed wife, he turned to Frayn, asking for "all the prettiest pictures of her from her whole life." In real-life, Frayn is married to Oscar-nominated Scottish producer Andy Harries.

10. Emma Thompson shot her crying scene 12 times.

Arguably the saddest moment in Love Actually is when Thompson’s character realizes her husband has been unfaithful. In the privacy of their bedroom, she listens to Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now" and weeps.

"We decided to do it like how Mike Newell did it in Four Weddings—I shot in medium-wide, and didn’t move the camera," Curtis recalled. "We just let it happen, and Emma walked into the room 12 times in a row and sobbed. It was an amazing feat of acting." He also noted this was the only scene she was asked to perform that day.

11. Hugh Grant did not want to dance.

Though Grant and Curtis had worked together on Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, they had a deep disagreement on how the Prime Minister should be played. Grant wanted it to be a grounded performance and resented Curtis’s push to make the part more whimsical. This came to a head when shooting Grant’s dance number, which the actor refused to rehearse.

"He kept on putting it off, and he didn’t like the song—it was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it—so he was hugely unhappy about it," Curtis explained. "We didn’t shoot it until the final day and it went so well that when we edited it, it had gone too well, and he was singing along with the words!" It was a tricky thing to cut, but the final result with Girls Aloud’s cover of “Jump (For My Love)” speaks for itself.

12. Tony Blair found it impossible to live up to Hugh Grant’s fictional prime minister.

In 2005, when facing criticism for his dealings with the United States, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by saying, "I know there’s a bit of us that would like me to do a Hugh Grant in Love Actually and tell America where to get off. But the difference between a good film and real life is that in real life there’s the next day, the next year, the next lifetime to contemplate the ruinous consequences of easy applause."

13. It took 45 minutes to pick out Aurelia’s underwear.

When the loose pages of Jamie’s (Colin Firth) in-progress novel blow into a nearby lake, Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) is quick to strip down and dive in to rescue them. But in the DVD commentary, Curtis admits that what she wore beneath her cozy sweater was a major matter of debate that involved a lengthy meeting with his producers and 20 different sets of bras and panties to be considered.

14. Simon Pegg auditioned for Love Actually.

Before he broke out with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg was best known for his work on the British sitcom Spaced. It was in this stage of his career that he was eyed for the role of Rufus, the jewelry salesman in Love Actually. However, Curtis ended up casting Rowan Atkinson, who was not only a bigger star but a longtime friend from their college days; the two had previously worked together on Four Weddings and A Funeral, Mr. Bean, and Black Adder.

15. Rowan Atkinson’s character was meant to be an angel.

Rather than just an overenthusiastic gift wrapper with a good Samaritan streak at the airport, Atkinson’s Rufus was initially written as a heavenly helper in disguise. A scene was even shot were he’d evaporate after helping Sam get past security at Heathrow. "But in the end," Curtis said in commentary, "the film turned out so sort of multiplicitous that the idea of introducing an extra layer of supernatural beings was (too much)."

16. Sarah’s apartment is based on Helen Fielding’s.

When Sarah (Laura Linney) takes her office crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) back to her flat, a crane shot reveals that her bedroom is perched above the first floor, with a half-wall serving as a sort of balcony. In the DVD commentary track, Curtis mentioned this layout was poached from the Bridget Jones’s Diary author’s home. To him, it seemed a charming staging place for this tender seduction scene.

17. Test audiences spurred a change to the ending of Sarah’s story.

Curtis originally intended for Sarah and Karl’s love story to fizzle out after the phone call from her brother. However, when Love Actually was screened to test audiences, the feedback begged for a clearer resolution. So Curtis provided it, creating an extra scene in reshoots that made it unmistakable that Sarah and Karl would not end up together. "Be careful what you wish for," he warned on the DVD commentary.

18. Andrew Lincoln hand-wrote those romantic signs.


Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures

In 2013, The Walking Dead star reminisced about his climactic gesture in Love Actually with Entertainment Weekly, and revealed, "It is my handwriting! It’s funny, because the art department did it, and then I said, ‘Well, can I do it?’ because I like to think that my handwriting is really good. Actually, it ended up with me having to sort of trace over the art department’s, so it is my handwriting, but with a sort of pencil stencil underneath."

19. The American bar scene included some improv.


Peter Mountain, Universal Studios

Regarding the scene where three American girls (Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones, and Ivana Milicevic) flirt with Kris Marshall, Cuthbert told VH1, "It was such a creative space and we were allowed to improvise and try different things and it wasn’t just completely set into Richard’s writing. I mean we were allowed to sort of venture … It was nice that we got to sort of play around.”

Curtis remembers it differently, noting in the commentary track that the Brits were "respectful" with his script, but these Americans wanted to "pep it up a bit."

20. Bernard is a running joke based on a real man.

Every film Curtis writes contains a "Bernard," and he’s always the butt of a joke. In Love Actually, he’s the son of Thompson’s character who is described as "horrid." This all dates back to a love triangle that didn’t turn in Curtis’s favor. Bernard was the name of a young man who won the heart of Curtis’s crush Anne, and so he will forever be lampooned. In real life, Bernard is a successful politician, namely Bernard Jenkin, Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex since 2010.

21. Olivia Olson’s performance of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was too good—which was problematic.

Over 200 girls auditioned for the part of Joanna, the talent show star that young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) falls hard for. But with pipes that blew away the casting director, Olivia Olson blew the competition away. In the commentary track, Curtis notes that Olson sang the song "All I Want For Christmas Is You" so flawlessly that he feared it sounded manufactured. He had sound editors cut in breaths to the performance to make it more believable.

22. Sam and Joanna reunited in 2008.

Child stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Olivia Olson were utterly adorable together as drum-playing Sam and his grade school crush Joanna. But Love Actually wasn’t the end of the pair’s onscreen romance. They were reunited in 2008 when Olson joined the voice cast of the Disney Channel cartoon show Phineas and Ferb. While Brodie-Sangster lends his voice to the oft-silent Ferb, Olson often sings as Ferb’s crush, the sleek and cool Vanessa Doofenshmirtz.

23. The movie has already been remade—three times!

The central concept of a movie packed with stars and intertwining love stories has been translated into a trio of films. The first is the Indian offering A Tribute To Love, an unofficial remake in the Hindi language. Next, Poland took a turn with Letters to St. Nicolas. The most recent version is Japan’s It All Began When I Met You, which borrows the concept as well as the film’s poster layout.

24. Love Actually got a sequel (of sorts) in 2017.

In March 2017, in celebration of Red Nose Day, Curtis and several members of the original cast—including Grant, Knightley, Firth, Neeson, Nighy, Lincoln, and Atkinson—reprised their characters for a short film, Red Nose Day Actually, that caught viewers up on what the characters are doing today.

"I would never have dreamt of writing a sequel to Love Actually, but I thought it might be fun to do 10 minutes to see what everyone is now up to," Curtis said when the project was announced. "Who has aged best?—I guess that’s the big question ... or is it so obviously Liam?" The short debuted in the U.K. on March 24, 2017, but American audiences had to wait until May 25, 2017 to see what happened to their favorite characters. (Here’s a cheat sheet.)

25. Alan Rickman’s death prevented Emma Thompson from appearing in the sequel.

Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in Love Actually (2003)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it was announced that Curtis would be revisiting some of the Love Actually characters for a short sequel, he knew right away that out of respect for Alan Rickman—who passed away in early 2016—he did not want to revisit Emma Thompson’s character.

"Richard wrote to me and said, ‘Darling we can’t write anything for you because of Alan,’ and I said, ‘No of course, it would be sad, too sad,’" Thompson explained. "It’s too soon. It’s absolutely right because it’s supposed to be for Comic Relief, but there isn’t much comic relief in the loss of our dear friend really only just over a year ago."

But the 2003 film wasn’t the end of the story for Thompson and Rickman’s characters. In 2015, Curtis’s longtime partner Emma Freud live tweeted some details of what happened to the couple after the credits rolled. The short version? "They stay together but home isn’t as happy as it once was," according to Freud.

8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

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