Ebenezer (1998)

For those of you who weren't reading last year, well... first of all, welcome to the party, pal! But second and more germane to the topic, I spent a comically large portion of 2022 watching and reviewing roughly fifty adaptations of A Christmas Carol, presumably making me one of the world's foremost masochists on the subject. This was still just a drop in the bucket as far as the breadth of TV and film versions of the story are concerned, but I managed to check off virtually every adaptation on my list.


There were a couple that slipped through the cracks. The most notable of which is an elusive 1940s version from Spain that's probably going to be one of those "white whales" I obsess over for decades. But after that, there was Ebenezer, a version starring Jack Palance, with the setting moved from London to the American West. This was an extremely late addition to my list - because the title differs from the usual pattern, it hadn't initially caught my attention, and by the time I realized what it was, I was pretty much done with the season. But a new year is a new opportunity and all that.

Before we dive into this, I want to acknowledge I'm not entirely certain I'm affixing the right year to this in the title. Most online sources say this was released in 1998, but I'm skeptical for a couple reasons. First, the date at the end of the movie's credits is 1997. It's not uncommon for theatrically released movies to have different copyright and release dates, but TV movies tend to come out relatively soon after they're made. 

On top of that, the Wikipedia article specified it had its US television premiere in 1998, but says nothing about its Canadian release. The movie was made by a Canadian production company and explicitly set in that nation, so I find it a little unlikely its initial premiere was on US television. If anyone knows anything, please let me know in the comments.

Let's move on to the actual movie. Before anyone gets too excited at the prospect of a western retelling of A Christmas Carol starring a legendary Hollywood actor, I want to reiterate that this is a TV movie from the late '90s, so adjust your expectations accordingly. There's quite a lot to appreciate in this, but taken as a whole, it doesn't quite rise up to the level of "good." And I haven't even gotten to the problematic stuff yet....

As I did last year, I'm assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the basic outline of A Christmas Carol, so I'm going to focus on aspects where the plot differs from the original and which traditional elements it incorporates. In some ways, this is a less radical transformation of the plot than you might expect - it retains the basic outline, most of the character names (though there are several adjustments, such as changing "Marley" to "Marlowe"), and quite a few moments. That said, the theme of the story is a little different, though that's true of many US adaptations. In a sense, this is more an adaptation of Hollywood versions than of the book directly.

That means Scrooge starts out pretty villainous. Here, he's a needlessly cruel criminal who takes what he wants without consideration for the law or anything else. As a reminder, the original Ebenezer Scrooge was a fairly typical man of business, despite the added color of the narrator's descriptions. He was never depicted as committing any crimes or cheating anyone out of anything he lacked a legal right to. He was, essentially, what we'd call a fairly typical libertarian whose sins were of callousness.

In contrast, we see Palance's Scrooge cheat at cards to swindle someone out of their savings, land, and even their horse. We also learn he cheated his former partner's daughter out of the saloon he won in a game of cards (almost certainly by cheating). He also fires Cratchitt, after his assistant accidentally discovers Scrooge is a cheat (which doesn't make much sense, as keeping him him on the payroll would probably be a better way to ensure he stays quiet). As the movie continues, we learn he began his career by stealing from his former employer, Fezziwig, and through other similarly dishonest methods.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let's talk about the Ghost of Christmas Past, because I promised something problematic. For those of you lucky enough to have been born later, '90s movies tended to view racism through a fairly simplistic lens that rarely aged well. There are certainly exceptions, but the way this movie scripts the spirit as an indigenous woman isn't one of them.

To the movie's credit, the actress playing the ghost (Michelle Thrush) is Cree. The problem concerns the writing, not the casting. Without even touching on the movie's Pocahontas joke, the character's mystical nature contributes to tropes in which minorities are treated as otherworldly. It's very uncomfortable to watch - I really wish they'd cast her in a different role.

At any rate, she takes Scrooge to see his past and focuses on showing him moments he'd forgotten and aspects he'd missed. The movie has Scrooge start out in boarding school, as in the original, with the odd twist that he loved the experience and resented his father for pulling him out (a decision, he learns, was due to his family being unable to afford tuition). The whole sequence has weird "stay in school" undertones.

In another odd twist, this version of Scrooge actually got married. His wife, here named Rebecca rather than Belle, leaves him and runs off with a Canadian Mountie, which the movie implies is the origin of his issues with his nephew, who's in the same profession. As is the Ghost of Christmas Present, actually, though before we get to that we catch up with the movie's B-plot...

Remember that guy who Scrooge cheated at a game of cards at the beginning? He's engaged to Marlowe's daughter, and the two of them break into Scrooge's saloon to find proof he'd been cheating at cards. They get the evidence they were looking for easily enough, but for whatever reason decide to confront him at his house instead of just telling everyone or something.

By this point, Scrooge is drunk and confused as to whether the first spirit was a dream or not. Also, he thinks the two people shouting at him are possibly the second and third spirits, so he doesn't exactly deny the allegations. The interaction wraps up with him agreeing to a showdown, scheduled the next day at (sigh) high noon. Also, I should add the guy he's supposed to duel is nearsighted, so the odds are kind of in his favor.

The aforementioned mountie-spirit shows up and takes Scrooge on his normal rounds. I should mention it's somewhat ambiguously implied to literally be the spirit of the man who ran off with Scrooge's wife, though it's unclear whether that's literal or figurative. At any rate, they visit the Cratchitts, as well as Fred's party (here technically a Christmas pageant). These sequences are more or less in line with other versions, with the caveat they're set on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day.

That's because the future Scrooge sees largely concerns the next day and his duel, which his alternate self handily wins. Scrooge is horrified by the whole thing, in particular in the callousness he sees in himself. He tries shouting to everyone present to stop the duel, attempts to plead with both the man he's facing and even himself, but of course no one can hear him. When it's time for the opponents to draw, Scrooge reaches for his own gun and fires at himself, but of course this accomplishes nothing. The man he'd cheated drops dead, and he watches the alternate version of himself celebrate the victory.

It's short-lived, however, as he argues with Marlowe's daughter, who reveals they uncovered the truth. He offers her money, but all she wants is to hear him admit his crimes, which he does before threatening her. After she storms off, he trips, hits his head, and dies alone.

Next, Scrooge is taken a year into the future to see Tiny Tim's funeral, which bothers him far more than his own death. He pleads with the robed spirit to let him change his fate and demands an answer. All he gets is a glimpse of the spirit's face - the face of his father.

I think. Honestly, it's kind of quick, and his hair's different, so I wouldn't swear to that, but I think it's what they were going for.

Regardless, Scrooge wakes on Christmas to the sound of his name being called - it's time for that duel! He tries to de-escalate the situation, but his opponent calls him a coward, so he jots something down in a letter and heads out. But rather than draw, he allows the young man to fire and miss with his one bullet. Scrooge then approaches, apologizes, and returns what he took. He also gives Marlowe's daughter her dad's saloon, so she can quit her job as a waitress at the local brothel. He then heads over to the Cratchitts' and makes everything right there. And stops by his brother's Christmas pageant, plays the part of Father Christmas, and reprises a song he sung as a child.

Did I mention this technically might count as a musical? I mean, only at a stretch - it's just the one song, along with a handful of partial choral bits from side characters, and the songs are essentially diegetic (though there's added music), but there's still some singing. And the combination of the Father Christmas bit and the song feel like a callback to the 1970 musical. Though there are also elements that feel closer to the 1938 MGM version, particularly the firing of Cratchitt.

Regardless, it's an odd take, and not just for the reasons evident in the premise. Tonally, this version leans towards comedy at times it probably shouldn't. The visitation from Marlowe's ghost, for example, is played mostly for laughs. The sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is quite a bit more serious (and easily the best part of the movie), and even that's more a drama than anything else.

The western tropes are heavy-handed and obvious, but - honestly - if you're doing a western version of A Christmas Carol, that's probably the best approach. Better overstated than under, since it would otherwise feel like pointless.

My larger issue with the setting is admittedly a bit of a nitpick and entirely subjective. Part of what appealed to me about the premise was the idea of retaining the time of the original while moving it to a different continent. Only, based on what I could gather from clues on screen, this was set near the end of the 1800's, rather than the 1840's. The movie establishes Scrooge moved west as a young man, and further that he does so during a gold rush (presumably the one in the 1850's). Given that Palance is roughly five decades older than the actor playing him as a twenty-five year old, it serves to reason this must be set sometime after 1870.

Again, there's nothing objectively wrong with this, but it feels like a missed opportunity to do something particularly interesting with the idea.

I'm actually less bothered than usual with the shift from having Scrooge portrayed as a generic bad guy, rather than a more grounded businessman. It sacrifices the point of the original, but the shift in setting makes it harder to fault. The West, after all, is a big part of the mythology surrounding libertarian ideals. I might not think highly of those ideals, but I have to admit the themes at least line up with the premise.

At the start, I promised there was stuff to like here, so here goes. First and foremost, Palance delivers a solid performance. That shouldn't be a huge surprise to anyone familiar with his work, but it's worth acknowledging. He lends the character and movie a great deal of gravitas, which forgives a lot of its shortcomings.

On top of that, well... it's pretty fun throughout. The absurd premise makes for an enjoyable time, so long as you can overlook the low production values and bad decisions typical of TV movies. Some of the visual effects are awful, but the sets and costumes are pretty good, too.

None of that adds up to a full recommendation unless you're a huge fan of the lead or genre. It's enjoyable enough for what it is, but the limitations keep it from becoming anything special. That said, it's certainly interesting, which counts for quite a lot. If you're curious enough to track it down, you probably won't be bored.