in Criterion Month

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

For a second, while watching Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I thought we were heading back to Breaker Morant and military legal drama territory. However, it’s just one of the opening scenes that takes place at a military tribunal, while the rest of the film concerns the events leading up to that tribunal. Still, it does sound like it’s in similar territory as this other recently reviewed film, as it also depicts what happens to men on different sides of a war when influenced by their own allegiances and the muddy morals of wartime, and it even shares an actor in Jack Thompson.

The year is 1942 and Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto) is in charge of a POW camp where mostly British soldiers are being kept on the island of Java, which was then occupied by Japan. Acting as a liaison between the Japanese and British soldiers is Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti), who is both fluent in Japanese and has enough of an understanding of Japanese culture to not completely treat his captors with disdain. Things become more than a little complicated when a soldier whom Lawrence knows as having a reputation for being a born leader, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), arrives at the camp. Yonoi starts to develop a kind of fascination with Celliers, though isn’t afraid to punish him, especially when he sneaks in some food after Yonoi has decided to starve the prisoners for their conduct.

Things escalate from there when one of Yonoi’s servants tries to kill Celliers in his sleep and Celliers narrowly escapes, though it ends him up in solitary confinement where Mr. Lawrence is also being held. Celliers then tells Lawrence about his guilt over not protecting his younger brother from being bullied when he was younger, which we see in flashback. Then the more loose-cannon Japanese officer Hara (Takeshi Kitano) lets Lawrence and Celleirs out because it’s Christmas and he’s also very drunk. A little while later, the British commander in charge of the POWs, Hicksley (Jack Thompson), confronts Yonoi, since it appears that Yonoi wants to replace him with Celliers. With this, Yonoi is about to execute Hicksley in front of the entire camp, but Celleirs then interrupts and kisses Yonoi on the cheeks, which results in Celleirs being buried from the neck up, seemingly left to die.

I’m not sure that this was necessarily the best place to start with director Nagisa Ōshima, since the controversial In The Realm of The Senses seems to be the film that most defined his career. But I suppose I was a bit hesitant as to what I would be getting into with that film, while Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has the intrigue of its cult favorite score and the presence of The Thin White Duke in a more serious role. I would say on both those fronts, the film does not disappoint, as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is pretty fantastic and along with Chariots of Fire two years prior seemed to establish the idea that the synthesizer was so synonymous with ’80s film scores that you could even tastefully integrate it into period pieces. Also, the fact that Sakamoto co-stars in the film in addition to providing the score makes it all the more impressive, even if his performance sometimes falls a little short in communicating the melancholy longing that the score embodies.

Additionally, this is probably the best performance I’ve seen from David Bowie in a movie? I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve seen some of his other films, but I just really like that they plugged him into a time period that feels very far removed from his ’70s heyday, and yet he still radiates that kind of rock star charisma. It honestly makes me sad that he didn’t star in more movies, since he clearly has that movie star quality here, though it’s a little silly to knock the guy for not doing enough movies since its hard to think of another famous person who was more things to more people than Bowie was.

As for the rest of the film, I’m not sure that it quite does enough to separate itself from the surprising amount of POW camp movies that were made in the second half of the 20th century. That said, it does have a unique dynamic in that you just don’t see many World War II movies in which the contrasts between the British and Japanese are explored. The movie gets at an interesting thesis early on, where two of the characters (I believe it’s Lawrence and Hara) are talking about how the very idea of even being a POW is shameful to the Japanese because they aren’t afraid to die in the name of their country. However, the Brits see it differently, as there’s nothing wrong with surviving a POW camp in the hopes of getting out there and fighting the enemy another day.

While there’s plenty to like in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I don’t think I quite connected with it as much as some of the other movies I’ve reviewed this month, though that may just be a product of slight burn-out. In his review, Roger Ebert seemed a little apprehensive about the film due to the clashing styles of British and Japanese acting on display, which I can kind of see, since I’m not sure the relationships between these characters gel quite as much as they need to in order to hit the film’s emotional high points. Still, there is something interesting about seeing a Japanese director grapple with a story in which the Japanese are the less sympathetic side as well as his decision to pit two rock stars from these warring countries against each other. It’s just a little disappointing that they didn’t do a song together over the end credits.