Watch David Bowie Resist Japan in ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’
The surreal, forgotten classic explores love and defiance in a prisoner of war camp
He waits to find out if he will die.
Guards pull him from the cell and drag him in front of a commander sitting behind a desk. The bloated man rises from his seat and moves to the prisoner. He taps the prisoner on the back of his neck with his fingers and laughs.
“Can you guess what I’m thinking?” the commander asks.
“Yes, I think so,” the prisoner says. “Can you?” He turns and stares at the commander with his anisocoria scarred eyes. The commander punches him in the face and he falls to the ground. The guards kick and beat him.
His captors pick him up and drag him to another building where his execution awaits. A huge log runs the length of the building. Shackes dangle from it. It’ll hold the prisoner in place while the firing squad does its work.
The soldiers attempt to blindfold their prisoner, but he resists. He won’t let them cover his haunting eyes — one blue, one black. The firing squad lifts their rifles and pulls the trigger.
The prisoner is Jack Celliers, played by David Bowie. The movie is Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Spoilers below.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a 1983 drama set during World War II. It follows the lives of four soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java. Bowie’s Celliers is a New Zealander who parachuted into Java and led a small guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.
The firing squad described above is only the beginning of his journey. It was a mock execution, staged by Capt. Yonoi. The young imperial officer runs the POW camp and he wants Celliers in his camp. He also wants celliers. But more on that later.
Tom Conti plays the eponymous Mr. Lawrence — a British officer who lived in Japan before the war and speaks the language. He acts as a liaison in the camp and attempts to keep the peace between the POWs and the guards.
Rounding out the quartet is the amazing Takeshi Kitano as Sgt. Hara — a man who seems to fill the role of the brutal prison guard stereotype. But Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence isn’t so simple, and Hara is a complicated character who develops a strong friendship with Lawrence.
Nagisa Oshima — famed director of In the Realm of the Senses — wrote and directed the film. Oshima based the movie Laurens van der Post’s memoir of his own imprisonment — The Seed and the Sower. I promise you’ve seen nothing like it.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a surreal and dense film. On the surface, it’s a tale of survival and defiance in a POW camp. The British soldiers struggle to make it through each day and Celliers defies his captors at every turn.
But the film is also about two cultures clashing and struggling to understand each other in dire circumstances. Lawrence acts as an intermediary between the two societies. He understands both, but often finds himself at a loss to explain one side to the other.
Early in the film he finds it impossible to translate an accurate description of Celliers for Yonoi. Later, he fails to make his British compatriots understand the Japanese concept of spiritual laziness.
But the throbbing meat of the film, the oddly overt undercurrent that makes Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence so transfixing, is its treatment of homosexual love on the battlefield.
The movie opens with Hara and some soldiers beating a Korean guard for raping a Dutch prisoner. The story of the assault and its punishment plays out during the first half of the movie, and ends with the Korean guard committing ritual suicide to atone for his crime.
The Dutch prisoner watches the suicide and is so distraught when Hara completes the ritual by cutting off the guards head that he bites off his own tongue and dies. It’s obvious, in his final moments, that the sex was both consensual and welcome.
Hara worries over this. He thinks the British might all be gay. “War strengthens bonds of friendship between men,” Lawrence explains. “But that doesn’t mean all soldiers turn queer.”
Lawrence and Hara’s relationship exemplifies that line. The two men become closer and closer as the movie progresses and it’s obvious the two would be close friends if they weren’t on opposite sides of the war.
On the other end of the spectrum is Yonoi’s unhealthy obsession with Celliers. The young captain first sees the New Zealander during his war crimes trial. When he walks through the door, the camera focuses on Yonoi. His eyes widen and music swells.
Yonoi is obsessed with Celliers. He fusses over his wounds, visits him constantly and even conspires to put him in charge of his fellow POWs. It’s an obsession that’s obvious to everyone, including Celliers and the other guards.
Celliers abuses Yonoi’s fascination. He doesn’t return the man’s feelings, but he’s not above manipulating them to cause chaos in the camp. “Who do you think you are? An evil spirit?” Yonoi asks after Celliers has stolen food and passed out the extra rations to the starving prisoners.
“One of yours I hope,” he replies, staring at Yonoi with his strange eyes.
“Captain, that man is a devil who’s trying to destroy your spirit,” replies one of Yonoi’s soldiers.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a wonderful, obscure and complicated movie. All the relationships are rewarding and all the characters are robust. Even Celliers — who at first seems little more than an avatar of chaos — has a tragic backstory that makes him more than just a ghost that haunts both the picture and Yonoi’s dreams.
The movie is hard to find. No online streaming services play it and the only physical version is an expensive Criterion release. Despite this obscurity, it’s had a powerful cultural impact. Watching the movie, it was obvious that Angelina Jolie tried — and failed — to capture some of its spirit in Unbroken.
Both films are set in Japanese POW camps and both involve fey and cruel captors. Even more telling is Jolie’s casting choice. Oshima cast Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto as his effete Capt. Yonoi. Decades later, Jolie used the same trick and cast rock star Miyavi as her cruel and effete Sgt. Watanabe.
Sakamoto also wrote and performed the theme for the movie. And even if you’ve never seen or heard of the film, you’ve almost certainly heard the song. Every Christmas in America, malls and shopping centers pump the eerie synth pop melody through their speakers. It’s a staple on Christmas instrumental collections.
The film is more haunting than the soundtrack. Bowie’s intensity as he commits suicide through defiance, Sakamoto’s terror at his own feelings, Lawrence’s desperation to keep everyone alive and Kitano’s sad, subdued and twitchy performance all resonate and come together to form a masterpiece of war fiction.
It’s worth tracking down and watching. Especially in this week when we’re mourning Bowie and remembering his cultural impact. The man created so much good art it’s hard to sort through it all. Don’t miss this one.