It may be lacking in plot and have some fairly average acting at best but there’s something alluring about this WWII film which goes way beyond the beautifully, haunting self-titled theme song. ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence‘ is a powerful character-driven war film albeit one without any real action.
Despite having the word Christmas in the title, this movie is a world away from your typical festive films though I seem to remember it often being shown very late at night (back in the 1990’s) in the UK schedules at this time of year. I had actually been trying to locate a copy of this for a few years but had no luck when I asked at the rental stores and the prices on Amazon and eBay were ridiculously high. Then David Bowie died at the start of this year and out of his death came a few uploads of this 123 minute movie which is very much of it’s time!
This Nagisa Oshima film adaptation of ‘The Seed And The Sower‘ by Laurens van der Post tells the tale of a couple of British soldiers and two captors in a Japanese POW camp on the Indonesian island of Java in 1942. The relationships between these four main characters are portrayed. Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is a rebellious and confronting individual with a guilty secret from his past whilst the title character (Tom Conti) is a philosophical Lieutenant Colonel. He has lived in Japan and is fairly fluent in the language. He is very much the one who understands both cultures and tries to bridge the gap when things boil over every so often.
Warning: Contains spoilers!
The film also shows us the physical and the mental abuse the prisoners had to live with each and every day and Lawrence is always looking out for his fellow prisoners, pleading and demanding for better conditions. He develops a curious relationship with Sergeant Hara who, from the films opening scene, comes across as harsh but is compassionate in some ways and a little curious about the foreigners who he finds rather baffling.
As well as the impact of the war it also deals with events from their childhood although the flashback scenes for Bowie are quite laughable as he is trying to impersonate a schoolboy. Apart from that though he is more convincing as the mysterious, spiritual and quite feminine soldier in a movie completely devoid of any women. His character is the most complex and he has a mesmerising effect on his fellow soldiers and in particular Captain Yonoi (Ryuchi Sakamoto).
Sakamoto not only acts but he also provides the musical score (my wife’s favourite ever piece of music) which is the best thing about this film. He plays the young camp commandant Captain Yonoi who has a strange, intense relationship with Bowie’s character. He is a little fascinated with Celliers who in turn is very conditioned to Yonoi’s moods and desires.
‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence‘, like many other films in its genre, is more than just a war film. It’s a movie about discipline, spirit, love and honour with the latter nearly always being a theme of any Japanese-related film. They are perceived in different ways which causes conflict as the captors regard the prisoners who surrendered as cowards. The Japanese way of thinking is one of life or death and they believe in there being a true warrior way whereas the prisoners view war as a temporary existence which has only come about as an unfortunate result of the war.
TF Rating 6/10