‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'
Starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Jack Thompson
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: R for sex, drugs, profanity and intense scene
Like many people, I’ve spent the past few weeks revisiting David Bowie’s many works following news of the rock star’s death Jan. 10.
While Bowie was world famous for his music, he was also an accomplished actor who contributed to many films in the 1970s and ’80s. “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of his best performances and a fantastic movie in its in own right.
This 1983 film is a war movie like no other war movie I have seen. Only a little violence is on screen, and no battles take place. Most films set during World War II lean heavily on the horrors of war, depicting flying bullets, dead bodies and gigantic explosions to capture the audience. “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is more about the psychological struggles of war and the ideological missteps that lead to so much suffering.
The venue of the film is a Japanese-run prisoner of war camp in Java in 1942. The camp hosts numerous British and European prisoners, some of whom are badly injured or disfigured from war. Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is a sort of ambassador to the Japanese captors, translating for them and generally advocating for the welfare of the prisoners. Of course, this role earns him little love from either side and he is often derided by friends and enemies alike.
Enter Maj. Jack Celliers (Bowie), a British soldier who was captured after waging a guerilla campaign against Japanese troops. Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), head of the prison camp, takes an interest in Celliers and recommends he be imprisoned in lieu of execution.
For months Yonoi tries to obtain military intelligence from Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who is the leader of the prisoners, but Hicksley refuses to cooperate. Yonoi plans to execute Hicksley and then instate Celliers as the new leader to avoid disruption among the POWs.
This backfires when Celliers proves to be a difficult prisoner. He refuses to follow orders and generally shows no respect for the Japanese officers. Celliers is more than an unruly prisoner, however. His force of personality leads several of the Japanese to hate him. At one point, a soldier attempts to assassinate Colliers in his sleep for being a “demon” that would destroy the Japanese spirit.
Lawrence and Celliers develop a kinship when they are both held in adjacent cells. The two bond over past regrets and worry.
Ultimately, the movie becomes a struggle between Celliers and Yonoi with Lawrence stuck in between. If that sounds vague or confusing, it is because parts of this movie are exactly that. The last scene leaves the remaining characters wondering what it was all for, but there is a sense of connection and camaraderie between them.
The best performances in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” were from Bowie and Sakamoto, who, incidentally, are both famous musicians in their home countries. Bowie’s reserved, aloof style fits Celliers while Sakamoto embodies the disciplined brutality of an imperial officer. Sakamoto is also responsible for the movie’s soundtrack, which won a BAFTA award and creates the atmosphere of the camp.
Together, these two actors turn a good movie into a great one.
I watched several of Bowie’s movies in preparation for this month’s column, and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of his best in terms of his role and in overall quality. If you are looking for a way to revisit some of Bowie’s lesser-known works, this is a great place to start.
“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is not available to stream on any major platform, but is available on Blu-ray and DVD on Amazon.com $26.
Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.