When David Bowie died a few weeks ago, the world lost one of the greatest musical geniuses. While Bowie’s obits focused on his music, and rightfully so, Bowie was actually a very underrated actor. While his filmography is a bit sparse and contains only a handful of notable roles, one of his most underrated was his role in the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence the subject of our review today.
Directed by Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is the story of a group of English, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers that are housed in Japanese POW camp during the height of World War II. The titular character is portrayed by Tom Conti, an English POW who acts as interpreter between the prisoners and the camp guards. While Conti is the title character, he is not the main character, instead it belongs to the character of Jack Celliers portrayed by Bowie. Celliers is a referred to as a “Strafer” or Soldier’s Soldier, one that knows how to play the enemy and play the game of war. While at the camp, Celliers becomes the obsession of the camp commander Captain Yonoi, who believes that Celliers is some evil spirit who is meant to tempt him.
One of the interesting things about this movie is the idea of duality in man, in this case the idea of brutality and compassion. Throughout the movie, Lawrence and Celliers encounter the brutality of the POW camp and the Japanese. One of the most telling scenes of the movie is when the character of Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) beats a soldier senseless for engaging a homosexual act with another prisoner. While this scene shows that Hara is a brutal man, he also shows compassion, pardoning Lawrence and Celliers as they are about to executed, and developing a friendship with Lawrence. This relationship shows that Oshima wants the audience to see the full side of humanity as represented by Hara: man can be both brutal and kind. Another instance of duality is the relationship between Celliers and Yonoi.
The relationship between Celliers and Yonoi is the main focus of the movie and one that is incredibly interesting. Yonoi desires Celliers not only as a soldier, but also as a physical man. Because of the repulsion of his homosexual urges, Yonoi becomes more brutal in punishing Celliers and also continues to punish the other men in the camp to show how masculine he is. Realizing, that Yonoi desires him and in order to save the life of a fellow soldiers, Celliers walks up to Yonoi and kisses him on the cheek. The reason why this act is so significant is because it shows that humanity that is in Celliers: He knows how Yonoi feels about him and also knows that the only way to save his fellow soldier is to show Yonoi that he is loved as a person.
Bowie’s performance as Celliers is really remarkable: He portrays Celliers as a man who although being a hardened soldier, is also a man who has not lost what his made him human, which his ability for compassion and love. While obits talked about his performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth, my personal favorite has to be this one: primarly because it shows Bowie not as an alien or a vampire, but as a man.
Final Rating 3 ½ out of 4 stars.
Fun Fact: In addition to portraying Yonoi, Riyuchi Sakamoto also composed the incredible music score. The movie is available from the Criterion Collection.