Most people are familiar with David Bowie’s roles in movies like Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Prestige. Less well known is the film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a movie about British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Released in 1983, the same year as “Let’s Dance,” Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was directed by Nagisa Oshima and based on Laurens van der Post’s experiences as a POW in World War II. Oshima cast Bowie after seeing his performance on stage in The Elephant Man. Bowie accepted without even reading the script, just on the strength of Oshima’s previous work. It would turn out to be a potent pairing and is generally regarded as one of Bowie’s strongest performances as an actor.
Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, a so-called soldier’s soldier, who comes to a POW camp in Java, in Indonesia in 1942. The titular Mr. Lawrence is Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence, played by Tom Conti, who is already a prisoner in the camp. He is unique there in that he speaks Japanese and has an understanding of Japanese culture, even if all their customs don’t sit too well with him.
The film opens with Lawrence called to witness the punishment of two men, one a Korean and one Dutch. The Korean man snuck into the Dutch man’s cell and had sex with him, something looked down upon by the Japanese. The Japanese sergeant attempts to humiliate the Korean man, offering him the chance to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) if he will play along. Lawrence tries to stop this, but the Korean attempts seppuku anyway. He is ultimately stopped when the Captain of the camp Yonoi arrives. Ultimately, the punishment is put off until he returns from a trip.
That trip is to attend the trial of Colonel Celliers, who had been performing guerilla actions until his surrender to the Japanese when they threatened to kill innocent villagers. The Japanese soldiers officiating at the trial are confused by Celliers’s surrender and agree that he should be put to death, but Captain Yonoi is clearly taken with the defiant British man. A mock execution is staged and Celliers is taken to the POW camp instead.
Without spoiling the ending, Celliers’s rebelliousness and Yonoi’s obsession with him comes to a head and both men end up paying for their actions. The climax occurs as they both act according to their natures, for better or worse.
The central theme of the movie is clearly the clash of cultures between the British troops and the Japanese. The Japanese, for example, find the surrender of British soldiers to be cowardly, and so the whole camp’s existence is something shameful. Choosing death, from the Japanese perspective, is preferable. On the other side, the British view seppuku as barbaric, and look at surrender as a way to stay alive and survive.
Also threaded throughout the film is an examination of homosexuality in the environs of the Japanese camp. Obviously in the first scene there is an example of male/male sex. Later, Lawrence talks to Hara about how men in war often form strong bonds, but that it isn’t always homosexuality. This is contrasted with Yonoi’s obsession with Celliers which never achieves a physical level but seems obviously homoerotic at times.
Bowie does do an exceptional job in this film playing Celliers. He excels at bringing the rebellious Colonel to life, a glint in his mismatched eyes visible in every such scene. In other films, Bowie can be said to be playing himself (quite literally in Zoolander), but this is one of his most meaty acting roles. There’s none of the over the top prancing of Jareth, the Goblin King. There’s no larger than life persona like Nikola Tesla. This is Bowie stripped down. Playing a man quietly, with subtelty and nuance.
He also sprinkles the role with personal touches. As he’s waiting for execution, he pulls some tricks out of the old mime closet, miming a shave and a last meal and cigarette (itself a moment of rebellion to his captors). There are also several moments of singing in the film and Bowie, obviously the capable singer, sings out of tune so well that it doesn’t even seem forced. All of these touches add up so that while you never forget that you’re watching David Bowie (because really, how can you?), he inhabits the role of Celliers and brings him to life. In many moments he conveys several emotions bubbling under the surface with just a simple expression.
Bowie himself said of the experience that he had never played “anything so unstylized before” and that the process was rewarding for him. Oshima, by all accounts doesn’t rely heavily on rehearsals and rarely shoots more than two takes, so the working environment seems to have been highly collaborative which no doubt helped bring out the best in Bowie’s performance.
It’s perhaps unfair of me to say that I will always think of David Bowie as a musician first, but in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence he comes closest to challenging that ranking. I wish he had been given the opportunity to play more roles like Celliers just to see where that would have taken his acting career.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was released on DVD and Blu-Ray recently as part of the Criterion Collection. It’s a powerful film and one I think is worth seeing, especially for Bowie fans. It’s one of his finest performances.