South African-born (Afrikaner) Sir Laurens Van der Post (1906-1996) was a British Army officer who surrendered to Japanese forces on Java in April of 1942 and was imprisoned at Bandung. He later wrote three books about his prison experience — A Bar of Shadow (1954), The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). — and another on the two years following Japanese surrender during with the Dutch attempted to re-establish their colony in the East Indies before an independence struggle forced them to leave.
The kinky (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion) Japanese director Ôshima Nagasi (1932-) adapted The Seed and the Sower (1963) into “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a movie mostly in English and mostly focusing on the Anglophone (British, Australian, New Zealander, and a traumatized Dutch soldier) suffering under the rule of an arbitrary, sometimes sadistic sergeant (Kitano Takeshi in the first role in which he was seen outside Japan) who pays some heed to a bilingual (Japanese-English) physician, Col. Lawrence (Scottish actor Tom Conti), who is the sanest man around (echoing the physician in “Bridge on the River Kwai”).
The camp is commanded by a young, very elegant and very authoritarian Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese composer and singer Sakamoto Ryûichi , who also wrote the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack for the movie). Capt. Yonoi has nothing but contempt—well, some frustration mixed with contempt for the stubborn prison leader, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who is as obdurate but less elegant and personally brave than Alec Guiness’s commander in “Bridge on the River Kwai”. (Both were stuffed with racist views, but Hicksley is considerably more cloddish.)
Lawrence knows enough about Japanese culture to know the contempt the Japanese soldiers hold for anyone who would surrender, and, unlike Hicksley, knows that Japan was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions either for the treatment of prisoners or war or against torture. The mysterious new prisoner, Jack Celliers. (David Bowie) intrigues Capt. Yonoi (and Col. Lawrence, who knew him when both were in North Africa). Playing another man who fell to earth, Celliers is a South African paratrooper who was dropped behind Japanese lines to sabotage things. He surrendered to save a Javanese village from being slaughtered, and was set to be executed as a criminal rather than a soldier.
Capt. Yonoi is one of the three judges on the tribunal and makes the case that Celliers is a soldier and should, therefore, be incarcerated with POWS… under Yonoi’s command. There is something erotic but suppressed in Yonoi’s interest in Celliers, as Lawrence does not fail to note. Yonoi’s adjutant considers Celliers an evil spirit and attempts to kill him.
Celliers gets a variant on the punishment Col. Nicholson received after maddening the Japanese commander of the Kwai camp. Not least in being ultra-blond, Bowie’s Celliers also recalls the masochistic component of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, while the acquiescence in being sodomized by the enemy (a Korean guard rather than a commander such as José Ferrer Ottomoan officer) is farmed off to the Dutchman (Alistair Browning) in the opening sequence.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is unlike the Lean epics “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” lacks explosions or other sorts of action scenes… and the American’s romance and derring-do grafted onto “Kwai” for William Holden; Celliers was leading native rebels, but this was before the start of the movie and is entirely offscreen. But like T. E. Lawrence, Celliers cares about the natives (there Arab, here Javanese) and is unconventional if not openly suspicious about His Majesty’s Army’s ambiguous colonizer role in a struggle against one colonizer (Japan_.
I skipped over the first botched seppuku (hara-kiri) by the Korean guard caught in flagrante delicto. There are two more, none of which goes smoothly (I think the blades are thrust in too deeply, so that the body pitches forward, interfering with the clean sword thrust of decapitation). Interracial sex, contempt for it, and ritual suicide all pop up at the start, though the movie is told from the point of view of Col. Lawrence, who attempts to avert disaster both for the Japanese he somewhat likes and respects and for the terminally stubborn Hicksley and Celliers.
A lot of Ôshima movies end with cutting (Gohatto/Taboo, In the Realm of the Senses), and so does this one, though there is a regret-expressing humanist epilogue.
Ôshima set up many shots Ozu-style and there was little camera movement, though there were more close-ups than there would be in an Ozu movie. There are surrealist sequences, reminding the viewer that this is an Ôshima movie. I think the movie drags in a lengthy colloquy between Celliers and Lawrence when they are caged together and Celliers drifts back to a lengthy guilty memory of failing his younger brother.
The Japanese director provides practically no back-story for the Japanese characters, but an elaborate one for Celliers. (We do learn that Yonoi was a supporter of the ultranationalist 26 February 1936 failed coup, but survived its suppression because he was away from Tokyo.)
Though eroticized violence is leitmotif in Oshim’s oeuvre (along with recurrent focus on the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan (Three Resurrected Drunkards, Death by Hanging), and as a lower caste in the Imperial Army in this movie), neither war nor intercultural misunderstanding is. A Japanese director taking an English memoir of captivity by the Japanese during WWII is at least as surprising, and perhaps a bit more than Clint Eastwood making “Letters from Iwo Jima” (distinct from “Flag of Our Fathers,” but still a look at the other side in a battle that provided the iconic image of the US Marines.
The pop singers, David Bowie (1947-2016) and Sakamoto Ryûichi (1952-), both look their parts as elegant loners and play their complicated roles as antagonists with great aplomb (with Sakamoto doing all the visible longing and frustrated erotic aching). Tom Conti (1941-) and Takeshi Kitano (1947-, who was billed simply as “Takeshi”) have less rigid honor-code-dictated roles and greater emotional ranges. Bowie sings “Rock of Ages” off-key and regrets that he cannot sing (which leads the troops to sing the 23rd Psalm). Sakamoto practices kendo and makes no music within the movie, though supplying an interesting soundtrack for it.
(Kitano and Conti)
BTW, the camp filled with scrawny white people playing POWs was filmed on Rarotonga, not on Java, and the city (Batavia then, Jakarta now) scenes were shot on New Zealand.
The movie received the full-scale Criterion treatment, with a fine video and audio transfer and a second disc of special features, including the original 4-minute theatrical trailer, a 28-miunte one of co-scenarist (Paul Mayersberg, who also wrote the other great Bowie movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” for Nicholas Roeg) 40 minutes of reminiscences about the shooting by Tom Conti, Sakamoto Ryûichi —who also scored ˆÔshima’s last film “Gohatto”and picked up an Oscar for the score of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” in which he also appeared onscreen —,and producer Jeremy Thomas (but not Bowie), 18 minutes by Ryûichi on the soundtrack, a 1995 documentary about van der Post (godfather to Prince William, btw) and a 29-minute 1983 making-of featurette.
© 2016, Stephen O. Murray