Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) – Film Review
by Sarah Morgan
Mention David Bowie and acting in the same breath, and you’re likely to be met by sniggering, even from some of the most ardent Bowie fans.
His film career was not particularly distinguished, although I think critics have been rather cruel to him over the years. He’s perfectly cast in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth, for instance. But on paper at least, Bowie doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate to play a man described as a ‘soldier’s soldier’ in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
In fact, the first time I saw the film, shortly after the shapeshifting performer’s death four years ago, I thought he’d been hideously miscast. But a second viewing has opened my eyes a little – director Nagisa Oshima needed someone with obvious charisma, enabling him to be believable as an inspiration to those around him. And that’s definitely something Bowie had.
“Refuses to be bent or broken”
Based on two books by Sir Laurens van der Post, who had himself been a Japanese prisoner during the Second World War, the film is set in a camp run by Captain Yonoi. He becomes oddly obsessed with Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), a British officer who refuses to be bent or broken by the often cruel and sadistic guards. Celliers’ initials – JC – are apparently meant to signify he’s a Christ-like figure.
The events are seen through the eyes of Lt Col John Lawrence (Tom Conti) who, having spent years living in the country, is the link between the prisoners and their captors.
While most of the attention both now and at the time of the film’s cinema release in 1983 centred on Bowie, the rest of the cast should not be ignored. Conti is superb as Lawrence; his mastery of the Japanese lines he had to speak fooled many into believing he was fluid in the language.
“Revealing special features”
Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also wrote the Bafta-winning soundtrack, plays Yonoi, while comedian and actor Beat Takeshi – the host of international cult hit Takeshi’s Castle – takes the role of Sergeant Hara, who forms an unlikely friendship with Lawrence.
The only bum note is struck by Jack Thompson, a usually reliable Australian character actor, whose portrayal of stiff-upper-lipped Group Captain Hicksley, the senior officer among the prisoners, seems to have been inspired by Carry On Up the Khyber rather than based in reality.
The disc also includes several revealing special features, including a particularly fascinating interview with producer Jeremy Thomas, who discusses the film’s origins and production in some depth.
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jasper Sharp
- High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
- Original uncompressed stereo audio
- The Man Who Left His Soul on Film (1983), Paul Joyce’s 82-minute documentary profile of Nagisa Oshima
- The Oshima Gang (1983), a 30-minute documentary following the film’s cast and makers at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival
- Video interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, actor Tom Conti, and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Hasten Slowly (1996), a 60-minute documentary about the author of the film’s autobiographical source novel
- Exclusive newly filmed interview with critic Tony Rayns
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sam Hadley
Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is released on Blu-ray by Arrow, £24.99