Published on June 25th, 2021 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
The Criterion Cut: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
We dig deep back into the Criterion Collection vault for a rare and enigmatic David Bowie performance in director Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Another week in which I revisit a classic oldie.
I first saw this film on home video sometime around 1984 or 1985. I had just discovered ‘Let’s Dance’ era David Bowie two years prior (cut me some slack. I was 10 at the time, so all my music was commercial) and obsessively sought out anything with him in it. And while certain parts of the film had stuck with me, I hadn’t actually rewatched it in the decades to follow. I thought it was time to change that.
By now, of course, I’m deeply familiar with both Bowie’s entire oeuvre and the films of Oshima. Oshima was a director who was known for making fiercely independent films with controversial subject matter and a surrealistic style. For example, Death by Hanging (1968), tackles the Japanese prejudice against Koreans and The Man Who Left his Will on Film (1970) addressed the Japanese-American Security Treaty and the massive protests it inspired.
Oshima was a director who was very much critical of his homeland. His films often dealt with politically-charged subject matter, and can be prone to sexually explicit or violent subject matter. But I have to admit, I never really got into Oshima’s films. Death by Hanging, for instance,starts out interesting before unravelling into pointless surrealism by the latter half. Oshima’s ambitions always seemed greater than his talent.
I mention Oshima’s criticism about Japan because in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (his most overtly commercial effort), the Japanese are one-dimensional portrayals. If a viewer didn’t pay attention to the credits they could be forgiven for thinking this was endemic of typical British bias and poor representation of minorities by an Anglo studio. This is another hallmark of Oshima’s films, however, they fall into polemics far too easily. Subtlety isn’t one of Oshima’s gifts.
The story takes place in 1942 and focuses on British, Scottish and New Zealand prisoners of wars. David Bowie plays an Afrikaner named Major Jack Celliers whose story is largely told through the perspective of the titular Mr. Lawrence (Tom Conti). As such we only get glimpses of Bowie, who probably only occupies about 20 minutes of screen time in total. If that’s the main reason you’re watching it, be prepared for that. Celliers as a character is in the mold of Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) or Major Shears (William Holden), the natural-born leader and rebel who defy their captors. While Bowie might initially seem a strange fit to play a military figure, his charm and magnetism work so that the viewer does buy him as the camp leader.
As for Bowie’s performance, I have to say that while Bowie is obviously not one of the greats, he usually does hold his own. For a musician transitioning into acting he certainly does a credible job for what little screen time he occupies. It certainly surpasses other musicians who attempted to break into acting with poor results *cough cough* Prince *cough cough* Madonna, and I would argue that it surpasses some actual “actors” who seem content with branding their personalities for franchises (I’m looking at you Chris Pratt). It’s also interesting to compare it to Ryuichi Sakamoto, a musician who was a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra and who had never acted prior to being cast in this film. And it shows.
As for the film overall, I would say it’s definitely worth at least a watch. There are some truly evocative moments, Cellier’s fate near the end of the film stuck with me all these years. It’s by far one of Oshima’s better films, but I can’t say that it’s entirely a great film. There are pacing issues, too little of Bowie (Conti is a fine actor, but c’mon, I came to see Bowie after all). Bowie is a competent (but maybe not great) actor whose magnetic presence shines through even when the performance isn’t quite all there. The results are admittedly a bit mixed, but for Bowie fans at least, I’d say it’s worth a stream (it’s currently on the Criterion channel. I’m not sure about Netflix or Amazon Prime).