- Movie Rating -

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

| May 27, 1983

All through Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I kept asking myself if this was a dream.  Yeah, it seems somewhat grounded but the textures of this film don’t flow in a normal sense, scenes seem to flow in and out in a disjointed way.  When the movie was over, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it.  I still don’t.

The movie takes place during World War II in a Japanese POW camp and centers around four men of different cultures and different backgrounds – two are British prisoners and two are Japanese wardens.  Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano) are, I suppose, friends.  In spite of their situation, they sit and talk and debate social order.  This despite the fact that for much of the time, Hara pleasures himself by beating Lawrence for insubordination.  In peace time, the men might have been friends, but their respective stations require that such beatings must occur.

This urging toward polite conversation and debate might have also fallen on the second pair, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) and Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) who, in another time and place, really could have been lovers.  Their present connection is that Celliers is a prisoner who refuses to break and Yonoi is a man who makes it his mission to beat and torture this man until he gets results.  But, does he?  Is he really interested in breaking this man’s will or is there a bit of closeted attraction that he is trying to push away through torturing him.  Outwardly, Celliers is a disruptive influence on the other prisoners and must be brought to his knees, but I sense something deeper.

The central image of this film, of course, is the moment when Celliers unexpected kisses Yonoi and is beaten for it.  Many may interpret this differently than I did but I sensed a definite attraction between them.  Who might they have been in another set of circumstances?

This is a film about the repression of men by their culture, both in the British culture and the Japanese. These four men are confined by their circumstances, by the tenets of war and by the rules that govern a POW camp.  The lines drawn between them cannot be severed but we sense something in them that they are not stereotypically on one side or the other.  They know that the war is temporary and we are asked to consider who they might be otherwise.

This is a very unique film.  It challenges you to question how you feel about it, how to feel about the characters being presented.   Again, there is a dreamlike quality to it and maybe that comes from an interior psychological bend that is intentionally made vague.  War itself can seem like a dream-state and so too does the whole idea of of prison camp where men are beaten into submission.

I walked out of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence feeling unsatisfied.  And yet, the most I think back on it, the more I appreciate what is it not saying rather than what it is.  I am asked to translate what I have seen, the images that have been presented and the characters that I have met.  This is a very discussion-worthy film that asked you what you think about it

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, War