On September 2, 1983, a movie based on a semi-autobiographical novel, The Seed and the Sower, was released. The subject was a World War II prison camp, the author was Laurens Van der Post. Sadly, war movies do not always age well, due to shifting politics and values. What was acceptable and even understandable sixty years ago may now be beyond consideration.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a powerful and affective war drama that succeeds because it takes place during the war, but is about the relationships between individuals. It portrays both spirituality and sexuality, and neither is embraced by all.
Taking place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence depicts brutality, hatred, devotion, loyalty, fear, courage, and every emotion found on the human spectrum. It captures the clash of wills and the power struggle between two men on opposing sides, David Bowie as Major Jack Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, camp commander. Both rock stars, these actors project an almost otherworldly presence, layering their characters with ambiguity and intimation.
Tom Conti as the titular Mr. Lawrence and Takeshi Kitano as the often-sadistic Sgt. Hara provide credibility and context. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is well acted by its entire cast, and each of the central characters leaves his mark on the audience. Even the most cruel of characters evokes sympathy at some point.
There is a strangeness to Nagisa Oshima’s direction, a remoteness intermingled with intimacy that keeps the audience off-balance and totally engaged. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence tells the story of the impact the arrival of one prisoner has on the whole system, and it is merciless. Laurens Van de Post has stated that nothing that happens in the movie didn’t happen in the camp where he was interned; this adds an uneasy dimension as the viewer watches true life dramatized, and questions where reality and art trade places.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is part of The Criterion Collection and has been released as part of a two-disc set. The first disc contains the movie and a trailer. The second disc includes new interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, actor Tom Conti, and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Mayersberg’s discussion of the cultural aspects of creating the script and its evolution are certainly worth a viewing.
Another bonus is a 1996 documentary about Laurens Van der Post, Hasten Slowly. The documentary is not about the making of the film but about Van der Post’s life and experience—before, during, and after the war. Other prison camp internees share their memories of this remarkable man whose philosophies made a difference in their lives and those of other prisoners.
The film also focuses on Van der Post’s life among South African Bushmen. Hasten Slowly is a fitting addition to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and a valuable stand-alone on its own merits. With short films on the screenplay, “on location,” and on the music, the bonus disc adds value to this set. Also included is a handsome booklet containing photographs, articles, and further interviews.
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent/stream Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence? Yes—buy. It is a classic film that stuns and inspires; it is odd, surprising, and haunting.