Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence: Criterion Collection
September 28, 2010
Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) was based on Laurens van der Post’s mostly autobiographical 1963 novel The Seed and the Sower about a British military officer and a poorly treated prisoner-of-war set in the lush Javanese tropics in 1942 when Japan made significant territorial advances and committed many terrible wartime atrocities. Oshima’s film caused quite a stir the year it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival as he was already a highly regarded filmmaker but this new one starred two high profile rock stars, David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Far from a vanity project, these two men would dig deep to deliver thought-provoking performances.
Colonel Lawrence (Conti) is a British military officer imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp in Java. Because he can speak and understand Japanese, he is called upon by the sadistic Sergeant Hara (Kitano) to witness acts of “justice” performed on disobedient prisoners but he also tries to argue clemency on their behalf when he can. Lawrence represents a voice of compassion and reason in contrast to Hara’s acts of brutality. The latter’s superior, Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto), is an up-and-coming officer assigned to the trial of Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), a British officer charged with ambushing a Japanese transport unit in the jungle, killing two soldiers. He is sentenced to death and despite the charges; Celliers is defiant and eloquent under Yonoi’s cross-examination. After miraculously surviving a firing squad execution, Celliers is brought to the camp and put under the care of Lawrence. Yonoi puts Celliers in command of the POWs but his unorthodox style confounds and infuriates his captors.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence doesn’t follow the usual narrative beats of a typical POW camp film and this includes an experimental electronic score by Sakamoto. This is further enhanced by the eclectic cast that includes veteran British actor Tom Conti, rock stars Bowie and Sakamoto and venerable Australian actor Jack Thompson. They all bring their own distinctive styles to the film and Oshima finds a way to make them complement each other. Bowie, in particular, delivers an astonishing performance playing a man who, under his defiant façade, harbors guilt and deep regrets about his relationship with his younger brother. For an untrained actor, he uses his lack of formal training to make unusual choices and isn’t marred by the usual acting tics and this results in a rather more unpolished performance that is ideal for this role.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was Oshima’s first film since winning the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Empire of Passion (1978). He brings a unique perspective to the material as he takes the memoirs of a British POW and filters it through a Japanese perspective. The result is a visually arresting film that transcends genre conventions.
The first disc includes a theatrical trailer.
“The Oshima Gang” is a behind-the-scenes featurette made the year Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence came out and chronicles the production. Bowie and Conti had no idea what they were getting into but wanted to do the film because of Oshima’s involvement. There’s some good footage of Oshima and Bowie at a press conference at Cannes. This extra gives an impression of how the film was perceived at the time of its release.
“On the Screenplay” features screenwriter Paul Mayersberg talking about the development and writing of the screenplay. He also touches upon working with Oshima and how it influenced his writing the script. Mayersberg talks about how he adapted the novel and its portrayal of the Japanese.
“On Location” features new interviews with actors Tom Conti and Ryuichi Sakamoto and producer Jeremy Thomas reflecting on their experiences making the film. Thomas was intrigued by the idea of making a POW camp film from the Japanese perspective. Robert Redford was originally approached for the role of Celliers. Sakamoto talks about how he was cast and his only condition was that he could also compose the film’s score.
“On the Music” features Sakamoto talking about the film’s distinctive score. After watching a rough cut of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, he began working on the music and was able to have three months to do it – a long time in Japanese cinema. He says that Oshima gave him the freedom to do the score his own way without interference.
Finally, there is “Hasten Slowly,” a 1996 documentary about author Laurens van der Post that runs 55 minutes. It presents a fascinating portrait of a man who led an extraordinary life as a journalist, philosopher and conservationist. He even advised various powerful movers and shakers within the British government and royalty.