Absolute Bowieginners: Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Absolute Bowieginners: Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

Peace on earth, can it be? Chris Morley heads east...

A wartime festive season awaits David Bowie now as we prepare to welcome Christmas - only here he’s playing a South African officer cooped up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp! And so the former Major Tom signs on for a stint as another Major, Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. The 1983 film is based on the experiences of an actual former soldier, Sir Laurens Van Der Post. He penned The Seed & The Sower & then The Night of The New Moon based on his own such experiences in the Land of the Rising Sun.

To put Bowie's career at the time in some perspective and a sort of Christmassy context, a year earlier David’s duet with Bing Crosby on a medley of Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy had been belatedly released as a single after a nice cosy appearance on what would turn out to be the old crooner’s final festive special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Old Christmas (originally recorded in 1977 & broadcast on November 30 that year after the death of its host).

A couple of years later David recorded a brief cameo for a new introduction to perennial festive favourite The Snowman! Which, if you’re good boys & girls, we’ll cover next time out - be sure to leave a mince pie & glass of sherry by your preferred method of reading all this & we promise it’ll happen. Actually, best make that a whole box of mince pies!

And chuck in a carrot for the reindeer as well.

For now, though, settle down in a comfortable armchair & picture young Major James Celliers cooped up in his cell, racked with guilt after Captain Yonoi has melted his snowman friend……

...Or something like that. In any case Celliers is troubled by a secret from his past, betraying his brother way back at boarding school. He can at least in a sense use Yonoi’s borderline homoerotic interest in him to his advantage, supplying his fellow soldiers with food after the rations dry up in one of many brutal punishments dished out by those holding him & his fellow men captive.

The sadist then holds Jack & fellow prisoner Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence responsible for smuggling a radio into the camp & it all starts to look a bit grim until something of a Christmas miracle occurs & they’re released from more brutal confinement! A decision which draws the ire of Yonoi, not least as it’s relayed by a Sergeant Hara - who’s a bit drunk at the time & announces himself as Father Christmas after overdoing it on the sake.

Having overstepped his rank, Hara is then given the duty of supervising prisoners in the building of an airstrip. What follows is arguably every bit as daring as anything Bowie ever did to subvert gender norms in his musical day job!
Seeking to prevent Yonoi killing Lawrence in front of the other prisoners after the Captain is enraged by Group Captain Hicksley’s disrespect for him, Celliers simply walks up & gives him a kiss - cheek, or should that be check, mate, as Yonoi is left torn between his hidden feelings for Jack & not wanting to be made a fool of in front of the men in his command. Little wonder he promptly collapses under the strain - his men doing what they arguably did best on such occasions & giving Celliers a solid beating.

The higher-ups of the Japanese military don’t exactly look kindly on the Captain’s flouncing, & he’s soon replaced as camp commandant - leaving him free to go to visit the man who’d awoken the sort of feelings you weren’t really expected to have as a soldier, cutting off a lock of his hair, giving a respectful bow & then presumably leaving the rank & file behind. And there’s nothing Celliers can do about it, buried up to his neck in sand by the rather more commandant-ish new commandant! As you may expect, he doesn’t last long & dies in 1941.
Within four years the tables will have turned thanks to the Allies, & Hara is now their prisoner, with Lawrence his final visitor before he’s to face execution for war crimes. You might think he has a point when he asks how exactly his own actions were different from any of his comrades, & feel a tinge of surprise when Hara’s former prisoner reveals his belief that the man who went above his station is a "victim of men who think they are right".

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without some sort of reminiscence, either, would it?

So, before Hara goes to meet his maker there’s a bit of harking back to the Christmas Eve Lawrence was released four years ago & discussion of the late Celliers alongside the revelation that Yonoi has already been dealt with rather finally for his part in what went on back then, as well as a rather unusual request - that Lawrence should take the lock of hair the former commandant cut from Celliers’ head & place it in a shrine in his home village!

Somewhere underneath all this there’s the sobering message that war is hell. And as Lawrence points out rather astutely "There are times when victory is very hard to take” as the man he was visiting repeats the festive greeting he cried out way back when...
"Lawrence!!! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!"
Perhaps moved by this, Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence & indeed Celliers’ portrayer that Bowie...
“...plays a born leader in Nagisa ƌshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and he plays him like a born film star.

Mr. Bowie's screen presence here is mercurial and arresting, and he seems to arrive at this effortlessly, though he manages to do something slyly different in every scene.

The demands of his role may sometimes be improbable and elaborate, but Mr. Bowie fills them in a remarkably plain and direct way. Little else in the film is so unaffected or clear.”
A duet with Bing Crosby, an animated family favourite, and an officer in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. If that isn’t Christmas versatility, what is?

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