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Hooked to the Silver Screen: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

David Bowie ends up dead in an unnerving number of movies he starred in. We see him dead, in a coffin in Just a Gigolo, Mr. Rice’s Secret and The Hunger (well, sort of). He also gets killed in Into the Night and might have been dead all along in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Add Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence to the list, in which (spoiler alert), he’s buried up to his head and left to die over time that way. It’s a disconcerting image that comes near the end of a disconcerting movie.

I saw this movie once before, more than 30 years ago, and mostly only remembered that image of Bowie’s head sticking out of the sand. That and one other moment. Watching it again— I’m very sorry to say that I was disappointed. The movie mostly takes place in a Japanese prison camp in Java during World War II. Bowie is a prisoner, and Japanese musician and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto plays an officer overseeing the camp (though the true central character is John Lawrence, played by Tom Conti). I’m not going to summarize the plot much beyond that. Bowie’s character’s death is not the most surprising part, so I’ll leave the slow-paced twists and turns to you, if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

What I liked is that the movie was well acted. Bowie and Sakamoto are both hard not to watch— even while sweaty and often dirty, they are both extremely good looking men with commanding screen presences. This is surely one of Bowie’s most serious and well-executed performances as an actor. So that’s great, and that’s no small thing.

But the movie itself was, for me, confusing and plodding. Much of the version I just watched was in Japanese without subtitles. While I got the general idea what type of thing was being said, for me, these many scenes were not the best way to advance the plot. The words of the Japanese dialogue did not convey any information to me, so much of the movie’s subtleties went over my head.

The movie also suffered from its focus on three characters — those played by Conti, Bowie and Sakamoto. Conti’s character got the most screen time, but he was largely incidental to most of the major plot points. If I were to take a stab at what this movie was about, I’d say it explained the motivations behind Bowie’s character’s dangerously self-sacrificing altruism in the most hostile of environments. Turns out that his motivations don’t entirely come from a good place. Sakamoto’s character’s motivations also get some revealing. He seems to go light on Bowie’s character for a while but is ultimately responsible for that head popping out of the sand. The explanation for this is the most dramatic moment in the story.

Overall the movie bored me. I feel bad about writing that and almost get the sense that I should have really liked it. Was it too sophisticated for me? Am I too attuned to Marvel and Star Wars to appreciate a character drama like this? I don’t think that’s it. Instead, I think the movie took some chances on a few experimental storytelling techniques that just didn’t work. It’s a shame, because Bowie put in one of his best performances— everyone did, really. All the effort could have done well with a little more focus and refinement, and perhaps some subtitles.

Good use of Bowie?
Sakamoto passed away not too long ago. I didn’t know much about him, but I read him described as the “Japanese Bowie.” A multi-talented artist in many fields, the casting of both him and Bowie was something of a coup that I couldn’t fully appreciate in the 80s. And they both put their best effort into their roles. For these reasons, I’m coming down on this being a bad use of both Bowie and Sakamoto. This unique casting should have been put to better use. Bowie was possibly primed to make his major cinematic contribution, and then the moment passed. So, good though he was in the movie, it was a bad use of Bowie.

Though it feels like I should be giving this a higher rating, the best I can do is two out of four Bowies. Am I really saying that Labyrinth and The Hunger are much better than Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence? Yes. They are more entertaining and accomplish what they set out to far better than this does. This is a more serious movie, to be sure, but that’s sadly not enough.


And to see where it fits in the ranking summary, click HERE.

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