In 1983, rock star David Bowie starred in two major films: as part of the love-triangle vampire drama with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, and as Major Jack Celliers in Nagisa Ôshima’s prisoner-of-war film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
Bowie‘s meticulous performance as South African Major Jack Celliers, the rebellious and eccentric war hero confined to a Japanese PoW camp during WWII is consistently intriguing.
Other key characters include Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), the young camp commandant; Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti), a British ofﬁcer who has lived in Japan and speaks ﬂuent Japanese; and Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a brutal but principled noncommissioned ofﬁcer with whom Lawrence strikes up a friendship.
Celliers suffers from guilt for having betrayed his younger, deformed brother while both were attending boarding school. Conversely, Yonoi feels an overwhelming sense of shame. Having been posted to Manchuria, he was unable to be in Tokyo when his Army comrades, the “Shining Young Ofﬁcers”, staged a military coup d’état in 1936 (the ‘February 26 Incident’).
When the coup failed, Yonoi’s comrades were all executed, and Yonoi feels ill at ease with his own survival.
Although Celliers confesses his guilty secret only to Lawrence, Captain Yonoi senses that Celliers is a kindred spirit. Yonoi develops a homoerotic ﬁxation with him and wants to replace Australian RAAF Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) with Celliers as the prisoners’ advocate.
Yonoi’s batman tries to eliminate Celliers, thinking him to be a terrible inﬂuence on Yonoi, but Celliers evades him and escapes. As Celliers attempts to rescue Lawrence, Yonoi intervenes, challenging Celliers to single combat and promising to free him if he wins, but Celliers refuses to ﬁght.
Soon after that, the Japanese discover the POWs have a radio in their possession. Celliers and Lawrence are forced to take the blame and are marked for execution.
During Christmas Eve 1942, an inebriated Sgt. Hara calls for Celliers and Lawrence and, to their surprise, releases the two men. Yonoi is shocked that Sgt. Hara has released both Celliers and Lawrence from their holding cells but only mildly reprimands him for exceeding his authority and has him redeployed.
Hicksley demands an explanation, and a furious Yonoi has the whole camp put on parade – all POWs, including the sick and wounded, are ordered to form lines outside their barracks. Captain Yonoi then singles out Hicksley for execution by beheading.
Breaking ranks, Celliers calmly walks up and places himself between Yonoi and Hicksley. Yonoi angrily shoves him aside, but Celliers gets up and impassively kisses Yonoi on each cheek. Mortiﬁed by an act that so deeply offends his honour code, Yonoir reaches out for his katana against Celliers but collapses in an onrush of conﬂicted feelings: anger frustration, embarrassment and his unacknowledged love for Celliers.
Captain Yonoi’s soldiers immediately take over, beating and stomping Celliers for his insolence.
Now compromised, Yonoi is slated for redeployment. His successor (Hideo Murota) punishes Celliers by having him buried in the ground up to his neck and left to die. When they are alone, Yonoi extracts a lock of Celliers’ hair as a memento. Celliers dies soon after.
In 1946, Lawrence visits Sgt. Hara, now a prisoner of the Allies. In English, Hara explains that his execution for war crimes is scheduled for the next day. Lawrence reveals that Yonoi passed along Celliers’ lock of hair and asked that Lawrence place it in a shrine in his home village in Japan.
Hara shares memories about Celliers and Yonoi, and it is conﬁrmed that Yonoi was killed before the end of the war.
With an evocative score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, this powerful epic was based on the experiences of Sir Laurens van der Post in a Japanese camp during the Second World War.
Van der Post’s memoirs were adapted into a screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, who had also written The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), though it was Ôshima who selected Bowie for the lead role after being impressed by the star’s stage turn in The Elephant Man.
The film, however, is uneven and often unnecessarily harsh and gory. It tries to explore the differences and similarities of Western and Oriental cultures – a sort of intellectual version of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – but it pulls in so many directions at once that it fails to achieve coherence.
Filming took place over seven weeks. The first five weeks of the shoot occurred on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, northeast of New Zealand. Ôshima hired many island natives as extras (British POW extras were recruited from New Zealand). He also had a complete POW camp built but only filmed small portions of it.
For the last two weeks of the shoot, the company moved to New Zealand. Scenes were shot at Wanganui Collegiate School, doubling for a boarding school in South Africa; at Auckland Railway Station, doubling for a station in Batavia (Jakarta); and at Mount Eden Prison, Auckland, representing Hara’s prison in 1946.
Ôshima meticulously directed his Japanese actors, but when it came to the British actors, they were told to “do whatever it is you people do.”
Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers
Colonel John Lawrence
Sergeant Gengo Hara
Group Captain Hicksley
Jack Celliers, aged 12