Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Japanese: 戦場のメリークリスマス, Hepburn: Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu, ‘Merry Christmas on the Battlefield’), also known in many European editions as Furyo (俘虜, Japanese for “prisoner of war”), is a 1983 war film co-written and directed by Nagisa Ōshima, co-written by Paul Mayersberg, and produced by Jeremy Thomas.
The film is based on the experiences of Sir Laurens van der Post (portrayed by Tom Conti) as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II, as depicted in his books The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). The film also stars David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, and Jack Thompson; Sakamoto also wrote the score and the vocal theme “Forbidden Colours”, which features David Sylvian.
In 1942, Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto) is the commander of a POW camp in Japanese-occupied Java. A strict adherent to the bushido code, his only sources of connection to the prisoners lie in the empathetic Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Conti), the only inmate fluent in Japanese, and the abrasive spokesman Group Captain Hicksley (Thompson), who repeatedly resists Yonoi’s attempts to find weapons experts among the prisoners for the Japanese army’s interests. Lawrence has befriended Sergeant Gengo Hara (Kitano), but remains at odds with the rest of the staff. Summoned to the military trial of the recently-captured Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), Yonoi is fascinated by his resilience and has him interned at the camp. After the trial, Yonoi confides with Lawrence that he is haunted with shame due to his absence during the February 26 Incident, believing he should’ve died alongside the rebels and implying that his focus on honour stems from this. Sensing a kindred spirit in Celliers, Yonoi’s fascination grows into a romantic obsession: he treats him specially, watches him sleep, and repeatedly asks Hara about him in private.
When the inmates are made to fast as punishment for insubordination during the forced seppuku of a guard (Okura), Celliers sneaks in food. The guards catch him and find a smuggled radio during the subsequent investigation, forcing him and Lawrence to take the blame. Yonoi’s batman, realizing the hold Celliers has on him, attempts to kill Celliers in his sleep that night, but fails after he wakes up and escapes, freeing Lawrence too. Yonoi catches Celliers and challenges him to a duel in exchange for his freedom, but Celliers refuses; the batman returns and commits suicide for his failure, urging Yonoi to kill Celliers before his feelings overpower him. At the funeral, Lawrence learns that he and Celliers will be executed for the radio, despite the lack of evidence, to preserve order in the camp; enraged, he trashes the funeral set and is forced back into his cell. That night, Celliers reveals to Lawrence that as a teenager, he betrayed his younger brother, long bullied for his hunchback, by refusing to spare him a humiliating and traumatizing initiation ritual at their boarding school. Confronting his past, he describes the lifelong shame he felt towards his actions, paralleling Yonoi’s predicament. During their conversation, the pair are released by a drunken Hara, as a different prisoner confessed to delivering the radio. As they leave, Hara calls out in English, “Merry Christmas, Lawrence!” Although Yonoi is angry at Hara for exceeding his authority, he only mildly reprimands him.
Hicksley, realizing that Yonoi wants to replace him with Celliers as spokesman, confronts him. The two argue over their withholding of information from one another before an enraged Yonoi orders the whole camp to form up outside the barracks, including the sick bay’s ailing patients, resulting in one’s death. Hicksley, who refused to bring out the patients, is to be punished for his insubordination with an on-the-spot execution. Before he can be killed, however, Celliers breaks rank and kisses Yonoi on each cheek, choosing to save Hicksley’s life at the cost of his own. Caught between a desire for vindication and his feelings for Celliers, a distraught Yonoi collapses and is ultimately relieved from duty. His more rigid replacement (Murota) has Celliers buried in the sand up to his neck and left to die. Before leaving, Yonoi sneaks into his pen and cuts a lock from his hair, moments before his passing.
Four years later, Lawrence visits Hara, who is now a prisoner of the Allies. Hara has learned to speak English and reveals he is to be executed the following day for war crimes. Expressing confusion over the harshness of his sentence given how commonplace his actions were among both sides of the war, he and Lawrence both conclude that while the Allies officially won, morally “we are all wrong.” The two reminisce on Celliers and Yonoi, the latter of whom was reported to have been killed after the war, before bidding each other goodbye. As he is leaving, Hara calls out, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!”.
- David Bowie as Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers.
- Chris Broun as Jack Celliers (aged 12).
- Tom Conti as Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence.
- Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi.
- Takeshi Kitano as Sergeant Gengo Hara.
- Jack Thompson as Group Captain Hicksley.
- Johnny Okura as Kanemoto.
- Alistair Browning as De Jong.
- James Malcolm as Celliers’ brother.
- Yuya Uchida as Commandant of military prison.
- Ryunosuke Kaneda as Colonel Fujimura, President of the Court.
- Takashi Naitō as Lieutenant Iwata.
- Yuji Honma as Private First Class Yajima.
- Tamio Ishikura as Prosecutor.
- Rokko Toura as Interpreter.
- Kan Mikami as Lieutenant Ito.
- Hideo Murota as New commandant of the camp.
David Bowie was cast as Jack Celliers after director Nagisa Ōshima saw him in a production of The Elephant Man on Broadway. He felt that Bowie had “an inner spirit that is indestructible”. While shooting the film, Bowie was amazed that Ōshima had a two- to three-acre camp built on the remote Polynesian island of Rarotonga, but most of the camp was never shot on film. He said Ōshima “only shot little bits at the corners. I kind of thought it was a waste, but when I saw the movie, it was just so potent – you could feel the camp there, quite definitely.” Bowie noted how Ōshima would give an incredible amount of direction to his Japanese actors (“down to the minutest detail”), but when directing him or fellow Westerner Tom Conti, he would say “Please do whatever it is you people do.” Bowie thought his performance in the film was “the most credible performance” he had done in a film up to that point in his career.
The boarding school sequence was shot on location at King’s College, a private high school in Auckland, New Zealand. In a shot of two students playing billiards, another boy in the room can be seen wearing a King’s blazer. Other scenes were filmed in various locations around Auckland including Auckland Railway Station.
Contrary to usual cinematic practice, Ōshima shot the film without rushes and shipped the film off the island with no safety prints. “It was all going out of the camera and down to the post office and being wrapped up in brown paper and sent off to Japan”, Bowie stated. Ōshima’s editor in Japan cut the movie into a rough print within four days of Ōshima returning to Japan.
On set, David Bowie made a bond with his on-screen brother, James Malcolm, whom he later called his “New Zealand brother”. For one pivotal scene in the movie, Malcolm had to sing for Bowie. The next year, Bowie invited Malcolm to join him on stage at Western Springs in Auckland for the Serious Moonlight tour, where they released a dove together as a sign of peace.
In Japan, the film earned ¥990 million in distributor rentals. In the United States, it grossed $2,306,560 (equivalent to $6,300,000 in 2021).
It sold 2,385,100 tickets in the United States, France and Sweden. It also sold 423,778 tickets in Germany, and 54 tickets in Switzerland and Iceland since 2007, for a combined 2,808,932 tickets sold in overseas territories outside of Japan and the United Kingdom.
- Tom Conti does not speak a word of Japanese. He learned his Japanese dialog phonetically.
- Reportedly, Japanese actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto fainted when he saw this film for the first time.
- Takeshi Kitano snuck inside to a screening to see how Japanese audiences would react to his role as a dramatic actor.
- However, the audience he was with laughed when his character is introduced, which he left embarrassed (he was a noted comedian at the time).
- An entire POW camp was built for the film but only small portions of it are shown in the film.
- Nagisa Ôshima wanted the actors to really feel as if they were in a POW camp.
- This film is notable for the casting of two rock stars, Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Bowie, respectively, one from the East and one from the West.
Production & Filming Details
- Nagisa Ôshima.
- Terry Glinwood … executive producer.
- Masato Hara … executive producer.
- Joyce Herlihy … associate producer.
- Geoffrey Nethercott … executive producer.
- Eiko Oshima … executive producer.
- Larry Parr … associate producer.
- Jeremy Thomas … producer.
- Lourens van der Post … (novel) (as Laurens van der Post).
- Nagisa Ôshima … (screenplay).
- Paul Mayersberg … (screenplay).
- Ryuichi Sakamoto … (as Ryûichi Sakamoto).
- Tôichirô Narushima … director of photography.
- Tomoyo Oshima.
- National Film Trustee Company.
- Antares-Nova (in association with).
- Recorded Picture Company (RPC) (in association with).
- Oshima Productions (in association with).
- Asahi National Broadcasting Company (in association with).
- Broadbank Investments (in association with).
- 20th Century Fox Brazil (1984) (Brazil) (theatrical).
- A.A.A. Soprofilm Distribution (1983) (France) (theatrical).
- Bac Films (2015) (France) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Carlotta Films (2015) (France) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Distribuidores Reunidos (1983) (Portugal) (theatrical).
- Fuji Eiga Company (1983) (Japan) (theatrical) (co-distribution).
- Kerridge Odeon (1984) (New Zealand) (theatrical).
- Mas-Filmi (1983) (Finland) (theatrical).
- Medusa Distribuzione (1984) (Italy) (theatrical).
- National Film Development Corporation (1986) (India) (theatrical).
- Palace Pictures (1983) (UK) (theatrical).
- Shochiku (1983) (Japan) (theatrical).
- Spentzos Films (1983) (Greece) (theatrical).
- Svensk Filmindustri (SF) (1983) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Universal Pictures (1983) (USA) (theatrical).
- A-Film Home Entertainment (2012) (Netherlands) (DVD) (Quality Film Collection).
- ARTE (2002) (France) (TV).
- ARTE (2016) (France) (TV).
- Arrow Academy (2020) (UK) (Blu-ray).
- Arthaus (2017) (Germany) (Blu-ray).
- Arthaus (2017) (Germany) (DVD).
- Artisan Entertainment (1999) (USA) (VHS).
- Atlantic Film (2006) (Sweden) (DVD).
- Aventi (2003) (France) (DVD).
- BS11 Digital (2007) (Japan) (TV).
- Bestseller Film & Video (Finland) (video).
- Breien Film (1983) (Norway) (VHS).
- Canal+ (1986) (France) (TV).
- Canal+ (1997) (France) (TV).
- Channel 5 Video (1986) (UK) (VHS) (Budget Release).
- ESC Distribution (2017) (France) (Blu-ray).
- Elokuvapalvelu J. Suomalainen (2021) (Finland) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
- EuroVideo (1999) (Germany) (DVD).
- Flashstar Home Vídeo (2000) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Future Film (2006) (Finland) (DVD).
- Herald Videogram (1990) (Japan) (VHS).
- Kinokuniya (2011) (Japan) (DVD).
- LW Editora (2002) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment (2010) (USA) (DVD).
- M6 (1999) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- MCA Home Video (1983) (USA) (VHS).
- MCA/Universal Home Video (1992) (USA) (VHS).
- MTV3 (1988) (Finland) (TV) (as MTV1).
- Nihon Eiga Satellite Broadcasting (2012) (Japan) (TV).
- Nippon Herald Films (1990) (Japan) (VHS).
- Palace Video (1983) (UK) (VHS).
- Palace Video (1983) (UK) (video) (Betamax).
- Palace Video (1983) (UK) (video) (video 2000).
- Paramount Channel (2020) (France) (TV).
- Paris Première (2007) (France) (TV).
- Paris Première (2021) (France) (TV).
- Pony Canyon (1990) (Japan) (VHS).
- Pony Canyon (2004) (Japan) (DVD).
- Pony Video (1984) (Japan) (VHS).
- RTL9 (2006) (France) (TV).
- RTL9 (2012) (France) (TV).
- Second Sight Films (2000) (UK) (DVD).
- Star Media Entertainment (2007) (Norway) (DVD).
- Star Video (1984) (Australia) (video).
- TF1 Vidéo (2000) (France) (DVD).
- TV Asahi (1984) (Japan) (TV).
- The Criterion Channel (2019) (USA) (TV) (digital).
- The Criterion Collection (2010) (USA) (DVD).
- Télé Monté Carlo (TMC) (2006) (France) (TV).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2008) (Australia) (TV).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2008) (Australia) (all media).
- Video Film Express (2001) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Video Style (Finland) (video).
- WOWOW Prime (2013) (Japan) (TV).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1988) (Finland) (TV).
- marketing-film (1985) (West Germany) (VHS).
- Release Date: 11 May 1983 (Cannes Film Festival, France).
- Rating: 15.
- Running Time: 123 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.