In The Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden says, in a very abridged quote: “All I need is love.” In a sense, perhaps that is the essence of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a movie that seems to sit neatly, not unfairly, but also not disparagingly in the shadow of that David Lean epic.
The surface-level similarities are obvious from a narrative, and historical sense. But if its predecessor deals in the differences between national character and psyche, maybe this one deals in the similarities, the universal bonds and all kinds of masculine energies, idiosyncrasies and obstinacies that men of all backgrounds seem to share.
It’s a film of strange, polarising energies. A battle of wills, a clash of cultures and a meeting of minds between a group of men, ostensibly two British and two Japanese in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Captain Yonoi is thoughtful and emotionally competent until the arrival of David Bowie’s Major Celliers, a soldier’s solider known affectionately as Strafers by his allied camp mates. Tom Conti’s Colonel Lawrence is not the ranking allied officer, but enjoys a position of relative privilege as his fluency of the language and understanding of the culture makes him liaison between the armies, and needles the senior Australian officer. Takeshi Kitano has perhaps the most enigmatic role as a frequently psychopathic but often sociable Japanese Sergeant who brutalises prisoners but also strikes up an unlikely friendship with Lawrence.
It might be dismissed as Kwai-light, were it not for the presence of Bowie. With no due disrespect to the other participants, it’s the uniqueness and fragile energy that he brings to the role that gives this an extra shade of allure. Bowie ranked this as his most complete performance in a movie up until that point and you can see why. Without his contribution, this might be more easily dismissed as a rote “well, if only we could all just get along” simplification.