Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Like a cinematic hothouse, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence teems with ideas and supercharged emotion growing lush—and impenetrable—as the South Pacific jungles where it was filmed. Ostensibly a study of diametric cultures at war, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima compromises the film’s integrity in his attempt to graft the delicate blossoms of Eastern thought onto the oak of Western pragmatism. To instruct (and win) American and European audiences, Oshima becomes a Samurai in Anglican vestments and Lawrence is deprived of a distinct point of view.

Missionaries, in particular, will recognize the conflicts in the film: when the best of intentions are frustrated by a lack of understanding between cultures. The characters convene in a Japanese prison camp during World War II where each seeks to work out his own salvation with fear, trembling, and casual brutality. The camp commandant (Ryuichi Sakamoto) sees a kindred spirit in British officer Jack Celliers (David Bowie), but their mutual respect is negated by a historically imposed antagonism. Former diplomat Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti) tries unsuccessfully to bridge the gap between two worlds and represents the ideal civilized man: harbinger of the blessed peace heralded by angels that first Christmas. As Oshima is quick to tell us, truth and morality in war are determined by the victor. In the film’s epilogue, the warm friendship between Lawrence and a Japanese sergeant is severed when the engines of Allied victory condemn the former captor to death.

Despite its noble pretensions, there is little to recommend this film. The cast is superlative, but the film seems to have been edited with a Samurai sword. Most Christians will ...

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