Out of the Celluloid Closet

See a sexy, sweaty David Bowie fall in love with a man in this lush WWII drama

Last March, we lost a towering, multitalented artist in Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese composer, producer, and actor whose experimental ecstasies in music remain some of the most fascinating on record. As a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto inspired a generation of cyberpunk artists with his synth-forward, dramatic compositions, often with mind-bending graphics to match.

Marrying sound and image was one of Sakamoto’s many talents, and it was perhaps never more on display than in the 1983 POW drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which Sakamoto co-starred with another music video pioneer with an acting career: the great David Bowie.


Directed by Japanese New Wave legend Nagisa Ōshima, the film is hardly your typical Christmas movie: the fact of Christmas is incidental to the drama, which follows the slow, sultry unfolding of a forbidden love affair between two men, the Japanese Captain Yonoi, tasked with overseeing a camp of English war prisoners in Japanese-occupied Java during WWII, and the British Major he meets and reluctantly becomes obsessed with, Jack Celliers (Bowie.)

The film is painful and slow-burning, full of the agony and uncertainty of life during wartime for prisoners and commanders stationed far from home. When the strict Yonoi is faced with Celliers, a man just as rebellious and loyal to his company as Yonoi is, he feels he’s met his match. There’s something about the man he simply can’t reckon with. Is it the fact that Celliers is played by an unshaven David Bowie at the peak of his beauty? Possibly: the fact that Yonoi is compelled to watch the prisoner sleep and steal a lock of his hair makes the obsession feel even queerer, and not strictly intellectual.

To make things even hotter, Sakamoto composed the score for the film, a sweet, melancholy, and ever-so-slightly unsettling series of synth tracks that underscore the forbidden love between the two men.

Mr. Lawrence does not have a happy ending—in fact it’s one of the better (and sadder) examples of the sacrificial gay trope. When Celliers sees that Yonoi is on the brink of a disastrous action, he does something that he knows will end his life. He kisses Yonoi on both cheeks. This action gets him sentenced to death, and not just any death: he’s buried alive, with only his head remaining above the sand.

It’s a horrible fate, but an apt one: through the film, Celliers has been acting like someone whose life has long ceased to mean anything. We find out the reason why through a confession—both Celliers and Yonoi are tortured by memories of their past cowardice, and have resolved to never fall prey to weakness again. But they can’t deny their love and respect for one another, and the tension between the two men that’s been building through the entire story resolves in that kiss. Celliers knows that the only way to put an end to his friend’s torture is to sacrifice himself. We’ve seen images of him as a sort of modern-day Saint Sebastian throughout, showing his scars and refusing to fall to peer pressure. And whether or not Celliers’ queerness extends beyond his sexless relationship with Yonoi, it’s clear that this is a man who’s been held back by shame for so long, he’s lost all pleasure in living.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may not be the most explicit of queer love stories, but it stays with you, as all movies about male shame must. It’s the kind of story that, had it taken place in another time or a different world, could have had a much kinder ending. As it is, these men knew they were doomed from the start. It’s enough to see them grasp at some small thread of happiness before closing up their hearts forever.

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