It's strong, but potentially deceptive. It's both brutal and delicate, almost inviting misleading critical responses. It's not really interested in "what happens next" plotting and from that point of view basically drives its plot into a wall. It's portraying a lethal culture clash between stiff-upper-lip British racists and near-hysterical Japanese warriors who don't belong in the 20th century, with a title character who's the sole voice of sanity in a prisoner-of-war camp... and yet, in the end, Mr Lawrence turns out to be no more than an observer and the film appears to have sidelined what you might have been thinking was its main message.
Is it talking about war, or is that just the backdrop to eccentric psychological exploration of androgynous rock stars? To what extent is it about the clash of cultures and their two incompatible definitions of honour, bravery and patriotism? Is it about authority vs. victims? Is it actually just about sex? Is it trying to say anything at all?
It's an important work, though. It's a UK-Japan co-production, with a big-name director whose last film had won him a Best Director award at Cannes (Nagisa Oshima) and an unlikely but attention-grabbing cast (David Bowie, Takeshi Kitano, Ryuichi Sakamoto). The cast, if anything, looks even more bizarre today. It's almost impossible to stop watching Bowie, of course. Are those his real eyes, or did Oshima give him contact lenses? (Answer: they're really like that.) He's supposedly playing a damaged soldier on the cusp of despair and insanity, but it's hard to see him that way thanks to his impenetrable Bowie-ness. He's enigmatic and alien. He's fascinating. His irresistible cinematic pull distorts the film into a new Bowie-defined shape and it's a brain-wrenching exercise to try to imagine it with a more conventional movie star.
However Sakamoto's a musician too, famous at the time for experimental electronic music, who only agreed to act in this film on condition that he also be its composer. (It won a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music, but sometimes it sounds like 1980s Doctor Who.) Four years later he won an Oscar for his score to The Last Emperor.
And then there's Takeshi Kitano, today one of Japan's best-known writer/directors but at the time only known as a stand-up comedian. This was his first serious film role, yet since then he's become one of this film's most recognisable faces. He was the teacher in Battle Royale!
Anyway, back to the film. I'm pretty sure I've seen Nagisa Oshima denying that this film's homosexuality is an important element, but I think we can ignore that. His other films of this era are:
- (a) In the Realm of the Senses - woman strangles her lover to death during onscreen unsimulated sex and then cuts off his penis
- (b) Gohatto - gay samurai
- (c) Empire of Passion - man murders his lover's husband
- (d) Max, Mon Amour - Charlotte Rampling has regular sex with a chimpanzee
Here, the not-a-romance is between Sakamoto and Bowie, both cast for their androgynous looks. However the film starts with Takeshi's character nearly killing a Korean guard for having sex with a British prisoner, so romance in this environment doesn't look like a realistic option. Furthermore you'll get one of those two soldiers denying that he's gay and seemingly even believing that, even after regular gay sex and later having a gruesome reaction to seeing his lover's fate. Most of the men here have a rigid idea of their military duty. They'll be pillars of racist integrity (with the worst example being British), never bending in their convictions even if it means someone's death. Sakamoto's fiercely bound to his bushido honour and practices kendo with real swords. Takeshi can't understand why his prisoners haven't committed suicide from shame.
Sakamoto and Bowie could be said to be locked in a dance of death. Their self-image and their perceived duty are forcing them down a particular road, but they're also capable of doing some odd things. They also both have guilt issues. Sakamoto is ashamed of not dying in the Shining Young Officers attempted coup in 1936, even though he wasn't even in Japan at the time. Bowie though tops that with a near-hallucinogenic flashback sequence about his brother, in which Bowie (age 36) plays himself as a schoolboy. Because he's Bowie, this almost works.
None of this touches on Tom Conti as the title character, by the way. Bowie and Conti are both playing avatars of Sir Laurens van der Post, the writer whose novels inspired this film. Like Conti, van der Post was a Japanese prisoner of war who could speak Japanese during World War Two. (Well, Conti the actor can't speak a word of it. He had to learn his lines phonetically. However he does well and he's reasonably plausible.) Lawrence/Conti is thus the camp's one man who understands both sides and can plead for reason.
It's a fascinating film, I think. Don't expect Christmas escapism, though. Bowie/Sakamoto is obviously the film's key relationship, but Conti/Takeshi is also fundamental and arguably more immediate and human. See the film's title. It's about layers of authority, with judgement getting harsher and more uncontrollable the further you go up the level of command. Takeshi and Conti are in touch with humanity. Bowie and Sakamoto are more distant. Their superiors might as well be the angel of death. (And then there's Sakamoto's personal servant, who brings a terrifying new angle to fidelity to his master.)
More fundamentally, though, it's about men who don't understand themselves, let alone each other. It's about incompatible honour. It's about men vs. love. It's about whatever you choose to bring to it as a viewer, arguably. I don't know if I'd call this an entertaining film, but you can't doubt its integrity.