If most war movies dwell on the physical manifestations of war–understandable given the nature of war–, there is a subset of the war film genre called the POW movie where the story takes place away from the battlefield. Because we see enemies coexisting in close quarters and the imbalance of power between the captors and the captives, the emphasis is more on the psychology than on the physicality of conflict. In combat, one sides seeks to gain advantage over the other side, generally by killing as many of the enemy as possible. Soldiers are faceless in the battlefield, shooting ducks to the other side. And in order to fight like a soldier, i.e. a killing machine, the last thing on the soldier’s mind is the humanity of the enemy. And though we often hear of men bonding as brothers in the same unit, my guess is most soldiers still live by the rule, ‘better you than me’ when the bombs fall. Battles are horrific, but their simple logic is a kind of saving grace. A soldier need not think. He needs to go by instincts, be alert, and fight like a man–or an animal. In the rip-roaring and hectic opening and final battle scenes in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the only game rule is kill or be killed. Indeed, the most prickly moment in the movie is when the GI’s capture a German soldier and debate as to his fate(as a human being than as a faceless soldier). Kill him or spare him? And so, P.O.W. movies do present prickly situations, especially if the cultures and ambitions of enemy nations are strikingly different. In a prison camp, the captors must treat the very people they’d kill on the battlefield as human beings, and the prisoners must take orders from the very people they’d kill on the battlefield. There is also a kind of mutual respect and contempt. Respect in the sense that some degree of communication and even camaraderie may develop between the captor and captive–as between a master and a slave–but also contempt in the sense that captors have to house, feed, and guard enemy soldiers. And of course, there’s plenty of fear and hatred on the side of the captives toward the captors, especially if the latter doesn’t much care for international laws.
In MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE, things are further complicated because of the Japanese idea that an honorable soldier does not surrender but chooses to die. To the Japanese, the Western POWs don’t have what it takes to be courageous and pure warriors. The Japanese feel that the British and the Dutch surrendered merely to save their own skins. This is further complicated by the character of Jack Celliers who, it turns out, surrendered not to save his own skin but the lives of other men.
Though MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE was hardly the first P.O.W. movie, it is one of the most psychological and in a manner that grapples with subjects and issues that war movies generally ignore or shy away from for their discomfiting or embarrassing nature. As such, it is not really a genre film with a readymade formula but a work of cultural psychoanalysis set in a P.O.W. camp in Indonesia during WWII. However, the approach is less clinical than metaphysical, unfolding more like dream analysis than a session on a couch.
There is an uptightness about some of the main particulars in the movie, especially Captain Yonoi and Jack Celliers. Yonoi is dedicated to the ideal of glorious Japan and the pure warrior code(and willfully blind to just about all else) whereas Celliers is a man who embraced war and violence to escape from private anguish. Both are driven to some extent by a guilt complex. Yonoi grieves the deaths of his friends in a military rebellion(in the name of the Emperor of course) and conceals a certain shame that he hadn’t joined them; he seeks redemption as the perfect soldier with the purest spirit. He is partly drawn from Yukio Mishima who also nursed a personal shame all his life for not having died a beautiful and honorable death in WWII. (Though rejected by the recruiting board for his sickness and frailty, other accounts indicate he cunningly dodged the draft.) Celliers’ repressed shame is more of a personal nature, and it keeps resurfacing to haunt him; he can find redemption only through an act of atonement.
Though the main character may indeed be Lawrence, the essential spiritual and moral conflict derives from the battle of wills between Yonoi and Lawrence. Oddly enough, though of different nations, natures, and cultures–especially at war with one another–, it’s as if Celliers and Yonoi needed to cross each other’s path to arrive at higher truth or inner peace. In some ways, MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE could have used the title Enemies: A Love Story. Enemies naturally oppose one another, but sometimes it takes opposites to reflect and reveal what the self cannot see within or draw out of oneself.
MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE is a very strange movie, not least because the theme of Christmas–associated with the cold and clarifying snowy winters of the north–is played out in the hot humid jungles of Indonesia Also, the two antagonist nations–Japan and Britain–are fighting for territory that isn’t even theirs. It’s a war between trespassers and aliens in a part of the world that has no understanding or need for them. In this regard, it has similarities with AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, perhaps the ultimate movie about a case of cultural fish out of water.
There are two kinds of war movies: one where the characters fight on their own home turf to
defend the motherland–Polish films about WWII perfectly fit this mold–and one where the characters fight in foreign land for dominance, national interest, revenge, or ideological struggle.
The former kind of war film has greater moral clarity since we can all understand the desire for a people to defend their motherland or fatherland(though this can be complicated if the defensive nation provoked the hostilities in the first place; though Germans and Japanese eventually came to defend their home turfs, they’d instigated the war and brutally trampled on the motherlands of other peoples. USSR’s war on Germany and America’s war on Japan were essentially wars of vengeance based on the logic of ‘since you fuc*ed my mother, I’ll fuc* your mother’).
War movies about fighting in a foreign land are generally stranger due to the element of exoticism, culture clash, travelogue, and willingness to do things unthinkable on one’s own home turf–after all, the bombs are only killing foreigners.
If the foreign country is very different from one’s own, the war experience is stranger yet. Americans could culturally better relate to enemy Germans in World War II than with South Vietnamese allies during the Vietnam War.
Some of the saddest and most harrowing war movies are about soldiers dying far away from home–the German soldiers freezing in the Russian snow in the final scene of STALINGRAD or the dazed and starving Japanese soldier wandering zombie-like in FIRES ON THE PLAIN.
But it could also be said that one’s deeper humanity can only be discovered outside one’s own cultural community and conventions. If a person is comfortably situated and well camouflaged in his own society with its time-honored rules; in contrast, against the backdrop of a different culture, his sense of truth and right & wrong is challenged and clarified. In a sense, a fish discovers its true fishiness out of water. In the water, the fish, being in its own element, and can forget that it is a fish. It may even lull itself into thinking that wateriness is the only and universal reality. Out of water, the fish is confronted with its naked fishy nature. For it to survive, it must evolve into something other than fishiness. This is also true of children in the sense that they become true adults only by stepping outside the comfortable confines of home and family. Only in a world where one cannot take one’s-place-in-it for granted can one find and define one’s true individual self. This is indeed the difference between the Italian mama’s boy who is mentally and culturally slower to leave one’s home, family, and clan and the Northern European male who is expected to seek independence and forge a mature identity in the larger community of strangers(who may in time become friends). The Northern European male depends more on law and responsibility whereas the Italian mama’s boy relies more on loyalty and dependence. And to an extent, there is a similar contrast between the maturer British and schoolboy-like Japanese in MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE. (Indeed, one of the reasons why the West may have arrived at a higher truth was by exploring and discovering worlds outside its own, which challenged and inspired the West to readjust and reformulate its narrow concepts of reality and truth. The West became more adept at paradigm shifts and reconsideration of the nature of truth–scientific, cultural, historical, and moral–based on new discoveries and theories whereas the rest of the world blindly and arrogantly stuck to its principles of immutable sacred truths. For instance, the Chinese, until it had been cracked open by the West, had arrogantly thought China was the center of the world and everyone else was either a barbarian or an ass-kisser to the Chinese. It is one of the paradoxes of history that those filled with the greatest cultural arrogance came under the rule of those with the most cultural curiosity and respect for other cultures; though the British and French never lacked for cultural pride and arrogance, they had genuine interest in and respect for the heritages of other civilizations, which in many cases, they rediscovered through the science of archaeology.) In PLATOON, the main character arrives at a higher moral truth in the jungles of Vietnam by mingling with soldiers of different class, regional, and racial backgrounds. His pat notions of truth based on Apple Pie and God & Country simply will not suffice. In this sense, war films on foreign territories can be illuminating as well as nostalgic. There is clearly the agony of homesickness, but in some cases, there is also the sense seeing the larger world and peering deeper into the human soul in all its nobility and ugliness. And perhaps no film achieved more in this vein than MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE which is about soldiers of two starkly different nations displaced far from home but who find a kind of spiritual home on foreign soil.
And with sickness–physical and mental(or spiritual)–as one of its main themes, the film’s mood is feverish, as if hallucinating from bouts of malarial delirium. But perhaps, the real significance of life can only be glimpsed along the shores of death.
What follows is a consideration of the film without much in the way of synopsis, so it probably won’t make much sense to those who haven’t seen the film. I highly recommend it as one of the finest films of the 1980s. It is also memorable as a humanist story. Recently released on DVD, it should be priority viewing for all movie lovers.
Though most of what follows is a series of digressions–often confusing and confused–, those who’ve seen the film should ‘get’ most of it. Since BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, GRAND ILLUSION, and HUMAN CONDITION are also discussed, it might help if those films have been seen as well.
MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE takes place in Indonesia, a nation I’m not familiar with except through news about the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the film YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Though its largest demographic group consists of Muslims, it’s a tropical country with Hindu and Buddhist minorities. A nation of many islands made of up diverse ethnicity, tribes, and even races, it only became a nation, in the modern sense, through Western imperialism. Though Indonesia won its independence in the name of national sovereignty, the very nation of Indonesia as a national entity was created under the ‘oppression’ of Dutch imperialism. This kind of paradox was all too common in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, where many newly created nations were essentially the products of Western domination. For example, there was no national entity called Kenya or Uganda until the British carved out, defined, and politically unified such territories. So, it’s somewhat amusing when Kenyans or Indonesians say they’ve freed themselves from Western domination and oppression. Their very existence as nationalities is owed to the intervention of the West.
Indonesia is not a typical Muslim country–if those in the Middle East could be characterized as such(though that too is debatable given the great divergences among Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt). But if Muhammad was essentially a desert warrior, and his religion became associated with aridity, purity, and fundamentalism, this cannot be said of Islam in Indonesia. Though there have been horrible Muslim massacres of indigenous locals and despite the fact that all Muslim countries have their share of ‘extremists’, the Islam that filtered into Indonesia was a more syncretized one. Separated culturally and physically far from its original source, it blended more with local traditions–just as Buddhism, by the time it reached Japan, became something quite different than what it had been in India. Of course, things may be changing today with air travel and high-tech communications. Muslims in Indonesia today can easily go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and receive the latest newsletters from fundamentalist Muslims. (Of course, Indonesians today are also bombarded by McDonalds and MTV, so who knows how all of this will play out. The world is simultaneously becoming more Judeo-Afro-paganized and more spiritually fundamentalized on a daily basis.)
For centuries and even now, Indonesia has been a strange place, one of high civilization and primitivism, one of purist religions–Buddhism and Islam–and diverse local beliefs, a world of lush bountiful forests and great poverty. Today, Indonesia may be the largest Muslim country–though I believe the India has a larger Muslim population as a whole–and an important nation with rich natural resources, but one need only to look at a map to see how scattered and divided the country is. To be sure, a handful of islands–especially Java and Sumatra–comprise the bulk of the population and political power, but if the country has held together thus far, it owes less to good governance than incompetence and indifference among those who’ve been left out of the boot-and-loot game.
There is a certain symmetry–political and personal–at work in MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE(henceforth, just MCML). It’s almost as if two great comparable seafaring powers have clashed halfway around the world in a place alien to their sensibilities and culture. As to the right to control that piece of territory, one could argue that the Japanese are Asians in Asian territory or that the British have more experience in imperialist governance(thus more qualified). Though Indonesia was Dutch colony, the main military engagements were between the Japanese and British owing to their grander imperialist ambitions. Though the British had at one time vied for world domination with the Spanish, Dutch, and finally the French, the Western powers had arrived at a kind of gentleman’s agreement to respect one another and guard their mutual interests. Meanwhile, Japan, a great rising power in the first half of the 20th century, believed it was their destiny to ‘liberate’, ‘protect’ and rule Asia.
Given that both the Japanese and the British are in a foreign land, it’s not easy to ascertain the political morality of the situation. Westerners would have been hypocritical to complain about Japanese warmongering and invasion when they’d pioneered world domination, which eventually led to the forcible opening of feudal Japan to modernization(and then participation in the imperialist enterprise). One could argue that Westerners in Southeast Asia who came under Japanese rule merely got a taste of their own medicine.
On the other hand, it should be common knowledge by now that the Japanese killed more people in a few yrs in Indonesia than the Dutch killed in 200 yrs. Japanese use of slave labor in Indonesia led to the deaths of 100,000s of natives. Some Indonesians may be offended by MCML for having no Indonesian characters. But this is almost par for the course when it comes to war movies. Most American movies about WWI, WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War have almost nothing to do with the locals or their troubles. It’s almost entirely about Americans, with Oliver Stone’s HEAVEN AND EARTH as a rare exception. (Clint Eastwood’s LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA presented a counter-perspective, but it too was mostly about fighting men, not about how the average civilians were impacted by war. And I can’t think of too many Hollywood movies about WWII on the European front focusing on civilians among ally or enemy nations. Generally, movies like BIG RED ONE and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN have token scenes to remind us that civilians were part of the war too. For a glimpse of the larger reality of war, the viewer has to search out films made by other nations–NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS, FORBIDDEN GAMES, PAISAN, etc)
Be that as it may, MCML is not a conventional war or a P.O.W. movie, such as BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, STALAG 17, or KING RAT. It has certain genre elements, especially the conflict between rigidity and flexibility, principles(no matter how misguided, unrealistic, or delusional) and pragmatism. But if BRIDGE, STALAG, and KING RAT are essentially physical dramas, MCML is a meditative movie about the conflict within the human soul. The centerpiece of the movie is the Captain Yonois’ commitment to the spirit OVER the body and Major Cellier’s commitment to the spirit FOR the body. Initially, it appears that Yonoi the rigid disciplinarian is a man of iron-clad principles and Major Celliers is a maverick who likes to break rules. In the end, we learn Celliers is no less doggedly principled, albeit for personal and moral reasons.
Though BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is a great movie, it more or less belongs in the Hollywood genre of the action epic. Though intelligently written and acted, it doesn’t scratch deep beneath the surface of human psychology. In contrast, MCML was clearly conceived of as an ‘art film’, for lack of a better term, and it was made by Nagisa Oshima, one of Japan’s most irascible, radical, and provocative directors of the 1960s and 1970s. Personally, I never cared for most of the films that made his reputation–CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH, VIOLENCE AT NOON, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, etc–and came to respect him as a director through his more conventional films such as MCML and GOHATTO(aka TABOO).
Most of his films from the 60s and early 70s are marred by their willfully bad manners and contrarian crudity, as if those qualities alone add up to insight, brilliance, and truth. Many of his films now seem dated, as relics of radical 60s agitation, hardly surprising since one of Oshima’s main inspirations was Jean-Luc Godard, many of whose films also seem dreary today. Oshima must have matured or wised up at some point to have created a beautifully realized film like MCML, which is not merely leftist agitprop, rebel temper tantrums, or avant-garde bleating for attention. To be sure, Oshima probably saw himself in the character of Celliers, the misunderstood troublemaker. Celliers often comes across as a bad boy but is really a noble soul, and Oshima, who made his reputation as the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, may have felt similarly justified in his role as cultural prophet to awaken the moral soul of Japan from the doldrums of conformity, consumerism, and compliance with an unjust order(built on false memory). And in the character of Yonoi, we may see shades of Yukio Mishima, the right-wing ‘bad boy’ provocateur of Japanese culture in the 60s who intellectually, artistically, and ultimately politically clashed with leftists like Oshima.
There are interesting historical, thematic, and plot similarities between BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI(henceforth BORK) and MCML. Both films take place in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in Southeast Asia. Both films pit the elitist man of high principles with a man of(or for) the people. And the meaning of heroism, personal sacrifice, and redemption weigh heavily in both films. But there is one crucial difference. In BORK, the primary dramatic conflict is between Col. Nicholson(Alec Guinness) and Shears(William Holden). Though Col. Nicholson initially butts heads with Col. Saito(Sessue Hayakawa), the former triumphs–morally and spiritually–while the latter simply turns into a laughing stock and fades from dramatic importance. The moral gravity of the movie derives from Nicholson’s insane idea of building a bridge for the Japanese–ironically on the sanest sounding principles–and Shears’ joining a British assault mission to blow up the bridge. Mind you, Shears is no saint, and indeed is initially portrayed as a typically individualist and self-centered(and adaptive)American who will do just about anything to serve numero uno, namely himself. He hasn’t much in the way of ideals or political loyalty. He was someone drafted into a war whose significance is lost on him. He is slyly blackmailed into joining the mission, but along the way, he becomes as committed, if not more so, in blowing up the bridge. That becomes his act of redemption.
Nicholson, unlike Shears, is introduced as man of great inner strength, high moral principles, a real officer’s officer. Unlike the plebeian and vulgar Shears, he’s very much the product of the British upper class. But Nicholson has a huge blind spot when it comes order and duty. He’s so dedicated to British pride, discipline, and hierarchy and so eager to prove to the Japanese(and to posterity)the superiority of British work ethic and workmanship, that he fails see the full consequences of what he’s doing. I can’t imagine any British officer being this ridiculous, and of course, BORK is a work of fiction, but there is a strange logic to Nicholson’s reasoning that makes his rationale seem oddly seductive and even noble. In a way, he seems to have a historical than a political sensibility. After all, when we look at ancient ruins, do we think of the politics of the bygone period or ponder the imagination and effort that went into building them? In this sense, Nicholson is able to think beyond the British Empire, able to look centuries ahead when all current empires may have fallen or faded. To be sure, he is a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he inspires and pushes his men to build the bridge for the most practical reasons; it’s good for their discipline and mental and physical health. He’s also driven by his ego; it’s not enough that he won over Col. Saito; he has to show that he was 100% correct about his men and the bridge. Yet, the bridge also represents something beyond the ego, something beyond even the British and the Japanese; it is to serve as a kind of timeless monument to man’s ingenuity and greatness in the middle of a jungle populated with primitives and monkeys. He’s not raving mad like Aguirre(of Werner Herzog’s film), but he is moved by the powers of dreams. He is a tight-buttoned visionary.
Everything finally comes to a head when Nicholson sees the lowly Shears sacrificing his life for the mission, realizes his folly, and seeks redemption for his blind-sided treachery.
Even though the ‘good’ or at least ‘better’ guys do blow up the bridge, the last words–“Madness! Madness!” in the movie belongs to Major Clipton, the sanest person in the movie but also, in some ways, the most ineffective, for a sane man in an insane world is like fish out of water. Major Clipton’s counterpart in MCML is, of course, Col. Lawrence played by Tom Conti. Both Clipton and Lawrence represent the humanist striving for common sense decency and understanding. They are sometimes the very best of Man, sometimes hopelessly confused and lost in a cursed world.
If BORK’s main moral-dramatic conflict is between the American common man Shears and the British elitist Nicholson–than between East and West–, the main antagonists in MCML are Capt. Yonoi(Ryuichi Sakamoto) and Major Jack Celliers(David Bowie). Interestingly enough, both are experimental composers who’ve straddled between popular and avant-garde music. It should also be noted that both have been noted for their sexual ambiguity, which is appropriate since homosexuality figures into the story.
As the story progresses, the divide between the two grow wider and especially painful for Yonoi, who develops a sexual and spiritual obsession with Celliers.
As for Celliers, though he challenges Yonoi’s authority, his main obsession isn’t with Yonoi nor even with the war but with an episode in his own past–betrayal of his younger brother.
MCML is essentially a tale of Christian-humanism, and as such, its concept of redemption is broader and deeper than that of BORK, whose main concerns are political and social. Nicholson, for the social good of his men, makes a grievous political mistake. Shears, initially selfish and cunning, dies nobly as a real soldier.
MCML has a spiritualist component lacking in BORK or most war films. Its mood has something in common with Kon Ichikawa’s spiritualist-humanist BURMESE HARP, another POW film set in Southeast Asia–in this case, Japanese imprisoned by the Allies–where a soldier turns to spiritual salvation to pray for the souls of his fallen comrades.
The hero of BURMESE HARP turns to religion–in this case, Burmese Buddhism–to seek solace from the horrors of war and finds a degree of peace through faith. It is much trickier in MCML. There is a kind of spiritual war between the quasi-fascist Yonoi and the Christo-humanist Celliers, but the emotions are far more personalized(and twisted). For all of Yonoi’s devotion to spiritual purity, his fascination with Celliers is largely (homo)sexual. For someone who’s committed to the Japanese nationalist ideology of Yamato pure blood lines, he has rather funny hots for a blonde white guy. It’s further complicated because Yonoi is actually a very intelligent and well-educated man who has studied and been outside Japan. He’s not some closed-minded provincial boob but someone with genuine respect for other cultures and peoples, especially for the great powers of the West.
He’s committed to a superiorist ideology and identity, but like so many of his countrymen, he is riven by feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the West that owns more power, wealth, guns, territory, and resources. The Japanese invasion of Asia was of course to reverse this situation, at least in the Asian sphere. And since the Japanese were materially disadvantaged vis-a-vis the West(or even China), there was a great emphasis on the FIGHTING SPIRIT as a kind of compensation. Yonoi is both very Japanese and very confusedly universalist. He is no slouch and indeed very hard on himself on matters of being a pure(and even just)warrior, but he expects non-Japanese to follow his lead. He projects a hopelessly particularist Japanese concepts of the power of the spirit onto western POWs, many of whom are sick, weary, and about to keel over–and are completely alien to Japanese cultural ideas and practices. In Yonoi’s mental universe, it’s as if everyone could turn Japanese–at least spiritually–if they just tried hard enough. He expects everyone to overcome his weakness and pain to get his act together and work for the creation of the Japanese empire.
And yet, as Celliers demonstrates, Yonoi cannot overcome his own physical passions. In the final confrontation when Celliers kisses Yonoi, the latter cannot override his lust-love for the British blonde. He is unable to kill Celliers and just collapses like a girl who’s been kissed by her dream prince. For all his talk of godlike control over one’s body and soul, Yonoi is no less a prisoner of his emotions.
Though Celliers is destroyed physically, he is the one who triumphs spiritually over Yonoi.
Even so, there are several layers of meaning to this; there’s more than meets the eye. Celliers is, as far as we can tell, not a very religious nor spiritual man in the technical sense. He grew up attending churches and all that, but he comes across very much a worldly person. Thus, his spiritual redemption is more personal than religious. Though he sacrifices his life for the fellow POWs and perhaps even for Yonoi, his main motivation is personal guilt in regard to his younger brother. His compatriots may see his punishment/death as most unjust, but Celliers may have always nursed a death wish, a desire to die for humanity to atone for what he did to(or failed to do for) his brother.
Consider the striking symmetries and stark differences in the movie. Both Japan and Britain are island nations. During WWII, both were striving to expand or maintain control as imperial powers. Both nations have long been defined by a rigid class/caste system. Though Britain democratized and liberalized, its class hierarchy remained in place well into the early 60s. Also, social form and manners have been of great importance in both nations(though much less so in UK since the 60s). And though Meiji reforms and modernization disbanded the samurai caste and liberalized and opened up Japanese society–even the military class–to all classes, Japan, even today, is marked by deep sense of hierarchy and order. And both nations have also been profoundly influenced by a transcendent faith: Christianity or Buddhism.
Yet the differences are also profound. Britain had been in the imperialist and colonial game for centuries whereas Japan only joined the club in the late 19th century. The social and political changes in Britain happened gradually whereas Japan was dragged almost overnight into worldly affairs after centuries of isolation and stasis. Despite the emphasis on social discipline and order, the British had also been defined by individualism–if not the egalitarian than the elitist kind where the excellent man of science, arts, or politics was respected for his singular achievement. Also, the pro-active aspect of Protestant Christianity ensured social reforms and even missions to places all over the world.
Though profoundly moral, Buddhism has been a passive and reclusive spirituality that disdains the notion of ‘saving the world’ as a misguided attachment to an illusion called ‘reality’. In Christianity, one not only draws inward for inspiration but moves outward to do good work. In Buddhism, one simply withdraws into a state of meditation and rejects the world. As such Buddhism was considered less threatening than Christianity to the samurai order by the rulers of Japan. Though Buddhism’s message of pacifism may have been anathema to the warrior caste, it was preached as a personal than a social credo. (On the other hand, centuries of Christian faith certainly didn’t prevent the West from being martial and aggressive, and if anything, it seems to have served as a moral justification for West’s domination of the world. The most recent example of this was the Christian Right’s overwhelming support of Bush’s invasion of Iraq.)
Because of Christian social/moral activism and long experience of ruling over indigenous natives, it could be said that the British, by the 20th century, tended to be more patient, sensible, and decent in working with non-British peoples than the Japanese could ever hope to be. If Christianity reminded the Brits that the non-English–even wogs, chinks, and niggers(and yes, even Irish potatoheads)–were children of God, their trial-and-error experience with and extensive study of non-whites around the world taught them to be more fair and judicious with them bloody buggers. And though social form was very important to the British, some degree of forgiveness and tolerance for improprieties was a hallmark of British attitude and manners. Indeed, having a certain humor about such things was an essential part of being British. Also, despite the commitment to hierarchy, the British were not averse to the idea of people–even of lower rank–challenging authority when wronged. Japanese, in contrast, could be psychotically intolerant on matters of impropriety, and justice was far less an element in their maintenance of social hierarchy. Blind and unswerving loyalty–like that of a dog to its master–was seen as the highest good.
Thanks to Christianity and a long experience in exploration and imperialism, the British attained a degree of empathy for the non-British people whom they came to rule. As long their subjects submitted to or acknowledged British dominance, the Brits often took a live-and-let-live attitude toward them. British Imperialism was odd for being simultaneously more enlightened/tolerant AND more intolerant/prejudiced than other forms of European imperialism. While the other great imperialist powers–the Spanish, Portuguese, and the French–also insisted on white rule and white domination, they were not averse to racially intermingling and mixing with the non-white natives. French-Canadians had a policy of racially mixing with the Indians, and the Spanish extensively racially mixed with the ‘Indians’ of South and Central Americas. But there was relatively far less mixing between Anglos and natives in places like Canada, US, Australia, and New Zealand, though that’s rapidly changing in the NWO dominated by leftist-Jewish ideology whose goal is to deracinate the white race by making white women chase after Negroes and use their white vaginas to give birth to mulatto–legally black–children.
Paradoxically enough, it was precisely because the British insisted on racial separation(or racial intolerance)that they managed to be culturally more tolerant. Since the British believed that white is white and non-white is non-white and never the twain shall meet, it made sense that non-whites should hold onto their own cultures even as British subjects. Though the British believed in spreading the noble ideas of civilization and bringing light to savages and barbarians, they never had much hope for non-whites reaching the level of civilization achieved by the British.
Given the British elite’s attitudes toward the lower classes within Britain itself and toward the drunken potato-munching wife-beating boot-tossing Irish, it harbored an air of skepticism about masses of white people too. British civilization and empire were built on a contradiction that, for a time at least, provided the necessary positive and negative charges to energize the British historical project. One crucial element of this contradiction was the love of and movement toward progress, liberty, enlightenment, tolerance, universalist truth/justice, and individuality while the other element was love of the motherland, queen, order, discipline, hierarchy, racial-national pride, fish and chips, and God & Country. The British Empire couldn’t have attained the greatness with only one side of these elements. Had it merely sought power and order, it might have gone the way of Imperial Russia, the stagnant Spanish Empire, or the decaying Portuguese Empire. British greatness owed much to ongoing progress in politics, economics, education, and science/technology; and there was no denying the importance of economic freedom via free enterprise and intellectual freedom via free inquiry. It was no accident that Adam Smith and Charles Darwin happened to be British than Spanish or Portuguese. On the other hand, empire building requires great deal of martial spirit, order, discipline, collective confidence and pride, and a sense of racial, cultural, and/or moral superiority. The British loved the spirit of liberty but also the specifics of lordship. The two elements collaborated in the creation of the British Empire, but the contradictions were bound to become more problematic as both the size of the empire and demands of freedom(both within Britain itself and amongst the colonies)increased. Given that the British had invested so much pride in the notion that their empire had spread liberty, justice, and truth all over the world, it was becoming a harder sell to convince the imperial subjects and the lower classes that all were fair and free within the empire. At the core of the idea of liberty, justice, and truth is the idea of equality. Not equality as in Marxist egalitarianism but as in truth, liberty, and justice being equally applicable to all peoples. Justice is only justice if its rules applies equally to rich man or poor man, to white man or brown man. For liberty to be just, every individual must be free within a given community committed to the ideal of freedom. And truth is truth, and as such, must be equally true of and for all peoples, an idea that goes back to certain ancient Greek thinkers and Judeo-Christian values.
The British were confronted with two main problems resulting from the contradiction of supremacist empire-building and egalitarian truth-justice-liberty spreading.
Firstly, the British were unwilling to bestow complete equal rights to ‘wogs’, ‘niggers’, and ‘chinks’–nor even to the drunken Irish and the lower classes of Britain–, thus enraging many westernized non-British subjects who came to smell a rat. Remember that Gandhi had at one time been a proud member of the British Empire.
Secondly, many non-British subjects within the empire not only rebelled against British rule but also rejected the whole rigamarole about ‘human rights’, liberty, individualism, free markets, and etc. While the more advanced peoples like the Chinese in Hong Kong and Singapore eagerly learned from the British and modernized their own societies, many backward peoples just didn’t understand what all this ‘democratic values’ were about. Today, while Africans do a pretty good song-and-dance about promoting and practicing democracy and freedom throughout Africa–mainly to receive more aid from the rich West–, most Africans are into tribalism, jungle-bunnism, uga-bugasm, and fuc*-everything-in-sight-ism(and-chop-it-up-and-have-it-for-dinner-ism). And it must be said that even Singapore–as modernized and Westernized a society can be on the planet–often pontificates about ‘Asian cultural values’ at odds with Western values. And even in the West, there is a divergence between Anglo-American emphasis on individualism and the continental European emphasis on communalism.
Britain today is a politically and socially fascinating for culturally aping the most extreme libertine music and manners of (Jewish-and-Negro)America while instituting a form of political correctness and statist mind-control that is very similar to one throughout rest of Europe.
Anyway, from its long dealings with non-white peoples, the British had arrived at a kind of stick-and-carrot, aloof and affectionate, and ironic and idealistic way of working with the natives. Though proudly and unmistakably British, they could almost emote with and understand the peoples of other cultures and manipulate and inspire them to serve the interests of both parties. Though the power structure was unequal, there was a degree of mutuality in the way the British governed their subjects. The British Empire was remarkable for being so diverse while, at the same time, the British themselves managed to remain so British. It was both the most inclusive and the most exclusive of empires.
The Japanese, as late-comers, surely sought to emulate the British but were pressed for time, especially with Japan’s limited natural resources. If the Anglos and the French hadn’t have much competition–but one another–and could bide their time for dominance since the late 18th century, Japan, like Italy and Germany, was a late-comer that desperately wanted to grab as much land and build up strength as soon as possible. The Japanese would have been brutal regardless, but the pressure from the imperialist West, expanding Russia, and rising China–after unification by KMT–made them all the more ruthless and inhumane in their treatment of their subjects, and we see an example of this in MCML when Capt. Yonoi orders all the men–even the bedridden in the camp hospital–to assemble for work.
But there was another reason why the Japanese were less cut out for the business of imperialism. As a people they tended to earnest than ironic, thus less able to tolerate, understand, and adapt to different situations. Also, as Lawrence says at one point in the film, the Japanese are an ‘anxious’ people whose every thought, values, and ideals are rooted in their culture. Though every people have their own culture and rules, some tend to be more rigid and demanding than others. In the West–especially the Anglo-West–, there is the dichotomy of cultural self and personal self. A Frenchman may act and think French with fellow Frenchmen, but he can easily slip into the role of the world-individual with Americans, Russians, Italians, Chinese, etc. He’s specifically French in France but a free individual outside France. The Japanese, at least in the past, never sufficiently developed a sense of the personal or individual self. Their values, identity, pride, and goodness have all been rooted in Japanese-ness. One’s worth depended on the approval of the community, and most things relied on conforming to clearly defined cultural rules. Not a very pleasant way to live–indeed, anxiety-ridden because one must always look over one’s shoulder–, but it worked well enough in Japan among the Japanese. But how could such a people rule over other peoples of very different cultures? This is where the British had a certain advantage for they possessed a sense of individualism and universalism apart from Britishness(and indeed even Britain itself was made up of different stocks–the English, the Welsh, the Scottish, and for a time, even the drunken potato munching Irish). They could be very British at home and amongst fellow Britishers, but with non-British they could put on airs of being very understanding and respectful–and in many cases it wasn’t just an act since many British explorers, thinkers, and artists had genuine interest in studying non-Western cultures.
The Japanese were perfectly capable of being polite and cooperative with other peoples–as we’ve seen of Japanese businessmen after WWII–, but they were unfit to rule over non-Japanese. To rule over foreigners, one needed a balanced sticks-and-carrots approach, the instinct to know when to be tough and when to play soft. Japanese understood power only in terms of ruling over others or being ruled by others, and indeed all of Japanese society was organized along these principles. Generally, a Japanese was lower than A and higher than B. One had to bow to A, and one expected to be bowed to by B. So, Japanese view of foreigners was as a people to be ruled(like Manchurians, Koreans, or Indonesians) or people to be ruled by(like Shogun General MacArthur of United States which kicked Japan’s butt.) The British were more adept at ruling foreigners due to their greater empathy–an ability to understand and see things from others’ point of view, which is different from sympathy–and subtlety of thought and behavior. Though Japanese have a culture of refinement in arts and manners, such hadn’t been developed for the art of dealing with foreigners–other than as diplomats, business partners, or polite guests. Indeed, for most of Japanese history, the attitude toward foreigners had simply been one of isolation and indifference.
So, those are some of the similarities and differences between the British Empire and the Japanese Empire. In thematic terms, it’s befitting that MCML takes places in hot humid Indonesia. Both Japan and Britain are nations in the temperate zone–though Japan can be very humid in the summer–and also highly advanced civilizations. Indonesia, despite pockets of Hindu and Islamic civilizations and centuries of Dutch influence, was something of a tropical backwater. As in THIN RED LINE, major powers of the northern zone not only bleed away in the tropics but undergo a kind of spiritual conversion. Though MCML is essentially humanist and Christian(at odds with Japanese neo-Shinto paganism), its aura–not least due to the trancelike score by Ryuichi Sakamoto that incorporates Indonesian musical instruments and motifs–conveys something exotic and mysterious, an hybrid of spiritual purity and lush sensuality. It paradoxically sedates us into moral awakening.
What water was to Andrei Tarkovsky, the tropics have been for many Western artists–and Oshima is a very much a Westernized artist. The tropics serve as an agent that melts and remolds fixed categories and concepts of truth and reality. In Tarkovsky films, all things must return to sacred nature, and the most essential element of nature is water which gradually dissolves everything and from which new forms arise. Not surprisingly, Tarkovsky directed the adaptation of SOLARIS, a novel about a planet with a mysterious ‘conscious’ ocean.
For other artists, the tropics represented the world of ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-decaying, and ever-reincarnating mystery from which the deepest truths–light and darkness, beauty and ugly, life and death–were to be found. (The Hindu concept of reincarnation probably developed in the tropical India because the buzz of abundant life suggested a constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. By contrast, in the arid regions of the Near East–the other major source of great religions–, when something died, it remained in its dead state under the hot dry sun to remind people that death was permanent–and that the soul’s only hope was in another realm. In the tropics of India, however, one could almost see dead bodies and organisms decaying and transforming right before one’s eyes into new forms of life. The key philospiritual difference between Judaism/Christianity/Islam and Hinduism/Buddhism is that the former seeks permanence and eternal life while the latter seeks extinction and permanent death. The curse in the Judeo-Chritian-Islamic religions is death; since the flesh is impermanent, one must seek eternal life through spiritual means by entering into Heaven; there is also eternity in hell but that’s worse than death. According to Hindusim/Buddhism, the problem is not death but eternal rebirth. One cannot remain dead because the soul is returned back into another living form to suffer yet another cycle in the living hell of ‘reality’. If Christians worry that life is too short, Buddhists worry that it’s too long–through various and ever-changing manifestations. So, what Buddhists seek is a kind of permanent death as opposed to a permanent life.)
It’s no wonder that many counterculture people of the 60s looked to the Eastern Mysticism–especially of India–as a guidance to a new kind of living. And though communism was a creation of cold climate nations, it gained a new romanticism as the key ‘anti-imperialist’ struggles of the 60s took place in the tropical zone–Cuba and Bolivia with Castro and Che, and Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh.
And of course, on the ‘zen fascist’ rightist creative vision of things, Colonel Kurtz seeks deeper/higher truth in the tropics of Cambodia in APOCALYPSE NOW. The tropics had a way of both attracting and repelling Western curiosity and imagination. There was the lush flora and fauna, strange religions and cults(from high culture Hinduism to colorful animism), and maybe some exotic half-naked women too. But there was also the hot weather, insects and diseases, barbarism and cruelty. What’s nice on the eyes could well be awful on the flesh. In a similar sense, the tropical setting of MCML carries a dual meaning as truth and deception, life and disease, or home and exile.
The four main principles of MCML are John Lawrence(Tom Conti), Jack Celliers(David Bowie), Captain Yonoi(Ryuichi Sakamoto), and Sgt. Hara(Takeshi Kitano). Other characters of some significance are Cellier’s younger brother, a crippled dwarf with a lovely voice; Capt. Hicksley, a pompous and arrogant(even a bit insufferable)British camp commander; Kanemoto(a Korean guard accused of committing sodomy on Dutch soldier); and DeJong(the presumably buggered Dutch soldier).
Tom Conti is a good soldier but also something of a liberal-humanist, for lack of a better term. He is, in many ways, the best of men. He’s filled with empathy and has a good heart. He doesn’t care much about status, class, or nationality–though he’s no pacificist either. He obviously believes in his nation and its cause, but he seeks understanding between the Japanese and the British. As someone who has spent time in Japan, he speaks the language, respects the culture and the people, and hopes for mutual understanding between the two sides in the POW camp. He is a man of considerable intelligence, compassion, and good-will. He’s a dutiful military man but also a man of individual conscience. And he lacks the kind of power-trip mentality so common in the professional military. He represents both the best and the problems of humanism. Through his goodwill and sincerity, he manages to bring about some understanding between two sides. But his rational understanding of the Japanese can only go so far. In a key scene, he uncharacteristically loses self-control and blows up at the Japanese for their ‘crazy gods’ and cruel irrationality. Yet, despite his frustrations and rage, he remains and survives as a good man whose wish is to understand and respect other men and earn their respect in turn. It is no surprise that it is Lawrence that both Yonoi and Hara request to see before their executions. Tom Conti does a wonderful job as Lawrence.
Jack Celliers is a noble soul nursing a deep self-inflicted wound. Blessed with good looks, intelligence, courage, and character, he was clearly destined for great things from the outset. His younger brother suffers from stunted growth and is a hunchback, though the deformity isn’t so visible under the clothes. But the kid sure can sing. In a flashback, the younger brother is set upon by a bunch of local toughs miffed with his derisive laughter at their lack of singing ability during church service, and Jack takes them on while his brother escapes. When the younger brother returns to find the beaten Jack, the latter shouts at him for returning instead of running home. There are two things going on here. On the one hand, Jack is angry that the little brother jeopardized his well-being by coming back. It is an anger borne of sympathy. But, Jack is also filled with pride and doesn’t want anyone to look upon him in his beaten up state. He hates losing and doesn’t want to be seen lying half-conscious on the ground. (This is morally significant insofar as Jack finally loses this narcissistic pride near the end of the movie when he accepts the fate of being buried up to his neck for people at the camp to gawk at. He loses the shame of defeat.) Jack Celliers has the heart to take pity on others but not the guts to take pity from others–a strange kind of moral pride. But it also anticipates what happens between the brothers later on. In a way, Jack could have told his little brother to run home because a subconscious part of him is ashamed of having such a misshapen weakling as blood kin. Even so, Celliers as a boy is loving and protective of his brother.
The most important flashback and the key to Celliers’ psyche is what happens later in his life. Jack is at a posh boarding school and has become established as the best of the best. He is popular, successful, and much admired, and is very much self-conscious of his special status. Problem is his younger brother is to start school as a freshman, and Jack is horrified that his classmates might find out about his deformity. Jack doesn’t want to be associated with anything less than perfect, and when his younger brother is outed as a humpback cripple at some hazing ritual, Jack hides away and does nothing. Though he knew exactly what took place, he later tells his brother that he’d been busy working for his teacher. And that’s that… except this incident eats away at his soul all his life. This gnawing sense of guilt and shame–all the more painful for he never confessed nor apologized to his brother–shapes his destiny as a soldier and then ultimately leads him to martyrdom. (At one point, Celliers says that when the war started, he embraced it with ecstasy as a kind of escape from himself. There are echoes of Strolnikov in Dr. Zhivago who embraced WWI for the same reason–at least in David Lean’s movie. And Hitler and many others like him also sought escapism from their confused and meaningless lives through WWI. Of course, in the end, one cannot escape from oneself. Hitler gained no conscience from WWI and Celliers cannot lose his conscience in WWII.) Indeed, Celliers chose to become a POW because the Japanese threatened to kill natives if he didn’t surrender. Celliers, who had once been filled with the sin of elitist superiority, chooses to live and die for other men. He’s come to associate elitism with betrayal, cowardice, and inhumanity because of the incident with his brother. This doesn’t make him a raving communist or leftist, but the personal has become political for him. He fights for the British Empire but in his own way. In his eccentricity and individuality, he is somewhat like Lawrence of Arabia. But if T. E. Lawrence was driven by love of adventure and egotism, Celliers sees his own ego as the greatest enemy.
It is a deep personal wound, and the only person he confides his secret to is John Lawrence–and only when it appears one of them may have to face the firing squad the next day.
Ironically, though deeply humanitarian, Celliers cannot help being what he is–a superior man. Even his aid to fellow man–passing out stolen manju cakes and the final act of self-sacrifice–is done with an air of pride, even contempt. There’s a beautiful soul in him somewhere, but he’s not an easy man to feel close to. If the easy-going Lawrence can pretty much get along with anyone–Yonoi, fellow soldiers, and even the brutish Hara, etc–, there is a natural barrier between Celliers and the world. This is partly due to his nature but also due to his own biography.
He also seems to be filled with both love and hatred for mankind. Love in the sense that he sympathizes with the humiliated and weak like his own brother; but there’s also a degree of contempt–if not real hatred–because, after all, inhumanity is committed by humanity. People taunted his younger brother, and he himself hid away while it happened. But his loathing of humanity is balanced by his self-loathing. As Jesus said, ‘those who haven’t sinned, cast the first stone.’ Celliers knows that humanity can be rotten but then he is no exception. Thus, it’s as though his personal mission in life is to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. In the movie, Celliers stands up for the POWS against the Japanese, but one can imagine him standing for victims of the British against the British as well.
In the camp, the one person he can relate to is Lawrence, whose decency, knowledge, and intelligence are quite evident. Celliers, brutalized by the Japanese after being captured, hasn’t much love for them slanty-eyed buggers. But he seems to have no deep hatred for the Japanese either. After being startled awake by Hara, Cellier derisively says, ‘what a funny face’, but then mutters, ‘beautiful eyes though’. It’s as if he can stare into people’s souls. It’s a glimmer of hope that Hara, brute that he is, may have an angelic side hidden somewhere inside him.
As much as possible, Celliers lives in his own thoughts and memories.
In the simplest moral sense, Celliers could be characterized as man who’d been tempted by the notion of the Nietzschean superman but embraced a kind of Christian-humanism, if mainly for personal redemption. David Bowie certainly imbues Celliers with an eccentric personality, and the performance has a kind of smoldering intensity, but I’m not sure Bowie comes across as sufficiently beautiful and noble in the role of a godlike man who could so captivate Yonoi’s heart and mind.
Capt. Yonoi is the symmetrical opposite of Celliers. He too is a member of the superior breed, socially and naturally. He’s intelligent, handsome, thoughtful, and highly principled in his own way–even idealistic. Yonoi tries to be fairminded with the POWs. He wants to be an ‘honorable man’ and regards other men, even foreigners, as honorable men(or at least as men capable of honor).. He’s also Western-educated and speaks English.
But there are three things about him which complicate matters greatly. His admiration of the West also fuels his sense of personal and cultural inferiority. As a proud Japanese, an honorable officer, and a member of the elite even among the Yamato race, he is, at once, fascinated and frustrated(and infuriated)by the beauty and the power of the West. Like so many of his countrymen during that period–and perhaps even today–, Yonoi’s vision of Japan’s future
paradoxically entails emulating the West ever more to reject the West. It is a love/hate complex, a fascination with what one considers as the mortal enemy. There was an element of this in the white man’s fascination with black music as well. Elvis and many of his white fans hated blacks, but they took elements from blackness to prevail over blackness and ensure that a white man remained the King of the pop charts. As much as Yonoi resents and rejects the West, he wants Japan to be a great world power like glorious and shining Britain. And as much as he embraces the values of Japanese spiritual and racial purity, he wants to possess and appreciate what may be the finer qualities of beauty and grace in the white race. Yonoi is both a superior man with an inferiority complex and an inferior man with a superiority complex.
Yonoi is both offended and impressed by the Western individual resilience to stand on one’s own feet. Also, like other stiff-mannered-and-minded Japanese, he is no match for the cool rationality and wry wit of the British. In one scene, a short ugly/stocky Japanese officer makes a wise crack at Celliers and thinks he’s really clever. Maybe, it might have passed for killer wit among the shy and wooden Japanese, but Celliers’ British wittier retort pulls the rug out from under him and he’s left speechless. Unable to win the battle of wits, he begins to beat up on Celliers with the help of his obedient dog-like goons. The more collective and conformist-minded Japanese tend to be robotic and earnest–like dogs–, whereas wit is an individual aptitude stemming not only from a quick mind but a spirit of independence. Yonoi is both infuriated and inspired by this quality among the British, especially Celliers whose mind is as razor-sharp as they come.
Though Yonoi rather likes Lawrence, he has little use for latter’s dry wit or irony, in which he senses an air of condescension(especially stinging when Yonoi is being most sincere with his feelings; if British sensibility has a place for self-deprecating humor, none such exists for Yonoi for whom certain things are pure and sacred). Even Yonoi’s humanity and sense of fair-mindedness can be rather inhuman. When Celliers first appears in the camp, Lawrence recognizes and calls out to him, whereupon a Japanese soldier strikes him for overstepping bounds. Yonoi comes to Lawrence’s defense by striking the soldier’s face many times over. Yonoi acts humanely through an inhumane act. And though Yonoi may appear open-minded and big-hearted for having coming to the defense of Lawrence, a foreign soldier, on another level he’s beating on a stupid yellow Jap to impress white people that he himself if a higher and better kind of Jap; he is seeking white approval. (Similarly, some light skinned blacks used to insult and abuse darker skinned blacks in the past to prove that they were higher Negroes than mere black ‘niggers’. And today, we have white liberals who go out of their way to bash conservative white people to prove to the god of political correctness that they themselves are better than those ‘racist’ and bigoted whites.) Furthermore, it doesn’t dawn on Yonoi that the reason why the Japanese soldier acted so harshly toward Lawrence could have been because the soldier too had been systematically brutalized by the Japanese military. So, even as Yonoi conscientiously defends Lawrence and disciplines the brutal soldier, the kind of violence he uses on the soldier was the reason why so many Japanese soldiers were crazy during WWII. They were raised to be like dogs. To obey and to bark and bite.
Yonoi is deadly serious, emotionally and behaviorally stiff as a robot. However, unlike many Japanese military thugs, he holds steadfast to his personal and cultural sense of fairness. And he’s eager to show the Westerners that the Japanese are made of hard, heroic, and honorable stuff. The problem is Yonoi, for all his education and knowledge of the world, fails to understand that Japaneseness cannot be exported to foreign minds. He wants to both impress and intimidate the Westerners.
In one scene, Yonoi assembles the POW officers to witness an act of seppuku(or harakiri)by a Kanemoto, a Korean soldier(serving in the Japanese military; Koreans were given Japanese names under Japanese colonialism). The scene is doubly disturbing since Western officers and Kanemoto have no appreciation for this gory side of Japanese culture–indeed, all the stranger for having survived as an ongoing ritual even after the elimination of the samurai caste system. The Korean soldier carries out the ritual in a terrified haphazard manner, and the Western officers watch in disgust.
Yonoi had intended to demonstrate to Westerners that Japanese are made of pure, hardy, and honorable stuff. In traditional Japanese society, seppuku could only be committed by a samurai to cleanse his shame and regain his honor in a noble and masterful death. But it’s rather farcical in the movie given that Kanemoto is not even Japanese–let alone of samurai background–, the act is carried out 1000s of miles from Japan in the jungles of Indonesia, and most of the witnesses are whites than Japanese.
Unsurprisingly, the whole thing turns into a fiasco, with the Korean soldier bowling over(a big no-no during the ritual), screaming in agony while the swordsman assigned to lop his head off keeps nicking his shoulder and commanding Kanemoto to sit up for a proper beheading. The brutish Sgt. Hara, in a surprising act of mercy, finally steps in and provides the coup-de-grace, though the whole thing might better be characterized as coup-de-disgrace.
To make things worse, Dejong, the blonde Dutch soldier whom Kanemoto buggered, bites off his tongue in a fit of shock and passes out. Yonoi had intended to impress the foreigners but only loses face.
He really should have carefully considered the whole situation. The whole scandal came about because Hara wanted to have some fun bullying a hapless underling. Hara really didn’t care what Kanemoto had or hadn’t done to the Dutch soldier. A natural bully, he picked on Kanemoto to for personal jollies.
Hara also did it to impress Lawrence, which carries a certain significance in relation to other developments in the story. The film opens with Hara waking Lawrence and leading him to where Kanemoto is to commit seppuku. Why is Hara so eager that Lawrence witness this suicide-execution?
Hara, though a ruffian and a boor, has certain cultural and moral parallels with the refined and impeccable Yonoi. Hara too suffers from what might be called an inferiority-superiority complex. He is a soldier of the great Japanese Empire seeking domination in the East but feels a certain inferiority-complex vis-a-vis the Europeans nag him. (He even fantasizes about Marlene Dietrich than about Japanese women.) Europeans probably appear to him as more confident and self-reliant as individuals. Since Japanese could not be free–in body and soul–as modern individuals, they could only amount to inferior individuals. They could not stand on their own two feet but always had to bow down to superiors and demand that inferiors to bow down to them in turn. One’s self-worth and pride depended on one’s pecking order in the overall hierarchy than on one’s set of individual attributes. Thus, individualism could be threatening to the self-esteem of all Japanese, to those on top and bottom. To those on top, individualism could mean that an ‘inferior’ with naturally superior qualities should have the freedom(and even obligation) to politically, socially, and morally challenge the ‘superior’. To those on the bottom, it could mean that their ‘inferior’ status is the result of their timidity and cowardice, a failure to assert themselves as individuals. The traditional way of rising up the social rank in Japan(or in the rest of Asia, as far I could tell from books and movies), was that those on the bottom had to take endless abuses from those on top and patiently hope to be gradually promoted so that they too can finally abuse those below them. Since even those on top had gained their status by having to eat endless bowls of bitterness, they felt entitled to give the same treatment to their inferiors.
Japanese personal pride comes from being a part of this collective hierarchy. One may have to grovel to superiors but is compensated by inferiors groveling to oneself. Since neither Hara nor Yonoi can impress Westerners as a free individual, he can only impress others by showing how tough, manly, hardy, and honorable the Japanese system of hierarchy is. In a way, both Hara and Yonoi are saying Japan is a nation of slaves but where slaves run the plantation as proud slaves–Japanese may lack individual freedom but they have a pure adherence to sacred honor.
So, in the opening scene, Hara wants to impress Lawrence with Japanese fearlessness in the face of death, and later Yonoi wants to impress Celliers the same way. But it just doesn’t wash. Lawrence, as sympathetic he is to Japanese culture and people, knows insanity when he sees one. And Celliers isn’t even present to witness the bloody spectacle of barbarism ritualized into an art form–and performed rather poorly by the terrified Kanemoto. (A big disappointment to Yonoi since his main objective had been to impress Celliers.)
And the screaming irony is that in the name of Japanese purity and honor, both Hara and Yonoi are forcing Kanemoto, the dazed and frightened Korean, to carry out the most Japanese of all acts.
There could also be a historical significance to the scene, an allusion to what happened with Yukio Mishima in 1970. Recall that Mishima had long planned for a noble and pure death, just like a samurai warrior of feudal Japan. He was going to be the last samurai, the last great patriot of Japan that was spiritually decaying as a mere economic power.
How did his seppuku go? Like Kanemoto, he slumped forward and couldn’t take the pain. Not very dignified as seppuku etiquettes go. And it didn’t make matters any better than the second–the attendant with the sword for the beheading–was some chubby weakling who freaked out and repeatedly fail to make a clean cut, which made Yukio’s agony all the more horrible(and farcical). Finally, another stepped in to deliver the clean strike–like Hara steps into finally behead Kanemoto. But then the madness continued. The second, who was by now frightened out of his wits–like Kanemoto–, took his turn to follow his master to samurai heaven. In the end, he was just a farmboy whose silly mind had been filled with big ideas(by the devious and manipulative Mishima), who, barely made a scratch on his stomach–the blade didn’t even penetrate the flesh–before he too was beheaded. In other words, Mishima’s grand finale was a fiasco and a farce. And just as Yonoi and Hara absurdly use Kanemoto to show off Japaneseness, Mishima brought an impressionable young lad–a dimwit country boy–on board to serve his own crazy ego.
There was indeed a time when seppuku had a moral meaning in feudal Japan, a feudal society where rebellion and dishonor were regarded as unspeakable crimes. Thus, the only way for a samurai to save his honor–and have his family spared–was by committing seppuku. It had meaning as both punishment and as a final–perhaps only–act of redemptive pride. A samurai would show extreme courage and commitment in driving his blade into the center of his body–which also happened to be the most painful area.
But seppuku also gained meaning as an act of righteous protest. Since a dissenting samurai could not rebel against his lord, he could only profess his purity through ritual suicide. Or the samurai would even go so far as to disobey the command of his superiors and then commit seppuku to prove the purity of his actions. His disobedience would be presented as a higher obedience. By disobeying and then taking one’s own life, he would prove that he acted not self-interest but out of greater devotion to his lord.
During the era of feudal Japan, seppuku was a legal, moral, martial, and spiritual ritual reserved for the small caste of warriors. Though horrible enough, the samurai, unlike most people, were at least offered an honorable way out than merely ignoble execution.
But once the samurai caste system was eliminated and Japan needed to unite and rise as a modern nation, samurai ethos became democratized, especially as the Japanese military recruited the majority of soldiers from the farmer class.
If the samurai caste at least had a somewhat finer and subtler understanding of samurai codes(and seppuku), their popularized version turned into Japanese militarism in the 20th century, and seppuku came to be used brazenly and fanatically as a political act. And if the main loyalty of samurai during the feudal era was to their immediate lords, the absence of local chieftains in the new Japan meant that the military class’s main loyalty was to the emperor. Prior to the rise of modern Japan, almost no one committed seppuku for national or imperial honor but rather over local or personal issues. But once national consciousness came to define Japan with the adoption of Western style nationalism, even something as atavistic and feudal as seppuku took on a ideological character.
Thus in the 1920s and 1930s, many simple-minded junior officers(of peasant origin), weaned on Japanese nationalist dogma and propaganda, frenetically assassinated politicians and higher ranking officers for their ‘decadence’ and ‘compromises with the West and the chinks’. Since they’d acted in rebellion, they felt a need to demonstrate their purity by committing seppuku afterwards–as portrayed by a character in Yukio Mishima’s novel RUNAWAY HORSES.
The Japanese public was both horrified and fascinated by these acts, which were bloody and murderous but had been committed in the name of honor, purity, and devotion–values that appealed to Japanese imagination.
In a nation where many people felt disoriented by modernization and democratization and where the ethos of honor and purity were important in social life, many were bound to sympathize with the sincerity of the junior officers(even if, or especially because, they had acted so crazily. Also, in a society where most people were pressured to comply and conform, there was a degree of sensationalistic thrill in hearing about brave men acting out their passions.)
And it was as if the junior officers, often of peasant stock, wanted to prove to their higher ups, to society, and to themselves that they were, spiritually, if not by family background, even more samurai than the samurai.
In MCML, Yonoi is clearly of samurai background whereas Hara is most certainly of peasant background. In an earlier time prior to modernization, Hara would most likely have been a simple-minded peasant with a hoe, but recruited into the Japanese army during Japan’s gamble for domination in the East, he wields a sword and is filled with big ideas about mighty Japan and decadent West. At one point, he tells Lawrence that all British must be a bunch of homos. Like so many Japanese of that period, he says a Japanese soldier would never surrender to the enemy but prefer to die. He’s a man of little knowledge and big collective cultural ego.
Of course, we later see him as a POW, so he too must have surrendered instead of ‘dying like a Japanese soldier.’ Similary, we find out that Yonoi too was executed, which means he too surrendered than chose to die. And indeed, most Japanese soldiers did, in the end, surrender than choose to die. Well, talk is cheap.
There is a noteworthy scene early in the film when Celliers is brought before a Japanese military court, a ridiculous one at that. At one point, a Japanese officer says to Celliers than a Japanese soldier would prefer to die than surrender, to which Celliers replies, “I’m not a Japanese soldier.” The scene illustrates how the Japanese are stuck in some twilight zone between modernity and feudalism. What does the code of the Japanese warrior have to do with international or military law? But while the other Japanese bluster on, Yonoi sits quietly and is quite entranced with the blonde ‘Aryan’ god Celliers. (Though MCML is based on the novel SEED AND THE SOWER, this aspect of Yonoi also seems to be an allusion to Mishima, who was a homo with a special hankering for blonde men. So much for Japanese purity! Also, if we go by CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, Mishima’s first orgasm as a boy came while looking at a picture of the European St. Sebastian pierced with arrows. And Mishima’s mansion was full of neo-classical knick-knacks.)
Yonoi, like Mishima, is both profoundly Japanese and beyond-Japanese. He’s very much committed to Japanese honor and manners, but he also strives for a Nietzschean superiority unbound by culture or race. He sees in Celliers a reflection of what he wants to be. By sparing Celliers and treating him well(and by impressing him with the display of Japanese honor and greatness), Yonoi expects Celliers to reciprocate in kind. But not only does Celliers have little or no interest in Japanese culture but he has no concern for Yonoi either. As hard as he tries, Yonoi doesn’t get through to Celliers, no more than Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI gets through Nicholson(Guinness). Celliers has his own values to live by and his own demons to exorcize, and has no time to play games with Yonoi. To Celliers, Yonoi is like a silly little boy playing too earnestly at being a toy soldier. Yonoi, as intelligent and knowledgeable as he is, literally believes in his own myths.
Yet, Yonoi’s soul is a compressed and repressed box of contradictions, as was Mishima’s. He is proud to be Japanese but betaken with greatness and beauty of people and things outside Japan, and as such, he tries to Japan-ify non-Japanese things. He tries, in his own way, to fuse the East and West. He tries to turn Celliers into a kind of blonde samurai soul-brother.
Generally speaking, the more earnest culture of the East has less use and understanding of irony and shades of grey. Things are hot or cold, true or false, right or wrong, high or low, pure or impure, etc. If the Western mind deals with and is comfortable with the spaces between the hot and cold or between black and white, the Eastern mind is more at home with hot or cold–than with the gradations of warmth and coolness in between–or with black or white–than with the variations of grey in between. Though it’s been said the Western mind has greater sense of moral clarity than the Eastern mind, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Eastern mind has a greater understanding of the subtleties and ambiguities of moral questions. More often than not, the Eastern mind rejects the clear-cut moral answers or values out of convenience than insight. The lack of human rights or social morality in places like China or North Korea–or other Asian nations where animals are treated with the greatest possible cruelty–has nothing to do with moral ambiguity or complexity but with simple moral laziness or amorality. There is a difference between a person who hesitates to pass moral judgement because he sees more than one answer and a person who refuses to pass the judgement because he just doesn’t care.
Hara and most Japanese in MCML seem not to care much about anything but following orders, feeling arrogant, and looking over their shoulders. Yonoi, in contrast, does care and is, in a twisted way, a very moral person. But given his cultural/philosophical paradigm, he has no choice to subsume the matters of right and wrong to matters of honor.
In one scene, Yonoi tells Lawrence that the latter must die even if he’s innocent for the sake of honor. This is where Lawrence has just about had enough with serving as a go-between and a conciliator between the western POWs and the Japanese. He could stand the constant barking of Japanese soldier and even occasional blows, but this is too much, especially coming from Yonoi, an educated and worldly man. Lawrence is essentially a good man who favors reason, but his reason–and an open-minded empathy for the Japanese–cannot penetrate the ‘inscrutable’ or irrational aspects of Japanese culture nor of Yonoi’s personal psychology.
Lawrence can access the way of the Japanese through reason but not sufficiently through emotions, but even if he could, he’d find more disgust than agreement. Lawrence is committed to the ideal of the individual with rational morality, and at one point says, “I don’t want to hate any individual Japanese.” (Incidentally, the author of SEED AND THE SOWER–novel MCML is based on–was a South African who came to know the Japanese by coming to the defense of two Japanese gentlemen in a western restaurant. The owner had referred to the Japanese as ‘niggers’ and didn’t want their business, but the author, Laurens Van Der Post, was deeply offended by the owner’s prejudice and invited the Japanese men to his table. The Japanese embassy heard of this act of kindness and invited him to Japan, where for two years, he came to learn the language and love the culture. Lawrence in the film is loosely based on Laurens the author. I get the impression that Laurens Van Der Post was a very decent and fairminded person, perhaps even to a degree of moral arrogance, a trait to be found among many liberals. He later opposed apartheid in South Africa and sought racial peace between blacks and whites. Therein lies both the nobility and naivete of his brand of humanism. There is a USEFUL LIMIT to all ideas and values, and it just so happens that the Negro DNA is imbedded with seriously savage ugabuga genes which makes it unlikely that large numbers of blacks will make good neighbors in a modern community.)
While it’s true enough that all peoples and all cultures do have certain fundamental similarities, there are differences due to history, social contexts, emotions, political development, and of course, personal eccentricities. Indeed, even though Yonoi is very Japanese, he is also very unique among the Japanese. In some ways, he is as different from other Japanese as he is from Westerners.
At the outset, we see him as an enlightened and a conscientious person who tries, in his own way at least, to be fair-minded. He is also a closet-homo, which would make him an outsider in ANY social or cultural context. He is a tightly wound bundle of contradictions of Eastern upbringing and Western influences, of sympathy and ruthlessness, of conscience and contempt. As a result, his main enemy is really himself.
At any rate, MCML should not be seen as a simple-minded movie about the superiority of reason over irrationality, notwithstanding the fact that Lawrence has the last say in the movie–though to be sure, the final utterance comes from Hara who, facing execution the next day, wishes Lawrence a Merry Christmas. After all, though Lawrence may be the sanest and most decent guy in the movie, the man who sows the seed of greater love in Yonoi is Celliers. Celliers may also be a man of reason to the extent that he’s the worldly Westerner, but he is in fact driven by emotions as powerful and tortured as those of Yonoi. It is Cellier’s guilt regarding a past incident involving his brother that made him so acutely aware of injustice and so reckless in courage.
Lawrence is a good man but doesn’t feel like dying for humanity. He fights for his country and is ready to face death when necessary, but like any rational man, he wants to live. Celliers, like so many Christian saints, has a death wish or a martyrdom wish. In a sense, it is yet another manifestation of his superioritism. Even as a man who chooses to live and die for humanity, he wants to be more moral and courageous than any other man. In this sense, he has a Jesus complex. Remember Jesus was for the wretched and the meek of the Earth but also considered Himself as the Son of God. His heart and mind were a fusion of deep humility and profound egomania. A person cannot extinguish his own nature. If he possesses an inborn superiority complex but ideologically chooses equality or humility, his superioritism must manifest itself in some manner. He may strive to be MORE humble and MORE sanctimonious than other people. He becomes a kind of moral supremacist. There was something of this in Jesus and Jack Celliers, but if we admire them both, it’s because they follow their own credo and pay with their own blood. This is different from communist god-men who preached one thing for humanity while choosing emperor-ship for themselves.
There is an element of universal moral truth in Celliers’ thoughts and actions, but he is driven as much by personal anguish as anything else. In that sense, he is a counterpart of Yonoi. Both are irrational creatures. But the differences are more important than the similarities, and this becomes crystal clear in their final confrontation. Yonoi orders that all the POWs to be assembled outside, including those in the camp’s makeshift hospital. We see a sorry lot of bedraggled men barely holding onto their life. Yonoi tells them that they are all fit to work, that their sickness is merely ‘spiritual’, that their physical feebleness can be overcome with spiritual purification; they can all be honorable soldiers with the proper mentality and attitude.
On the surface, Yonoi is being a cruel and ruthless bastard, but the really frightening–albeit also somewhat admirable–thing is Yonoi really means it. In a way, Yonoi has respect for all soldiers, Japanese or otherwise, and believes in the power of the spirit over the body. Indeed, the Japanese were very much into this mania, which was one of the reasons why the Japanese decided to take on the US. Though US was bigger in manpower and material resources, Japanese believed that they possessed the purer spirit, and spirit would in the end win over the body and materiality. And until the Battle of Midway, Japan had won a series of victories against the so-called ‘invincible west’, even against European or Western powers–over Russia in 1905, over the French/British/Dutch in Southeast Asia, over the US at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines–, and these triumphs served to confirm the idea that there was nothing that the Japanese couldn’t do if they only had the proper spirit. (Yonoi’s devotion to the spirit in the climactic scene may however contain an element of desperation and moral crisis. He’s been ordered by high command to send half the prisoners to build an airstrip, and he has no choice but to obey. Deep down inside, he may indeed feel that it’s inhuman to use prisoners this way, but as a honorable Japanese soldier, he has no choice but to follow orders. He wants to be good honorable commander but has been ordered to do something ghastly and inhumane. So, by invoking the spirit, he is as desperately trying to convince himself as the wounded prisoners of the rightness of his order.) Yonoi is a strange case for he embraces both a purist Japanese particularism and a Western-style universalism. Unlike most Japanese, he tries to ‘export’ his brand of Japanese spiritualism to Westerners. He is a perverse blend of the samurai spirt and Christian proselytizing; his message is that anyone, with proper spirit, can be like an honorable Japanese soldier. This makes him both more humane and more inhumane than other Japanese officers. If most Japanese officers want to control the bodies of the conquered, Yonoi wants to control their spirits as well. But Yonoi sees it not as oppression but as an act of liberation. He thinks all those POWs will be liberated from their sickness if they only try hard enough through their spirit. In this sense, Yonoi is a spiritual revolutionary. Notice that a universalized form of spiritualism or moralism can be more dangerous than its original particularist form. (Pagan Arabs posed less of a threat to the West than Muslim Arabs did.) On the one hand, Christianity and Islam are brotherly faiths seeking to bring the light of moral justice to all mankind, but they were often intolerant and aggressive–even ruthlessly murderous–in their moral arrogance and expansionary agendas. And two of the most frightening movements in China in the 19th century and 20th century were the Taiping Rebellion instigated by a crackpot Chinese guy who dreamt he was the brother of Jesus Christ–the ensuing violence claiming anywhere from 20 to 40 million lives–and the secular spiritualism of communism as defined by Mao whose policies probably let to the deaths of 40 to 60 million lives.
Yet, the most dangerous form of power is perhaps an expansive particularism which conquers other peoples but denies even their fundamental humanity. Nazism, had it triumphed, would surely have been the most murderous movement in history, and Japanese rule over Asia may not have been much better. At the very least, universalist creeds, though violent in the manner of spreading the faith, acknowledges all people as potentially equal in the eyes of God or some cosmic truth. The problem with Yonoi is he’s both intensely particularist and ambitiously universalist. Yonoi wants to save people by raising them up to his level. He is a closet-narcissist whose conceit is maintained by never having been sufficiently tested by a confrontation with reality. He’s clearly healthy, well-fed, and well-groomed. He obviously hasn’t seen much of real action in war. His understanding of reality is conceptual and idealistic(in the elitist sense). He thinks he’s being fair-minded because when he orders the POWs to fast, he does so too. But surely there’s a difference between famished prisoners’ fasting and his own fasting. Also, if the fasting has cultural significance to Yonoi, it has no such meaning to the prisoners of another culture. Yonoi is certainly sincere but also confused and blind because he sees reality through the filter of high-minded and tribal(and even personal) concepts. He can prattle on about purity, beauty, and nobility because he has yet to be dragged through the mud and muck of war as so many others had been. When Yonoi first meets Celliers, Yonoi the military lawyer is impeccably dressed and groomed. Celliers is in khaki, looks worn and tired from war and beatings at the hands of Japanese soldiers.
In one revealing scene, Celliers tries to escape from prison with a badly beaten Lawrence slung over his shoulder and a dagger in his hand. Yonoi stands in his way, draws out his samurai sword, and awaits the confrontation, whereupon Celliers drops his dagger and surrenders. Yonoi asks him why he doesn’t fight; if he defeats Yonoi, he can escape and be free. Yonoi’s sense of reality is so defined by the concept of the spirit and beauty that he’s blind to the plain reality that Celliers is underfed, tired, and has a little dagger whereas Yonoi is in tip-top condition and has a sword–and is quite good with it too. Yonoi overestimates Celliers’ power and thinks the duel would have been a fair one. Furthermore, Yonoi is willing to face defeat/death at the hands of Celliers since there is no dishonor for a samurai to be killed by a great worthy opponent, and he may fantasize that Celliers feels the same way. Yonoi is filled with all these grand ideas whereas Celliers sees the plain truth; he hasn’t a chance in the world of defeating Yonoi, and dying for some vain honor is not in his playbook. Just as the Japanese overestimated their own national strength based on the ‘spirit’, Yonoi overestimates Celliers on similar grounds. Yonoi sees Celliers as a kind of god-man with superhuman powers. In fact, Celliers, as tough and resourceful as he is, is no more than human.
At one time in his life, Celliers, like Yonoi, had been occupied, indeed obsessed, with notions of purity and perfection, leading a life of elitist ideals and being surrounded only by the best that humanity had to offer. In a way, Celliers sees deeper than Yonoi because he’d once been a kind of Yonoi. So, when Celliers kisses Yonoi on the cheek(in order to save an arrogant and pompous British officer), it’s as if Celliers is finally able to forgive his younger self for having betrayed his brother. Celliers is finally able to find a degree of inner peace by atoning for what he’d done to brother. Furthermore, he may have planted a seed in Yonoi’s heart.
Though Yonoi initially pushes Celliers away, Yonoi cannot make himself kill Celliers and indeed passes out after Celliers kisses him, whereupon Japanese soldiers desperately try to cover up the embarrassment of the situation by beating Celliers to a pulp–as Celliers had been beaten long ago in his youth while protecting his younger brother from local kids. (Hicksley–the man saved by Celliers from Yonoi’s sword–, is, by the way, the sort who feels entitled to feeling superior to others based on class, culture, and race. He’s not an evil man but a real fool who goes about acting as though the cosmos runs on British time.) It is a very strange scene. Yonoi’s reluctance and paralytic inability to strike Celliers with the sword seem to derive from both sexual and spiritual passions. To Yonoi the homo, Celliers is the most perfect beautiful creature he’d ever seen. Killing Celliers would be like destroying a rare magnificent animal. But Yonoi also senses a spiritual and moral power in Celliers that he cannot resist on some level; killing Celliers would be like killing a god. And even the kiss is ambiguous, as if Celliers is hinting either “I know you’re a repressed gayboy” or “my spiritual will is stronger than yours.” The kiss is, at once, sexually teasing, spiritually uplifting, and sardonically mocking.
Anyway, as the result of this incident, Yonoi is assigned elsewhere while Celliers is buried up to his neck and left to die of exposure. Celliers demonstrates, in the tradition of Christian saints, the possibility of triumphing through defeat than through victory. There are two kinds of triumph, one by winning and one by losing. Warriors triumph by winning battles, but one side must always lose, no side is forever victorious, and victories in THIS WORLD last only so long. The triumph sought by saints is spiritual, even or especially in defeat. The body may perish, but the soul presumably lasts forever with God. Also, the saint lives for than over humanity. And in a sense, one can say Celliers loses the battle but wins the war, at least the spiritual one with Yonoi and with his past self. Yonoi’s gods fall before Celliers’ God, and Celliers is finally able to purge his own sickness. While dying he imagines reuniting with his brother for one last time. As for Yonoi, he stops by the buried and nearly dead Celliers in the middle of night and cuts off a few locks of his hair and bows/salutes him before departing from the camp. Later, we learn from Lawrence–while conversing with Hara in the latter’s prison cell–that Yonoi, prior to his execution for war crimes, and had requested Lawrence to take Celliers’ lock of hair to a shrine in Yonoi’s village.
In contrast to the intelligent, well-educated, and sophisticated figures of Lawrence, Celliers, and Yonoi, Sgt. Hara(Takeshi Kitano)comes across as a simpleton and a childish bully. He bellows and snarls than talks and isn’t averse to using physical threats and violence to get his way. For all his neanderthal antics however, he’s also a cunning and devious sort. He knows when to push around his victims like a cat toying with a mouse and when to play it soft with his superiors. In the opening scene, he viciously torments the Kanemoto the Korean soldier accused of a (homo)sexual indiscretion and then strikes Lawrence with his bamboo sword when the latter yells out to Yonoi to stop Hara’s cruel game. This is when we first become acquainted with Yonoi and his dual nature. Yonoi casts a contemptuous look upon Kanemoto for dishonoring himself–which later becomes ironic since Yonoi too has sexual fascination/lust for a blonde white male–and is clearly not averse to the punishment. But Yonoi the honorable soldier will not tolerate the unruly sadism of Hara. He stops the coerced seppuku, and Kanemoto’s life is spared–for the time being–until a proper seppuku ritual could be performed. Of course, as mentioned earlier, it turns out that Yonoi’s manner of punishment for Kanemoto, though certainly more formal and dignified than Hara’s ruffian approach, is driven by motives that aren’t all that different from those of Hara. As Hara wanted to impress Lawrence , Yonoi wants to impress Celliers. Yonoi is conscientious but his truth is matter of form, ritual, and appearance than of right or wrong.
Later, when a radio is found in the POW camp, Yonoi feels someone must be punished for the transgression, and he chooses Lawrence to take the blame whether Lawrence is guilty or not. Lawrence, bewildered, asks, “I’m to die to preserve your sense of order?” and Yonoi answers “You must die for me.” What matters to Yonoi is not so much the factual truth nor individual guilt(or innocence) but the ‘higher’ concept of order and harmony. In Yonoi’s mind, the POWs have disgraced themselves by concealing a radio. To redeem and preserve the collective honor of the men–both the prisoners and the Japanese–and for the sake of restoring harmony, someone–even if individually innocent–must pay the price. (This concept may not be so alien in today’s politically correct world where white people must collectively be punished by ‘affirmative action’ to atone for the ‘crimes’ of their ancestors. This applies not just to whites whose ancestors may have owned slaves but to ALL whites. The rise of political correctness, a kind of secular spiritualism, had made the Left far less rational than it used to be.)
Though Yonoi sounds a bit crazy, he is being morally consistent to the extent that he would expect the Japanese to do the same thing under the circumstances. In Akira Kurosawa’s BAD SLEEP WELL, we observe lower ranking Japanese executives committing suicide and taking the blame for scandals so that the company and its higher ups may preserve their reputation. Such actions were understood as par for the course by the Japanese and even tolerated because of the nature of Japanese culture. The clan or community mattered most, and not just its wealth and power but good name and reputation. So, if there was a scandal, someone willingly served as a scapegoat to protect the clan, community, or company–and its bosses. In turn, the family of the willing scapegoat was taken care of for his virtuous self-sacrifice. To the extent that individualism didn’t exist in traditional communal or collectivist Japan, the sins of a clan or tribe was shared by all. So, even if YOU as an individual didn’t commit the crime, being a member of the CLAN made you responsible for the crime.
Yonoi feels that both his reputation as camp commander and the honor of the POWs have been tarnished by the discovery of the radio. As such, someone must be willing to play the goat to set things straight. But Lawrence has no taste for this game. He may understand the Japanese mind and culture, but in no shape or form does he want to live according to them if it means he must die for a lie.
Lawrence is slated for execution and thrown into a jail cell opposite Celliers who’s detained for his own reasons–for passing out food to the prisoners when Yonoi ordered everyone to fast in the honor of Kanemoto.
With matters having become so complicated, one would think Hara would be the last person who could make a difference, yet he becomes one of the crucial figures in the movie. This has special resonance given that if Christian humanism is to have any value, it must make a difference in the hearts of the common man. Whether in terms of class, education, or morality, Celliers, Yonoi, and Lawrence are better, even superior, men. Celliers is obviously very intelligent, courageous, and thoughtful. Yonoi, for all his mania, is a rare individual and capable of deeper understanding, as evinced in his spiritual and moral transformation instigated by Celliers. And Lawrence is that rare naturally decent and good-hearted soul, a man also of boundless curiosity and understanding. His knowledge of Japanese culture and language most likely sprung forth from his need to see and feel reality outside the cultural and national box.
But, most people are not like Celliers, Yonoi, or Lawrence. In their basic makeup, they are more likely to be someone like Hara. So, in this sense, Hara’s transformation is the key to the movie’s moral concerns. That the brute Hara can come around to feeling something humane and decent may be the best argument for the message of Christian humanism. When Jesus died on the cross, He was perched between two common criminals, one who mocked him and one who put his faith in Him. In a way, Hara represents those two criminals. He is a gruff and nasty thug, but there is a sentimentality within him that may form into genuine morality.
Why the change of heart in Hara? Had he grown up with Christian influences in his youth, which he cast aside in his role as a tough Japanese military man, only to be haunted by the ghost of Christ again? Or did he feel a degree of guilt when Kanemoto died horribly as a result of what he’d sadistically instigated.
There seems to be some crude moral sense coursing through his veins. In one scene, following the death of Yonoi’s chauffeur–who’d tried to kill Celliers for being an ‘evil spirit’ and then typically ‘redeemed’ his honor and proved his ‘higher loyalty’ to Yonoi by seppuku–, we see Hara muttering Buddhist chants for the edification of the deceased’s soul(in the very space where Yonoi asks Lawrence to die for the collective honor of the camp).
Everyone is moral to some extent, but morality is a function of one’s cultural paradigm, and in this sense, we cannot begrudge Yonoi and Hara’s sincerity. Yonoi is not toying with Lawrence, and Hara’s prayers for dead chauffeur seem genuine enough. But, true or higher morality cannot be so culture-bound. It must be about truth, fairness, mutuality, and justice. Yonoi and Hara are trying to justify injustice than truly being just, even if they are consciously sincere in their justifications.
On some instinctive level, Hara seems to realize this–though alcohol helps some–, and he finds a way to spare Lawrence’s life. Hara tells Yonoi that the real culprits–Chinese prisoners–regarding the radio incident had been found and executed, and presumably through this, honor and order has been restored to the camp. One suspects that Hara, in his humane intervention to save Lawrence, may have scapegoated other prisoners and had them killed instead. If so, one act of human kindness is balanced by another act of wickedness. When Hara saves Lawrence, he’s more Santa Claus or Father Christmas than any kind of Christ figure, an idea too elevated for Hara to grasp. As with most people, Hara’s understanding of Christianity is crude and childish. Hara is not typically one to sacrifice his own life for others, but he is capable of compassion and kindness, sometimes when least expected. And it must be recognized that his sparing of Lawrence’s life was done on his own initiative, no less than the attempt on Celliers’ life by Yonoi’s chauffeur. Hara also ‘disobeyed’ out of ‘higher loyalty’ to but to serve something greater than his immediate superior, Yonoi. He saved someone’s life in the name of truth and justice. Though alcohol gave him the courage to be less inhibited, there had to have been an innate goodness within him trying to get out. And the next day, as Hara explains his actions to an angry Yonoi(but also somewhat relieved Yonoi for he has genuine fondness for Lawrence), he says he’s willing to suffer the consequences, which could very likely mean seppuku or execution. Though Yonoi goes easy on him, the fact is Hara did kind of risk his own life to save Lawrence.
MCML shows how different people and cultures interact through violence and ideas, through the possibility and impossibility of understanding. To an extent, every culture is an island unto itself, and every individual is an island unto himself. But in a world where the world is becoming smaller and where the concept of justice is an hallmark for a people’s progress and moral worth, what are some of means by which greater understanding among people could be fostered? The answer from the radical left was communism, but MCML is not a communist film calling for an international brotherhood of man obtained through violent revolution.
There was imperialism and conquest, and indeed it played a major role in creating new global systems, especially in the Americas, where different races–mainly whites and blacks in the US; and whites, indigenous peoples, blacks, and mestizos(a blend of different races)–were bound or forced together under a Christian values and Western ideals of human rights and freedom(though Latin Americas were later to get on this train). The Muslims often employed war and conquest to spread the faith of Islam to create a one world community. And the modern imperialists, especially the British and French, regarded their world domination as a kind of epic crusade to bright the light of civilization to the rest of the world–the idea of the white man’s burden.
MCML takes place during World War II when the old paradigms were disintegrating. At the center of conflict were the Axis powers which had an especially sinister objective of gaining ruthless domination over their ‘spheres of influence’. Japan was to rule over all of Asia as a kind of Japan’s slave-empire, and Nazis had similar designs on much of Eastern Europe. World War II is often remembered as the ‘Good War’ since the bad guys were so godawful, but in a way, it signaled the end of Western European domination as well. Though UK fought the Nazis and though France was liberated from Nazi oppression, it wasn’t lost on anyone soon after the war that the Brits and the French too were imperialists denying national freedom and sovereignty to other peoples. What the French had been to the Germans, Algerians were to the French. In a way, World War II was a defeat for all of Western Europe, and it wasn’t long before UK and France(and the Dutch in Indonesia) not only lost their empires but came under moral condemnation.
And today, there isn’t much to celebrate regarding WWII in Europe. Not only was Germany, the heart of Europe, the main instigator of the tragic disaster that destroyed up to 50 million European lives, but most Europeans nations either allied with or surrendered to Germany. And many collaborated in the extermination of the Jews. Even the neutral social-democratic Sweden did good business with Nazi Germany. One people who resisted and fought heroically throughout the struggle were the Poles, but since the much of the Holocaust took place in Poland, Poles have a reputation for ‘antisemitism’, and Jews run the world media, the Poles have never gotten the credit they deserved.
UK was one untarnished nation that emerged from the war as a clear victor, but its wealth had been spent, and it was reduced to a junior partner dependent on the US. Today, US and Russia are the only nations that might feel genuine national pride in regard to WWII, but dig deeper and we learn Stalin’s USSR made a pact with Hitler’s Germany in the invasion of Poland. And the memory of the Katyn massacre is more alive today than ever.
And with the Jewish control the US, WWII is remembered less as a great victory for white Christian America than a great tragedy for the noble saintly Jews, and to the extent that the majority of Americans are white Christians, they too have been made to share in the collective guilt and shame of the Holocaust. Not for nothing is the Holocaust Museum in the Smithsonian.
As for Asia, WWII ended up killing over 2 million Japanese, their empire lay in ruins, and Japan came to be invaded by a foreign power for the first time in its history. As a result of Japan’s decimation of the KMT–Nationalist forces–in China, WWII paved the way for a bloody civil war and communist victory in China, which didn’t turn out too happy.
Therefore, it’s fitting that the coda of MCML is muted and sad than victorious or uplifting. Even so, there is a kind of small victory for Celliers and Lawrence. Celliers did plant a seed in Yonoi’s heart, and Lawrence’s decency did have a lasting effect on Hara. Despite the cultural barriers between Yonoi/Hara and Celliers/Lawrence, the former pair was affected and even moved by the courage and higher moral scruples of the latter. And the moral principles of Celliers and Hara are not merely cultural, like those of Yonoi and Hara, but for all men.
Though a sense of right and wrong exists in every culture, various cultures have different interpretations of ‘justice’. The difference between Celliers/Lawrence and Yonoi/Hara is the former are willing challenge and disobey even their own superiors for the higher good whereas such would be unthinkable with Yonoi/Hara(which is why Hara’s individual initiative–a subtle act of disobedience–in releasing Lawrence and Celliers is quite remarkable). To the Japanese, the ultimate good is an unswerving obedience and pure loyalty to one’s superior. If this rule is violated by the inferior, he must be willing to commit ritual suicide or face execution either to restore his honor or to prove that his disobedience had in fact been carried out in the name of higher loyalty.
In one scene, one of Yonoi’s chauffeur tries to kill Celliers and then commits seppuku in front of Yonoi to show that he’d acted purely for the honor Yonoi, his master. In other words, even an act of rebellion has to be formulated as an act of utmost loyalty–which then must be proven by one’s willingness to commit ritual suicide.
So whatever concept of moral right and wrong may have existed in Japanese culture, it was overridden by the precepts of social form, blind loyalty to master, pride based on honor, peer pressure and reputation, and purity equated with unthinking devotion. To an extent, it was a perversion of the Buddhist concept of Zen, the moral or spiritual content of which had been replaced by style and form–as when a samurai was supposed to kill a bunch of people with poetic grace while disregarding the fact he’s killing people. Consider seppuku itself, which though ugly, cruel, and gross in actuality, had been aestheticized and fetishized into a kind of poetic drama.
If a master ordered a samurai to go and kill, the samurai did so unthinkingly, as if in a state of pure zen–also the ideal with the Nazi SS, which may explain why Heinrich Himmler was so crazy about the samurai. This sort of thing can be cool in movies or comic books but tends toward nihilism in real life.
In the West, we generally equate nihilism with anarchic individual spirit, but there’s also the collective nihilism of the Nazis and the Japanese samurai class where issues of right and wrong are secondary to carrying out one’s orders with absolute and blind devotion. So, if Hitler ordered his men to go and massacre an entire village, it was done without batting an eye. And if samurai were ordered to kill everyone in a town, it was carried out with heartless purity. (On the other hand, war and violence tend to bring out the worst in all people. The Allies were not exactly filled with sentiment when they rained bombs on entire cities in Japan, Italy, and Germany–and even in parts of France and other non-Axis nations. Also consider the massacres carried out by US soldiers in Vietnam, and the Britain’s ruthless methods to combat communists in Malaysia and Mau Mau rebels in Kenya.)
Lawrence is no saint but he does have a sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, outside the limited confines and biases of one’s culture. He may be a loyal British subject, but Britishness isn’t everything within his moral universe.
Why were the British different from the Japanese in the way they thought and acted during WWII? Partly, it could have been due to racial or biological personality. There may be something in the Asiatic gene that makes people less individualistic and more communal in their orientation–and more bluntly cruel. But that alone doesn’t answer the question since Nazi Germany and communist Russia, made up of white people, had plenty of robot-like masses following orders and being unable to think morally as individuals. Also, there seems to be plenty of free-spirted people in Hong Kong and even in Mainland China today. So racial or biological explanation can’t be the only answer. (On the other hand, even oppressive European nations tended to favor the upright and proudly obedient citizens than the bowing and cowering kind so common in the East. A knight knelt before the king; he didn’t grovel like a dog, as Asians often did before their superiors. And even as Nazi soldiers obeyed the orders of Hitler and Himmler, they did so as proud upstanding Germans than as weeping and boylike Japanese who emotionally clung to their emperor as five yr olds did with their mothers.)
It could have been the influence of Christianity whose sense of good and evil is defined by one’s personal relation and devotion to God(as the manifestation of the highest love and truth)than to worldly powers. In CHARIOTS OF FIRE, a Christian sprinter declines to run on Sunday because it’s Lord’s day. The Lord means more to him than Queen and country. It could also be the influence of Greek ideas of freedom and democracy which came to fruition in the Anglo world more than in any other part of the world. Even prior to democracy, there were men like Thomas More who were willing to die for higher truth or justice. One hardly finds any such example in Japanese history and culture. There’s a lot of stuff about self-sacrifice and dying for a cause, but they’re almost entirely related to restoring honor or serving one’s lord.
Though Confucianism and Buddhism did influence Japanese thinking, Japan’s military-samurai rule severely curtailed the Confucian ideal of a society being ruled by sage kings and scholars. And it had no use for the Confucian notion that the soldiers morally represent the worst elements of society(on the grounds that soldiers ruled by force than by moral example)since the elites of feudal Japan were of the samurai class. What the Japanese samurai elites took from Confucianism was the ideal of rigid hierarchy and social duty to one’s superiors. To be sure, there was also something about the superiors’ obligation to inferiors, but it’d been given far less emphasis than the vice versa even by Confucius himself.
As for Buddhism, it didn’t so much deal with conventional right and wrong as seek to go beyond human concepts of morality. According to Buddhism, the great flaw of man is ‘desire’ or ‘attachment’. If Christianity requires man to be attached to fellow humans and worldly justice in his service to the Lord, Buddhism advises man to let go of ALL attachments and withdraw into the self until one reaches the pure void of non-being called nirvana. However profound Buddhism may be, it wasn’t the sort of religion to have a positive impact on society. If a fire or flood killed thousands of people, Christianity encouraged one to go and help one’s neighbor. Buddhism would have disdained relief aid as merely another form of attachment to the world. Of course, it would be wrong to assume that Buddhism simply doesn’t care for human. Paradoxical as it may seem, Buddhism asks us to detach ourselves from ‘reality’ because attachment leads to suffering; we suffer because we are attached to cycles of illusions. To break out of this cycle, we must let go of our attachments. Though seemingly inhuman, Buddhism does promise a kind of higher truth. Buddhism’s message is not ‘do not care about reality’ but ‘care not for illusions that we mistake for reality’. Of course, the problem of Buddhism is nirvana too is merely a myth and an illusion of the mind, no more or no less than Heaven and Hell in Christianity.
Celliers and Lawrence may be more open-minded than Yonoi and Hara because they are members of a (Western)civilization with more experience with the world. Having ruled over diverse peoples and cultures for centuries, the British necessarily developed a more tolerant, savvy, and intelligent way of understanding and dealing with other peoples(though one could argue it also made the British more conceited and deceitful).
And of course, there is the culture of The Gentleman in Britain where ‘fair play’ is the rule of the game. With a culture devoted to the ideal of fairness, the British gradually became more critical of their own failings in that regard. To an extent, the British commitment to free trade–though it came to harm British industry–was the product of British concepts and attitudes about fairness. And given that the US was founded and developed by Anglo-Americans, the concept of fairness also became a hallmark of American politics and society, what with today’s dominant ideology being all about white people having to make amends for all the evils they committed in the past. And Jews and blacks have exploited this soft underbelly of Anglo-American goodwill to weaken the white race with guilt and bring it down.
What this teaches us is that one should never turn the ideal of fairness into an iron-clad dogma, according to which in America, it’s as if only white people have been unfair whereas non-whites had all been innocent and saintly victims, which is just a load of crap. For there to be true fairness, all sides must play the game with mutual goodwill, but that is not the case with the dogma of fairness or so-called ‘social justice’.
With MCML Oshima arrived at a level of artistic maturity lacking in his earlier films which tended to be overtly radical, accusatory, and nasty in a manner of self-aggrandizing impetuosity. Watching many of Oshima’s films from the 60s and 70s today is as trying as fascinating. Most of them are more interesting as socio-political artifacts than as works of art, and to be fair to Oshima, he wasn’t trying to make ‘art’ in the conventional sense in those uncertain times.
Without the socio-political context of the times, some of his films look hopelessly dated and irritating–as with some of Godard’s films of the same period. In contrast, the films of Shohei Imamura seem more powerful than ever though he too often was something of the ‘bad boy’ of Japanese cinema. Imamura, unlike Oshima, probed mainly into the nature and psychology of man(and woman) in relation to the larger social reality whereas, more often than not, Oshima tended to see and use his characters as mere symbols of power or powerlessness. As such, many of films have the look of yellowed manifestos or faded agitprop posters of a bygone era.
But, this cannot be said of MCML which seems as powerful today as upon its release in 1983. In some ways, it seems even better because we are more likely to approach it as a POW camp movie than as a ‘star vehicle for David Bowie’ as it had once been marketed. And though Bowie may have been miscast, his performance has sincerity and dedication lacking in his lame-brained role in MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH where he was recruited mainly for his rock star persona. If Bowie banked on his Ziggy Stardust persona for MWFTE, he dove into the role of Celliers to the point that he became that character. Generally when rock stars appear in movies, they want to be larger-than-life, as in the pop music world, but Bowie’s Celliers is not a show-off performance but quiet, dedicated, and even poetic.
Celliers’ confession of his personal betrayal to Lawrence is the dramatic and emotional highlight of the movie. He sweats out the truth with intense vulnerability and agony.
Despite the miserable circumstances, it’s Celliers’only chance to confess his sins to someone worth confessing to. And, not only is Lawrence a good guy, but both may have reached the end of their tether, in which case there’s nothing more to hide or lose.
So often as is the case, the worst of times may be the best time for soul-cleansing.
Militarist Japan didn’t lose WWII because of decent men like Lawrence and Celliers but because the West, especially the US, produced far more guns and bombs. Something like Celliers’ self-sacrifice would have had no effect on the overall outcome, and indeed, most British soldiers were not like Celliers nor even Lawrence. They were pretty much ordinary guys looking to survive and return home in one piece.
So, what significance do Celliers and people like him have to history? A thousand Celliers couldn’t have defeated Japan with their spirit of self-sacrifice. It was US bombers, well-fed and well-armed GIs, battleships, and finally atomic weapons that finally did the trick.
Even so, WWII must also be seen as a war between empires of the mind and not just of weaponry. There was a moral component to the struggle, with Japan(and Nazi Germany)representing the most atavistic tendencies of man–especially dangerous in the modern world armed with mountain loads of weapons of mass destruction–and the democratic West(and even the USSR to some extent) representing the ideal of rationality and equal worth of all men. Traditional Japanese culture had its time and place in the feudal era when being Japanese was the only thing the Japanese knew and cared about. But upon adopting industrialism and gaining the power of a modern nation, it was absurd for Japan to hold steadfast to its ‘superstitions’.
After all, it was one thing for American Indians to be American Indians with their lore and myth in their own primitive realm but imagine if they’d possessed bombers, battleships, and weapons of mass destruction made available by science and technology. Should their politics and foreign policy be determined by pre-modern hocus pocus of tribal magic? A nation that adopts modernity and science/technology must run on rational and humanist grounds. Only then can wider justice and harmonious co-existence with other nations be possible. (It may be misguided to compare Nazi Germany too closely with militarist Japan since the Nazis, for the most part, were not literal-minded in their view of German culture or history. A modern German equivalent of Japanese militarist Shinto-ism would have been to literally believe that Germans had descended from the Germanic gods. The Nazis clearly knew the difference between facts and myths, between science and superstition. But they were hopelessly irrational just the same because their so-called science of humanity was predicated on very narrow and rigid aesthetic prejudices, where supposedly the blue-eyed and blonde ‘Aryans’ were the cream of the crop and every other people were inferior gradations of humanity. Whatever the case, Nazi racial science did become kind of a sacred myth as it became the OFFICIAL TRUTH that couldn’t be questioned or challenged; real science doesn’t work that way. Ironically enough, the Holocaust has become the new OFFICIAL RELIGION of European man. It is no longer a historical event that bears scrutiny and revision but a god to worship and pray to. And to complicate matters further, the communist concept of man, though more embracing and rational than that of Nazism or Japanese militarism, also turned into a dangerous abstraction. There’s a Peanuts comic strip where Linus says he wants to be a doctor, whereby Lucy deems him unqualified since a doctor must love mankind. Linus replies, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand.” That pretty much sums up the problem of communism. Just as Yonoi thought all men could be purified into honorable heroes with the proper spirit, communism believed in the promise of creating the NEW MAN. And since the shining NEW MAN could only exist in a communist paradise, it didn’t matter how many lives were expended to create this utopia which would one day be populated by NEW MAN. For all its scientific pretensions, communism too was based on a mythic and superstitious reading of human nature and the crazy notion of the perfectibility and PURIFICATION of mankind. In contrast to Japanese militarism, Nazism, and communism are the values of humanism, the acceptance of man as man–with all the failings and weaknesses–and the hope that each man, through his effort, understanding, and emotional/moral growth, may turn into a better person.)
Celliers and those like him may not have mattered much in deciding the fate of WWII, but in a way, they did sow seeds that did come to fruition in the post-war era, one where humanism played no small part. Though great war crimes and abuses had been committed against German, Italian, and Japanese civilians, the victor nations eventually settled for rehabilitation than retribution. (And when the time came, the two Germanies were allowed to reunite.) Japan was turned into a democracy and given the right to trade freely with other nations–much better than conquering and enslaving them. But the humanist struggle wasn’t just about the good guys–Allies–and the bad guys–the Axis–but about soul-searching within the West itself. Naturally, the West had to dissolve its empires if it was to respect the rights and freedoms of all peoples. British did this relatively painlessly whereas the French got embroiled in deadly wars in Vietnam and Algeria. Things got complicated for the US, which while having no imperial ambitions, felt obligated to come to the rescue of its allies threatened by communism. But given the intellectual Zeitgeist of the time among Western intellectual circles and the Third World, America came to be perceived as ‘neo-imperialist’ while totalitarian nations like Cuba and North Vietnam were lionized as being on the side of ‘liberation’. But that’s another story, a very complicated one; even though humanism had a universalist import, it was essentially a Western idea that had limited appeal in the non-Western world. Very often, humanists met the fate of Lawrence in MCML trying to UNDERSTAND the Japanese, his goodwill and sincerity generally unreciprocated by the Japanese.
But, the film of MCML, like so many humanist masterpieces, is very much aware of the difficulty of humanism, and if indeed humanism has a saving grace, it accepts reality for what it is–unless one happens to be one of those willfully naive save-the-world radical humanists who miss the essential point of humanism. In the end, Lawrence is well aware that his goodwill alone can’t change the world. And though Celliers may have saved the wounded prisoners from Yonoi’s madness, he too could only do so much.
But then, humanism is nothing without patience. A tree doesn’t grow overnight. Seeds have to be planted–some soils are of course more hospitable than others(forget about the stupid ugabuga hearts of Negroes who are pretty hopeless)–, watered, and allowed to sprout. Over time, a plant may grow, blooming with flowers and bearing fruit. The progress of mankind, at any rate, like the development of a child, takes time. It requires effort and dedication but also patience and forgiveness. In a way, the stark difference between Judaism–at least in its earlier historical form–and Christianity is that the God of the former tends to be very impatient and intolerant whereas the God of Christianity, while strict and judgmental, sees and forgives mankind for what it is. (Marx, of a biologically Jewish temperament, created a form of socialism that pretty much adopted the personality of the Old Testament God. But then, the Jewish God had been created by the personalities of the Jews.)
A movie that bears a certain resemblance to MCML is the French classic GRAND ILLUSION by Jean Renoir, another film in the humanist vein. It is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest films ever made in terms of realization and intention. Released in 1937 when Nazi Germany was on the rise, it is a film that cautioned peace and understanding among nations, predicated on the notion that there is indeed a brotherhood of man beyond national borders. Yet, the richness of the film derives from its ironies. It is set in a German prison camp during World War I, an epochal event that came to destroy the aristocratic order and give rise to people power, both in the democratic form and in the totalitarian/populist form of communism and fascism.
The irony is, of course, that the aristocrats, though defined by their warrior caste and the honor of fighting, were more likely to think ‘internationally’ than ‘ordinary people’ or ‘unwashed masses’ given to nationalist sentiments. Though nationalism became very much an hallmark of the upper classes in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the upper crust was better educated, more cosmopolitan, well-traveled, and were often likely to have friends and relatives within the same class or caste in other parts of the world. They were somewhat like the globalists of today. With the rise of nation-states, the aristocratic class had intended to maintain control over the populace by appeals to patriotism and even aggressive nationalism(which sometimes turned into wars of imperialist conquest), but the inflamed nationalist passions were not so easy to contain or control. The more the upper classes felt compelled to represent their own people in an era of mass media and politics, the farther apart they grew from one another. Consider that the Russians, Germans, Austrians, and the British all had intermingled royal lineage. Prior to the rise of nationalism, an aristocrat in England may have felt closer to an aristocrat in Germany than with the ‘rabble’ in his own country–just like the global elites in the US feel closer to global elites in India or France than with red state ‘rednecks’ in his own country. Globalism is creating a kind of neo-globocracy in the so-called New World Order.
In earlier times when kings and aristocrats had nearly all the power and the masses quietly toiled in the fields, the limited wars–often resembling family squabbles–between the upper classes were fought and then patched up in aristocratic manner. But once the masses entered into political consciousness and power, wars were no longer about narrow aristocratic interests but total wars between entire peoples. To the extent that the aristocratic class had played on these sentiments to maintain control over their own people, they were responsible for much that happened in World War I. But given that the much of the new media and power brokers came from the relatively recently empowered bourgeois class and that the masses of common people clamored for war, aristocrats were caught between a rock and hard place.
GRAND ILLUSION is partly about the fading of his aristocratic order. Though Captain Rauffenstein(Erich Von Stroheim)of Germany and Captain de Boldieu(Pierre Fresnay) of France belong to enemy nations, a mutual affection as fellow aristocrats binds them. At one point, they both speak English, a kind of international language for aristocrats back then–other than French, of course. In a key moment in the movie, the French prisoners break out of prison, and Boldieu ensures the escape of his men(of common social background)by taking the bullet. Though Rauffenstein dutifully shot Boldieu, he is deeply saddened by having had to kill a member of his class. It’s as if the code of honor that once defined the aristocracy is now leading to its demise. Boldieu acted in the name of honor in sacrificing himself for his men, and Rauffenstein acted honorably as a soldier in trying to stop the breakout. It should also be noted that Rauffenstein, whom we first meet as an ace fighter pilot, is reintroduced later as a crippled man in a corset.
In a way, Boldieu is to Rauffenstein what Celliers is to Yonoi. Boldieu, like Celliers, abandons the notion of superior class and gives his life so that his men–though of humble background–may live. Yet, there’s also a certain irony in that Boldieu and Celliers act like moral or spiritual aristocrats. It’s as if their sense of superiority, far from being abandoned, were channeled into a new outlook. In a democratizing world of dissolving class lines, Boldieu and Celliers maintain their superiority through uncommon courage and decency.
To be sure, MCML is more complex as one of Celliers’ key motivations is to wash away his own private sins. Paradoxically, the superior man may be more sensitive to his own failings. A white trash skinhead or jiving wildass Negro may be stupid and ignorant but may wallow in his ignorance and ignobleness as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Surveys have shown that self-esteem is actually higher among Negro dropouts than among smart and studious students. The latter, with higher standards for themselves, may be upset even by minor failings whereas a wildass Negro may brag about having gotten straight F’s and laugh like a baboon.
In a way, Celliers is very sensitive about what happened between him and his brother because a sense of superiority–physical, intellectual, or moral–is a natural part of his being. And come to think of it, this is very much in keeping with the Christian religion which was founded by some Jewish guy who preached and lived by great humility… but claimed to be the Son of God.
The value of Christianity is in reminding us of a ‘higher’ morality. (To be sure, higher morality has often been invoked by people of low moral character to mask their envy, resentment, and repressed greed. Suppose there’s a beautiful woman that an ugly man cannot have. Suppose he doesn’t have the guts to admit that he cannot win her heart because he’s one ugly mofo. He may turn to moral puritanism to shame, degrade, and even kill the woman as a ‘whore’.
Much talk of moral virtue in the Muslim world is really nothing but repressed envies and resentments. And the same goes for much of communist puritanism and feminist anti-‘sexism’. In many cases, it’s about the poor wanting what the rich have and tearing down the wealth of others in name of ‘social justice’. And many feminists happen to be fat, ugly, gross, putrid, disgusting, and nauseating hags and hogs whose main reason for waging war on the beauty industry and ‘beauty myth’ is because they are envious of ‘popular’ beautiful girls. Indeed, the cult of ugliness-as-true-beauty-and-true-justice has spread so much that even good looking girls educated in Ivy League colleges parrot the feminist line about how looks shouldn’t matter. Even so, these bitches spend thousands of dollars a year to look better than other women and to attract good-looking men. So, higher morality is not be confused with bogus moral puritanism. The former tends to be individualistic and personal whereas the latter tends to be political and collectivist. An ugly Jewish feminist hag will try to gain control over the media to shame all those good-looking sexy shikse ‘hussies’. Of course, there are hussies who dress and act like prostitutes and skanks, but moral puritanism doesn’t just go after the obvious skanky sluts but against the very notion of beauty itself. Though masked in the terminology of intellectualism and moralism, it’s just another manifestation of envy and resentment as a form of intolerant puritanism.)
With Celliers, a superior moral character is quite evident. It’s not just an holier-than-thou act(as with rock stars like Bono)but a genuine attempt to atone for his own sins and to save the lives of others. Such men are indeed rare, and their impact on humanity, as saints or moral exemplars, is arguable. How many amongst us have met such people, especially in extreme situations? How many of us are capable of being like them? However, to the extent that such individuals have existed and do exist, and their deeds have been told and retold, imagined and re-imagined through religions, art, and history, one might say they are indeed sowers of the seed. At any rate, one doesn’t have to be a perfect saint to make a difference, however small. Even the worst of sinners can, for whatever reason, choose to do something extraordinary. THE WILD BUNCH is about a bunch of ruthless killers, but at the end, this grisly gang of thieves decide to take on the corrupt and rapacious Mexican general and his army to save their friend.
But of course, there’s no such thing as a pure motive. The human psychology is too complex for pure anything. The guys in THE WILD BUNCH also go to save their friend out of machismo, pride, and perhaps for a grand finale to their desperate lives in a West that is wild no more. And we know that Cellier is a man of deeply scarred emotions with something like a death wish.
GRAND ILLUSION, though undeniably great, demonstrated both the beauty and shortcomings of humanism. It is even today moving and inspirational as ever, but consider that it was made in 1937, two years before WWII. Jean Renoir, like so many good-willed people like himself, sought to warn Europe against another horrible war. The movie isn’t about good guys vs bad guys. Though the main characters are French prisoners, the Germans are presented in a sympathetic light, and the German Rauffenstein is perhaps the most memorable and tragic figure in the movie. Though far from a simple-minded anti-war manifesto and filled with insight and irony, the fact remained that it’s message didn’t go very far. For one thing, it was released in democratic nations while banned in Nazi Germany, where the populace was being revved up for war and aggression. In other words, if GRAND ILLUSION had a pacifying effect, it was only on democratic nations that really should have been frantically planning for another war.
Also, without a single evil person in the entire movie, it gives us the false impression that all men are, at least deep within their hearts, decent and capable of moral reasoning.
But in fact, men like Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels laughed at such notion as pure sentimentality and hogwash. While France, like the UK, had grown weary of war after WWI and was making movies like GRAND ILLUSION, the Soviet Union made ALEXANDER NEVSKY, a patriotic film about the need to fight against aggression. GRAND ILLUSION is a beautiful movie made by a beautiful soul, but conscience and goodwill do not win wars against the evil designs and machinations of psychopathic leaders who’ve spellbound millions of their countrymen with notions of racial superiority and warmongering.
Though we praise GRAND ILLUSION as a work of art, entertainment, and/or moral message, its timing was unfortunate and naive. In the end, humanism has value as an individual endeavor but not as a national or international policy, where only cold-eyed realpolitik will do. If politics is about power, and if power is usually controlled by the most shrewd, cunning, and ruthless people, it makes little sense to invoke humanist principles in politics. Also, one need only to look at communism–and some of the crimes committed by Allies during WWII–to see that even struggling and fighting for humanity is no guarantee for humaneness.
Therefore, though GRAND ILLUSION is a better realized film than Masaki Kobayashi’s sprawling and sometimes wooden HUMAN CONDITION, it is the latter that has both a better understanding of humanity, inhumanity, and the limits of humanism. But then, it must be noted that GRAND ILLUSION was made before WWII while HUMAN CONDITION was made afterwards. After the fall of the Japanese Empire and hell unloosed on the world, it was impossible to have any doubts or illusions about what man is capable of in terms of cruelty, sadism, barbarism, cravenness, and cowardice.
PS. Interestingly enough, GRAND ILLUSION has a Christamas scene when the two French escapees–a gentile and a Jew–find refuge in the home of a German woman and her child.
And of course, one of the most heart-rending moments in WWI was the Christmas Truce on the Western Front.