Writes Roger Ebert:
Here's a movie that is even stranger than it was intended to be. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" is about a clash between two cultures (British and Japanese) and two styles of military service (patriotic and pragmatic). That would be enough for any movie, and there are scenes when it is enough, and the movie works pretty well.
But then the movie makes another contrast that doesn't work so well, a contrast between basic views of theatrical acting styles. British tradition suggests that, everything else being equal, actors should behave as if they were real people in a real situation. The Japanese tend toward a more overwrought acting style, made of screams and grimaces, histrionics and dramatizations.
Each tradition works well enough in a movie where it is the only tradition. But in a movie where British and Japanese are on the screen at the same time and are apparently sharing the same reality, the results look odd, and eventually undermine the film. We wonder, in some small irreverent corner of our minds, whether the soft-spoken British notice that the Japanese rant and rave over everything, including the weather, and whether the Japanese, in turn, find the British catatonic.
The movie is by Nagisa Oshima, the best-known of the younger Japanese directors, whose notorious "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976) began with a love affair between a businessman and a geisha and ended in a bloodbath of castration and suicide. He is clearly fascinated by relationships between authorities and victims and that's the subject here.
The time is 1942, in a Japanese prison camp on Java, and the story concentrates on two pairs of officers. The British are Celliers (David Bowie), very upper crust, duty-bound, guilt-ridden, and Lawrence (Tom Conti), sensitive, bilingual, trying to translate not only the words but the values of the two races.
The Complete Review Here. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19830916/REVIEWS/309160301