Childhood is a time of fascination and wonder, and these senses can persist in even the harshest of conditions. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work in the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we are looking at Empire of the Sun: following his initial foray into more serious subject matter with 1985’s The Color Purple, 1987’s Empire of the Sun sees Spielberg pursuing weighty content once again. Both parts poignancy and spectacle, Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s most underappreciated treasures, and is deserving of classic status.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun is also an adaptation of a book, this time inspired by the novel of the same name by English author J.G. Ballard. The book is based on Ballard’s childhood experiences of World War II, as Ballard grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai, China. As part of an extraordinary story, Ballard was just a boy during the Japanese occupation. He was separated from his parents after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and spent several years living in severe conditions in a Japanese internment camp situated next to a military air field.
Ballard’s novel largely drew on his experiences, but took some creative liberties, focusing instead on a boy named Jim. The book was published in 1984, and Warner Bros. purchased the film rights, with Harold Becker set to direct a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Becker dropped out, and David Lean was hired in his place. Having been heavily influenced by his films as a child such as Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai, Steven Spielberg was to produce. Lean ultimately lost interest, however, and Steven, who was quite drawn to the project, took over to direct.
The film begins by settling us into the life of young Jim (Christian Bale) living in Shanghai during the lead-up to World War II. In 1941, the presence of Japanese soldiers has become routine since their initial invasion in 1937, but so far they have mainly left the British-dominated International Settlement alone. That all changes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, as the Japanese take over and put everyone in internment camps. During the chaos, Jim is separated from his parents, and matures during his internment and eventual freedom as the war ends.
It’s not technically his debut, but a young Christian Bale makes his mainstream breakthrough here in a tremendous performance that signifies a promising career to follow. Bale is one of the finest actors in Hollywood today, and he already shows formidable acting ability here at age 13, as the young Jim is an emotionally demanding part for a young actor. An early John Malkovich also stars as Jim’s American friend Basie, who takes care of him during the war. Also, blink and you’ll miss a rare dramatic role from a then-21 year-old Ben Stiller as Basie’s friend Dainty.
Empire of the Sun combines elements of coming-of-age adventurism and war cinema to fashion a very unique take on World War II. As Ballard describes in his novel, and Spielberg expertly conveys in the film version, World War II was a very exciting time to be a young boy, and even in being privy to some of the horrors and human rights abuses himself, that didn’t take away from the qualities of awe and discovery that are inherent to childhood. It’s a very fascinating angle, and one that doesn’t rob the material of the crucial solemnity that the era demands.
As Steven grew up in the years shortly following World War II, he understands some of this boyhood enthusiasm himself. His father served in the war as a radio operator, and used to impress a young Steven by telling him stories of B-25 bombers in the China-Burma Theater. His earliest attempts at filmmaking were inspired by footage of World War II, as he made amateur short films such as Fighter Squad, which utilized footage of a decommissioned fighter plane, as well as Escape to Nowhere, which featured his childhood friends playing the roles of soldiers.
The best example of Jim’s childhood excitement is the memorable sequence in which he watches the explosive rescue by American fighter planes from the roof of a camp pagoda. This elaborately-staged set piece sees authentic aircraft flying by the young Jim as he ecstatically whoops and screams at the top of his lungs phrases like “CADILLAC OF THE SKIES!!” in response to the American P-51 Mustangs in which Jim idolizes, as he is much more taken in by the spectacle of the lightshow than the realization that his captors are being defeated.
The scene demonstrates some of the strengths Spielberg has to offer when it comes to dramatic content, as his flair for spectacle is especially suitable when it comes to the setting of war. And for a director whose talent mainly lies in the commercial space, Empire of the Sun is much more layered and subtle of a film than viewers of Spielberg may come to expect. So much so that I would say it takes a couple of viewings to appreciate everything the film has to offer, as I would attribute its nuance to its limited box office performance and lukewarm reactions from critics.
For example, an element that takes some time to digest is Jim’s drifting loyalties, as he doesn’t quite understand the complexities of war, and young boys tend to be attracted to what they see as bravery and heroism. Before his internment, Jim admires the communists, simply because everyone seems to be intimidated by them. During the war, Jim admires the Japanese, mainly because he gets to watch them take off in their fighter planes every day. There’s also probably some Stockholm syndrome going on, as the Japanese provide Jim with food and supplies.
It’s a bold perspective to portray, as these are parties who are responsible for some of the many atrocities of the time period. A particularly fascinating thread traces Jim’s friendship with a young Japanese boy in pilot training: they occasionally interact with nodding and mutual respect through the internment camp fence, then one day the boy is given the customary ritual for a kamikaze departure in a sad and unfortunate representation of Japanese bravery. When Jim salutes him as he sings his Welsh choirboy song, it’s bound to make your hairs stand on end.
Another chilling scene comes after the prisoners are marched to the Nantou football stadium as the war comes to an end. As Mrs. Victor, the woman who served as Jim’s mother figure during his internment, dies of exhaustion, the atomic bomb can be seen detonating from the horizon. A glorious white light passes over in which Jim believes he can see Mrs. Victor’s soul going up to heaven, and this conflicting mesh of spirituality, the end of the war, and death and destruction is beautifully unnerving. This is one of the most artful moments Spielberg has ever captured.
Empire of the Sun features a fully-grown Spielberg at the height of his career, having never lost his boyhood spirit, and putting it to appropriate use. The film today isn’t Spielberg’s best work of drama, and it’s not even his best film about World War II, but it was his best movie at this point since E.T., and it was a much better representation of the strengths he brings to the dramatic space, as The Color Purple saw him wading into territory that was way out of his wheelhouse. Empire of the Sun is a fantastic and powerful war film, and it is deserving of more attention.
Next week, we’ll be returning to the Indiana Jones franchise again to review the third entry, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Netflix, and for rental from your various digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.
Probably his best film; Bale is great here too.