Sunday, October 2, 2011


(December 1987, U.S.)

EMPIRE OF THE SUN is what I personally like to refer to as Steven Spielberg's "inevitable" film. It was inevitable because even after he got totally fucked at the 1986 Academy Awards for THE COLOR PURPLE, Spielberg was still determined to make a film that would explore his ability to grow up. It was inevitable because Spielberg is known to have had a personal connection to the films of the great director David Lean, so a version of his own British film was...well, inevitable. This coming-of-age war film is based on J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name and stars newcomer (at the time) thirteen year-old Christian Bale. The film tells the story of Jamie Graham, a young boy who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.

But let's start by talking about Christian Bale for a moment. He's spent the better part of the last two decades making quite an actor's name for himself, even in roles that don't necessarily include the likes of Batman. It particularly does my heart some good to see that this guy made real good on his career and didn't end up like too many so-called child stars and actors out there who fade away into oblivion. It would have been such a shameful waste to see such a performance that he gives in EMPIRE OF THE SUN never go any further than that film. That said, let me just say now that I personally consider Bale's performance in this film the greatest I've ever seen by a child on screen. That's a tall victory to give to just one child actor, but if you've seen him in this film, you know what I'm talking about and just might agree with me.

Bale's character of Jamie is one of the most complex children I've even seen. Not merely for his impressive knowledge of war planes and bridges, but even just his passive daydreaming of God and what he might have said while "playing tennis". But when he's separated from his parents during an attack on the city of Shanghai, he's as confused and terrified as any small child would be. Quickly, though, the concept of his own day-by-day survival during a time of war becomes apparant. As he grows up during the years at the Japanese prison camp, he's not only a survivor, but one who's learned to trade, sell and even con his way through the camp to not only ensure his own survival, but to ensure a position of acceptance among the American men he admires the most, particularly that of his caregiver, Basie (played by John Malkovich). These are the necessary skills needed for the boy to become a man. During this time of war, innocence is destroyed forever, which is a theme that actually contradicts Speilberg's previous effort to celebrate childhood in E.T. (1982). Yet on the other hand, childhood is once again rediscovered at the end when Jim is finally reunited with his parents (parents he can't even immediately recognize due to the scars of his war experiences) in a tradition theme of reunions that we'd previously seen in other Spielberg works like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and THE COLOR PURPLE (1985). The act of flying symbolizes Jamie's possibility and danger of escape from the prison camp. His growing alienation from his pre-war child self and society is reflected in his hero-worship of the Japanese aviators based at the airfield adjoining the prison camp. He's constantly identifying himself, first with the Japanese, and then with the Americans when they start flying over in their Mustangs and B-29s.

My love for Spielberg's film making has never been a kept secret. However, there are several particular camera shots in EMPIRE OF THE SUN that I am particularly drawn to where we see Jamie in the forefront and the explosive action of battle taking place behind him in the background. There are moments where the madness of war takes its toll on young Jamie to the point where he's too excited about witnessing war planes in action to be too scared about risking his life in the middle of it all. But the one scene I've never been able to get out of my head is during the exodus march toward the end of the film when Jamie witnesses a flash from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles away, and hears news of Japan's surrender and the final end of the war. The white light we see in the sky from Jamie's point of vision is quick and rather simple, but extraordinarily chilling when you consider what his just happened in our world history.

When EMPIRE OF THE SUN was first released in 1987, I was attending college in Buffalo, New York. Across the street from my dormitory building was a triplex that showed mostly independent and foreign films (films I had yet to really appreciate). So in order to satisfy my determination to see Spielberg's latest film on the big screen, I had to walk a considerable distance to a bus stop and then take TWO buses to the nearest town multiplex. I can still remember thinking to myself, upon leaving the theater, "That was totally worth the trip!". And it was, too.

Let me say, finally, that with all due respect to Bernardo Bertolucci, EMPIRE OF THE SUN is the film that I think SHOULD HAVE won the Oscar for best picture of 1987. Those bastards at the Academy didn't even nominate it!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jamie Graham: "I learned a new word today...atom bomb. It was like a white light in the sky. Like God taking a photograph. I saw it."

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