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Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" Is An Underrated Classic
Given Steven Spielberg's successful track record in documenting the impact of World War II through films and mini-series, it's a shame that "Empire of the Sun" tends to be overlooked in his filmography. Based upon J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical tale, "Empire of the Sun" is a coming-of-age story of a young spoiled English boy whose affluent family is living in Shanghai, China in 1941 on the brink of Japanese imperialism. Spielberg's later work would honor the brave men who fought in the international conflict, but it was this film that told the bravery and courage of a young boy.
Eleven year-old Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is the spoiled rich son of affluent parents living in the isolated environment of upper class British residency in Shanghai, unaware of the true horrors of conflicts in their own backyard during the Second Sino-Japanese War. While aware of the situation, his father doesn’t believe they have anything to worry about. During a costume party hosted by his parents' friend, Jamie runs off in the back yard and comes across a stationed Japanese Army in trenches, patiently waiting for the attack on Pearl Harbor. A chilling reminder of the events that would enfold.
Upon the invasion of Shanghai, the English elites try to escape. Separated from his parents during a mob scene in the streets, Jamie retreats back home awaiting their return. After days of being alone and surviving on the last remnants of food, he decides to venture back into the urban streets to seek his parents. When encountering Japanese troops, he reluctantly “surrenders”, but they laugh it off. He is all alone and tries to use his status as a British elite to gain protection. Upon being robbed in the streets by a teenage Japanese thug, he is nearly run over by American Frank Demarest (Joe Pantoliano). He is brought to his living mate in hiding Basie (John Malkovich), an American ship steward stranded in Shanghai. For the first time, Jim (nicknamed by Basie) is experiencing poverty and must learn to cope.
Jim’s once pampered environment is now occupied by the Japanese. When going back to his affluent neighborhood for valuables, homes are now occupied by the Japanese. Basie is beaten up and the three are arrested. Now in an internment camp, Jim is slowly adjusting to life as a captive. No freedoms, limited food. A sense of community starts to form with other captives relying on each other.
Transferred to the Suzhou Creek Internment camp, Jim spends the next four years well adapted to his new living conditions. He befriends many American and English adults and children, including English Doctor Rawlins, who mentors Jim and becomes a father figure. Still a child without his parents, he has matured in the face of his surroundings. Yet, his innocence is exhibited with an unlikely friendship with a Japanese youth and when his passion for aviation is not deterred. He openly salutes a group of Japanese kamikaze pilots prior to the start of their mission. For Jim, there are no international quarrels between him and the Japanese Empire. When the camp comes under the attack of American P-51 Mustangs, Jim is overcome with excitement while watching the “Cadillac of the sky” in action, oblivious to the damage being done to the camp. Dr. Rawlins tries to calm him down and seek protection. Jim breaks down, realizing that he no longer remembers what his parents look like after years of being separated. He is a child of conflict, whose innocence has been forsaken in the face of war. In an effort to maintain his own sense of humanity, Jim's keeps a print of Norman Rockwell's iconic Freedom From Fear painting over his bed at the internment camo as a reminder that he once came from a loving family.
Christian Bale has since become associated with roles in "American Psycho" and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but it’s interesting to see how mature he was as a dramatic actor at such a young age. Spielberg's then-actress wife Amy Irving recommended the 12 year old Bale for the role after co-starring with him in the TV movie "Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna." Bale’s role as a prisoner of war can be compared to Werner Herzog’s 2006 film “Rescue Dawn,” where Bale played a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Sprawling visuals, detailed period-based sets, and a John Williams score makes this a trademark Spielberg film. Nominated for six Academy Awards (mostly technical categories), the film came out empty handed. Perhaps with no star power at the time, the film went unnoticed. While making a profit at the box office, it didn't measure up to Spielberg's adventure and science fiction films. Yet, it marked his first emotionally dramatic epic tale of war. He was coming off "The Colored Purple" and it represented a time when he shifted to more mature films. According to a 2008 New York Times article, what attracted Spielberg to the book was that it was about "a loss of innocence."