EMPIRE OF THE SUN, 1987
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano
Review by Matthew Lohr
A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II.
Nominated for 6 OSCARS – Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Music, Best Costume Design
After years of being pigeonholed as simply an entertainer, a populist producer of popcorn frivolity, Steven Spielberg has finally won acceptance as a serious filmmaker. His “Schindler’s List” won awards and acclaim and was cited as a milestone in historical cinema, while “Saving Private Ryan” has grown in the public mind into much more than a mere film; indeed, it more or less served the role of a de facto World War II veterans’ monument until the federal government actually got around to building a real one. Even when the public does not embrace his forays into serious cinema quite so fervently, as with the acclaimed but financially underperforming “Amistad” and “Munich”, Spielberg no longer has to fight for respect and the right to be regarded as a cinematic “artiste”.
Such was not the case when “Empire of the Sun” was first released in 1987. Though Spielberg’s previous film, 1985’s deep-Southern drama “The Color Purple”, had won him some acclaim and a Director’s Guild award, many critics charged that the picture prettified human suffering, turning true experience into mere pageantry. It was still hard for audiences to find the artist inside the entertainer, and they responded to “Empire of the Sun” in kind, greeting it with both mixed reviews and lukewarm box office. It would take a few more crowd-pleasers (another Indiana Jones picture, “Jurassic Park”) before Spielberg finally got his due with “Schindler’s List”. “Empire of the Sun” provides an interesting contrast to that film, presenting a vaguely similar subject with all of the Hollywood gloss and glamour that the later film eschews…and ultimately suffering for it.
Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical best-seller, “Empire” tells the story of young Jim Graham (a pre-teen Christian Bale), a pampered son of wealthy English parents living in 1940s Shanghai. Jim is obsessed with planes, and dreams of someday joining the mighty Japanese air force. One day, however, the dreams stop when the Japanese take the city and Jim is separated from his parents. Drifting through a series of increasingly harrowing adventures, he eventually finds himself in a Japanese internment camp, where the once-arrogant son of privilege is forced to get down in the muck and learn how to survive.
It’s grand material for a cinematic treatment, but Tom Stoppard’s screenplay does not take it far enough. We never really get a clear sense of exactly what Jim learns from his experiences. Sure, he finds out that life’s not as easy as he thought it was, and that the Japanese army he so idolized is indeed vulnerable, but these lessons are never clearly articulated by the script’s events, and we’re left to piece it together later in our heads (I think this is where the playwright in Stoppard comes through; film scripts often don’t bear up to such abstraction). Jim’s plane fixation likewise seems meant to hold a metaphorical weight that it never truly assumes. What’s more, when Jim is finally delivered from his predicament, we get no scenes showing us his life after his ordeal. How can we really know how he’s changed, what he’s learned, if we don’t get to see the new Jim in action? Spielberg and Stoppard don’t bother to provide any answers, and the film becomes too remote as a result.
Bale, admittedly, makes even this truncated Jim a compelling and fascinating character. The actor holds the screen with utter command; it’s not a stretch for us to follow him anywhere. He’s equally convincing as the snobby, snide boy of early scenes and as the haggard, battle-hardened survivor of the later camp sequences. Spielberg has always been one of our best directors of children, and Bale’s performance here is some of the best work he’s ever solicited from a young actor.
The supporting cast, while impressive, is unfortunately hamstrung by insufficiently defined roles. Miranda Richardson and Peter Gale have some nice moments as Jim’s surrogate prison-camp parents, and Nigel Havers makes us wish we saw more of his dedicated camp doctor. Masato Ibu is also commanding as the cold-eyed Japanese commandant, and Emily Richard has a few moments of chilling power as Jim’s mom. Still, these characters are never given much to do by the story, and merely seem to be around to react to Jim’s actions. The only truly vividly drawn supporting player is Basie (John Malkovich), a former merchant sailor and full-time survivor who teaches Jim the hard facts of camp living while plotting an escape and a new life as a river pirate. He’s a complex and interesting character, both a pragmatist and a dreamer, and Malkovich invests him with hard-bitten smarts and a surprising soulfulness that makes his every scene compelling.
This being a Steven Spielberg picture, naturally, everything looks just great. The cinematography by Allen Daviau is gorgeous, and the production designers craft an always-convincing facsimile of World War II China. John Williams’ score is undistinguished, but the soundtrack makes use of a haunting Welsh lullaby that stayed in my head for days. And, of course, there’s plenty of Spielbergian set pieces: the harrowing moment where Jim loses his mother, a tense sequence where a Japanese gunman stalks the boy through a field of weeds, Jim saluting a band of Japanese kamikaze pilots, and a well-staged air attack on the camp, with Jim cheering wildly for the planes about to destroy him.
Still, should a film like this even HAVE set pieces? “Schindler’s List” had memorable moments, to be sure, but none of them seemed to be there just so the director could show off; everything emerged naturally from the events of the story, and thus became organic parts of a whole, not “big scenes”. “Empire of the Sun” gave Spielberg a serious subject matter and a broad canvas to explore, but the populist was still too much at play. It would take a few years and a few more films, but Spielberg finally got it right, proving that even the most financially successful director of all time can learn a few new tricks every now and again.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.
The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.