We’re back. The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, post-Memorial Day, will close the month with a war film that began its life between a book cover. By chance, it’ll mark the third time for this duo post series of ours with a certain filmmaker. Not so for authors, but we’ve not repeated any other. For the month of May, we’re examining what arguably was Steven Spielberg‘s first war-story production1, based on a famed semi-autobiographical novel by an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Mostly known for his New Wave science fiction, the late-J.G. Ballard established himself by writing apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels. Who knows, perhaps his hallucinatory and highly controversial 1973 novel Crash, which was turned into a film, might make this series of ours one day. Today, we stick with his conventional war novel, Empire of the Sun. Drawn from his personal account of a young boy’s experiences in Shanghai, China during World War II.
As usual, the wordy one will examine the 1984 novel later adapted by screenwriters. I’ll examine Spielberg’s 1987 film. One that marked a turning point in his career. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War, by 1941, was a place of peril and the pampered. Occupied by the Japanese Army, the former for its Chinese inhabitants. The latter for the Europeans enjoying a privileged life in the Shanghai International Settlement. Especially for Jamie Graham, an upper class British schoolboy fascinated with airplanes. His cossetted family life, along with everyone else’s, coming to an abrupt halt following the attack on Pearl Harbor. When Japanese troops storm in and take control of Shanghai. Separated from his parents, young ‘Jim’ will have to find his way and somehow survive occupation and internment camp captivity, which has essentially made him an orphan.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club.”
Having seen the film first-run with my future wife, coming back to this more than a quarter of a century later was rather fascinating. Especially after reading Ballard’s source novel this time around. Re-experiencing it again on the small screen, though helped by the recent Blu-ray Disc released for its 25th anniversary, the film’s widescreen splendor was somewhat diminished. Yet, what made the feature memorable then was still in effect. The passage of time actually enriching the translated material.
Empire of Sun is most assuredly Steven Spielberg’s best of a forgotten set of film. By a number of his fans back then. Those expecting his usual adventure-slash-action-slash-thrillers. Eating-machine sea creatures, aliens, and other wondrous things. All with dazzling technology, in front of and behind the camera. Or, at least stirring, heartrending moments brought to a rich sadness on screen.
At least that last part could be used to describe what the filmmaker put forward with this effort.
This production arriving at a time when fandom expected what preceded it. Perhaps, wanting to leave behind his inceptive, serious turn with The Color Purple a couple of years earlier as something he’d get out of his system. Before returning to the fun, exciting fare Spielberg’s great at, they’d reckon. Essentially missing out on the vanguard work we’ve come to expect from this artist. At least by today’s standards.
A still young director branching out on an epic scale in the late 80s. Looking at it today, the film still engulfs its audience to a time only a dwindling number knew firsthand, and too well. The younger set not really interested. Outside of their Call to Duty controllers, that is. This film adaptation portended his later war-centered work, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse.
Showing remarkable maturity by this point in his early career — sadly enough, even Hollywood didn’t expect, or reward, it.
I’d forgotten how great the cast performances were as a whole. Naturally, Christian Bale‘s breakthrough as the young Brit coming of age during a momentous and stark period, which only war can bestow, received well-earned praise. Well before he’d put on the cowl, drastically vary his physique, or sport a Boston accent. Awing the few moviegoers who saw it firsthand.
A phenomenal channeling of the unlikely protagonist that Ballard’s novel called upon. Even his early comeuppance, by those he deemed beneath him, during the initial turmoil of occupation, a stark reminder this privileged youth knew little beyond the airplanes he aspired to fly. Beginning his new life at zero. He couldn’t even surrender himself to occupation forces without derision.
Yet, the many character renderings, by an international cast, shouldn’t have been passed over, either. Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson, Leslie Phillips, Masatô Ibu, and Takatarô Kataoka. The American director heaping face time on a young Ben Stiller, Joe Pantoliano, and notably John Malkovich in this. Fueling young Jim’s worship of the Japanese and Americans through his British mindset, the film’s secondary theme.
Arguably, Malkovich’s character of Basie — who’d try to sell Jim, as well use him as a decoy, valet, and future pay window during their years together — vied with the Japanese as the magnetic villain of the tale.
The best and worst of the Pacific Theatre combatants on display at Suzhou Creek internment camp and airfield.
Jim: “We’ll have to leave the camp.”
Basie: “That’s the idea, Jim. First one side feeds you and the other side tries to get you killed, then it’s turned around; it’s all timing.”
The atypical opening for Empire of the Sun, especially for Spielberg film, the prologue set the British a world apart at the onset. In the International Settlement, and later in the internment camp, creating the unique observer for telling the tale. Though typical of the director to use youthful actors, the spoilt child stripped of luxury and eventually primed for the audience’s sympathy, was out of the ordinary.
The twelve year-old’s disdain of the Chinese itself a reflection of the imperial history of pre-war Shanghai, and elsewhere. “Remember, we’re British.”, saying it all.
Tom Stoppard, and the uncredited Menno Meyjes, got screenwriting credit for the superb distillation of Ballard’s grim fictionalization of his early life. A situation hard to contemplate, let alone describe and live through. No wonder he’d write apocalyptic stories, or have people injuriously thrown at each other, afterward. Thankfully, the film adaptation interspersed stunning images throughout to break up its distinct bleakness — viewers of King Rat and Rescue Dawn2 will recognize much.
Spielberg filled the film with a number of his visual trademarks. The tense scene where the Jim discovers an unseen Japanese Army contingent, before the onset of outright occupation, particularly noteworthy and well staged. Bale’s character, especially through the boy’s fascination of aircraft, nearly always framed in a way to draw the audience’s eye. The spectacular P-51 attack of the airfield made more effective by this. Simply mesmerizing. Spielberg again at his eye-catching, heart-in-your-throat best…and not an extraterrestrial in sight.
“Buying and selling, Frank. Life.”
The first major American motion picture shot in China, Shanghai, specifically, Empire of the Sun maintained an authenticity not seen since the 60s epics of David Lean or Anthony Mann. The former at one time tied to this production. In Steven Spielberg’s hands, the large-scale was made personal in his unique way. The death of a child’s innocence through war and separation Spielberg’s prime impetus.
“My parents got a divorce when I was 14, 15. The whole thing about separation is something that runs very deep in anyone exposed to divorce.”3, was made clear by the filmmaker. Of this, I know what he means. The surreal scene of cars, furniture, and musical instruments left from the former ruling British families, discovered by the internees in the old stadium as their one-time Japanese captors abandon their hold of China, symbolized similar.
The film remains an astonishing work by a gifted director, and unfairly overlooked. The memoirs of J.G. Ballard given a blunt but somehow beautiful treatment. One that holds up better than some of his later films, chiefly because Empire of the Sun ends at just the right moment — yeah, I’m talking about you, Lincoln. Accompanied by a more subtle John Williams’ score, this was an outstanding piece of work by Steven Spielberg. One that left childhood metaphorically floating away on the China Sea.
“Hey, kid. Want a Hershey’s bar?”
Parallel Post Series
- The Name of the Rose
- I Am Legend
- The Right Stuff
- - 2013 posts
- - 2012 posts
- - 2011 posts
- - 2010 posts