Steven Spielberg took a break from directing his usual fantasy fare, erroneously regarded as fluff entertainment by the critics, to make Empire of the Sun (1987); an often grisly, sweepingly panoramic depiction of Japan’s occupation of Shanghai during WWII. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay based on J. G. Ballard’s novel, itself a semi-biographical account written some forty years after the actual event, stays fairly close to the unvarnished truths as seen through an eleven year old Jim Grahame’s eyes. In retrospect, the project seemed tailor-made for Spielberg whose penchant for re-entering the world of a child, or rediscovering the child from within, had served his cinematic story-telling prowess exceptionally well throughout the 1970s and early 80s. However, in the case of Empire of the Sun the amalgam of an unflinching wartime tale shattering the idyllic optimism of an innocent proved infrequently problematic; that and the mangled approach to its religious subtext lightly feathered in throughout the narrative.
No, in retrospect Spielberg must have been fighting a battle in his own mind, belaboring a genuine uncertainty for how it would all come together in the final edit. Empire of the Sun is hardly an artistic failure (although its anemic $22 million box office in North America was rather disappointing, particularly when compared to The Color Purple’s $98 million and E.T.’s gargantuan domestic gross of $435 million), and certainly, Empire of the Sun is made on a scale worthy of the great war epics from generations gone by. But ultimately the film succumbs to its own fragile concoction of childhood introspection from fractured and/or embellished memories that Ballard himself would agree took him twenty years to forget and another twenty to commit to paper.
Empire of the Sun introduced audiences to thirteen year old Christian Bale; even then an actor of formidable intuition and the presence of self that never gets lost amid the thought-numbing chaos. Not so much the case for Rupert Frazer or Emily Richard who are cast as Jim’s parents. In fact, in reviewing Empire of the Sun it becomes immediately apparent how much the film belongs to Bale, and even more perplexing, how little it owes to virtually any of the other considerable talents on display but curiously overshadowed in the mix. John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Haver, Joe Pantoliano: these are fine actors to be sure, but they are given precious little to do in Stoppard’s screenplay and worse, make the least of what little they have been given, fading into the background and largely forgotten when they are not on the screen.
There is no denying Empire of the Sun has an epic quality evocative of a movie made by David Lean, whom Spielberg so clearly admires and who had first embraced the directorial duties, with Spielberg as the film’s producer, before bowing out of the project. One can definitely see Spielberg’s affinity for Lean on display herein, a sort of aping of Lean’s style that doesn’t quite fit with Spielberg’s own luxuriance for telling ‘kiddie’ tales; the protagonist ‘pint’ rather than ‘king’ sized a la an actor like Peter O’Toole or Omar Sharif. Christian Bale definitely holds his own. But he lacks the command of his craft, nee the restraint of an adult actor to know when too much is too much. The greatest of Spielberg’s movies have always managed to awaken the child within and then take the audience all along for that magic carpet ride. But Empire of the Sun does the reverse; brutalizing childhood innocence with its exposure to the harsh and indoctrinating realities of the adult world. Jim Grahame – a child slightly spoiled and most definitely born to privilege – is about to grow up. The transition is devastating, the wounds inflicted more crippling to the cerebral and imaginative properties of a boy forced to suddenly think like a full grown man in order to survive the occupation.
Spielberg handles these various tragedies inflicted on Jim with uncharacteristic frankness. Yet, he seems to occasionally forget that the crux of the story is a boy’s interpretation of war – what is real, what has been exaggerated through myth of memory, and, what is being filtered through the imaginative rubric of an eleven year old child’s limited prism in understanding the world in general and war in particular. Jim’s hypersensitive intelligence is counterbalanced with an even more perplexing naivety; particularly in his atheistic quandary that infrequently interrupts the story with contemplations about God. Early on Jim declares himself an atheist, his devotion distilled into vignettes of being utterly bored singing hymnals in church. Much later in the story Jim mistakes the detonation of the nuclear bomb and its pulsating aftershocks as the ethereal escape of a dying woman’s soul. Throughout the story Jim’s fascination with aviation is linked to his childish desire to fly into the heavens and confront God – if, in fact, He does exist. Yet, on the whole, Jim’s struggle to make sense of religion is a badly mangled affair; an oddity incongruously inserted at perplexing moments rather than becoming an integral, or at least interwoven, part of the story.
Spielberg spent several months shooting Empire of the Sun in Spain, England and Shanghai, converting whole portions of this cosmopolitan city back to its prewar state with the complicity of China’s government and using 5,000 extras, many of whom were old enough to remember the Japanese occupation as it had occurred in 1941. The authenticity in Norman Reynolds’ production design is beyond reproach. Yet here too the movie tends to get bogged down in a sort of stark visual decadence; the row on row of abandoned aristocratic abodes left to rot and decay after the exile and imprisonment of their British, French and American inhabitants; the recreation of movie marquees and wall-sized billboards depicting The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Gone With The Wind (1939); the absurdity of an over-the-top costume ball given by the ex-patriots juxtaposed against the mass starvation of the indigenous Chinese. Ultimately, these contradictory backdrops buttress the film’s leitmotif depicting a perishable society utterly decimated by war. Shanghai pre-WWII was a thriving multicultural metropolis of glittery nightclubs and gaudy thoroughfares; a veritable evocation of western sensibilities permeating its mood, style and undeniably its architecture. After the war these cultural touchstones were vanquished, replaced by a decidedly Asian preeminence.
Christian Bale plays Jim Grahame, a pert but prepossessing tot obsessed with aviation and genuinely fascinated by the prospect of war without truly understanding the severity of conflict. Jim and his parents, John (Rupert Frazer) and Mary (Emily Richard) live in a stately Victorian manor built in the heart of Shanghai’s international district; an insular enclave untouched by these hard realities pressing in on all sides. In keeping with the cliché of British colonialism Jim is rather condescending to the family’s house servant, Amah (Susan Leong), informing her that she must do as he asks. The Grahames attend a costume ball where the impending Japanese invasion is discussed. Jim discovers a downed plane in an open field and plays at being a pilot after crawling into its cockpit. Later he observes his father in their study destroying some rather legal-looking documents in the fireplace. The next day John decides to move his family into the city to a fashionable hotel where he assumes they will be more secure.
Unhappy chance for all concerned that this move places the family in closer proximity to the harbor where Japanese war ships have already been positioned for a strike on the city. Jim observes one of the war ships signaling to another and decides to partake in the exercise by signaling with his own light from an upstairs balcony. Bombs begin to fall and Shanghai is thrust into turmoil. In the ensuing chaos John is separated from Mary and Jim; then Jim from his mother. Thus begins Jim’s odyssey. He returns to the family home, certain his parents will return shortly. But after several days of living alone and hungry Jim is confronted by Amah who proudly slaps his face as she loots the bedrooms.
Chased into the streets by the advancing Japanese army, and then by Yang (Zhai Nai She); a local intent on stealing Jim’s shoes, Jim is inadvertently rescued from the assault by Frank Demarest (Joe Pantoliano); an impoverished sailor who takes Jim back to the rusted hull of an abandoned ship where fellow sailor, Basie (John Malkovich) is preparing a rice dinner. The two men decide to sell Jim for some badly needed money. But none of Basie’s contacts want to buy the boy and Jim, realizing that his only hope for survival is to remain at Basie’s side, offers to take him back to his old neighborhood where they can pillage the abandoned homes for their lavish accoutrements. Regrettably, the Japanese have already taken over Jim’s former residence. They capture and beat Basie as Jim looks on, the trio forcibly taken to Shanghai’s Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center where Jim is reunited with Mr. and Mrs. Victor (Peter Gale and Miranda Richardson), friends of his mother and father. Eventually all of the prisoners are rounded up and transferred to Soochow Creek Internment Camp.
Despite the hardships of war Jim proves himself quite resourceful as a scavenger for Basie, involving the camp’s commanding officer Sergeant Nagata (Masatô Ibu) in a sort of black market trade; earning the respect of the American prisoners and eventually invited by Basie to live with them in their dorm. The character of Basie is most curious. On the one hand he is hardly Jim’s friend or protector, all too ready and willing to abandon, sell or exploit Jim for his own selfish pursuits when the going gets tough. Yet on the other hand, Basie entrusts Jim with the responsibility of managing his belongings, particularly after Nagata mercilessly beats him to a pulp. It must also be pointed out that Jim’s affinity for Basie is equally bizarre – a child’s miscalculation in high regard for an individual unworthy of such praise and idolization, yet akin to Jim’s growing admiration for the Japanese; particularly their Kamikazes.
The camp’s hospital physician, Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers) becomes Jim’s surrogate father; furthering his education and understanding of the world while enlisting Jim to help at the hospital where death and disease are a daily occurrence. Through the barbwire fence of the camp Jim befriends a Japanese teenager (Takatarô Kataoka) who, like Jim, daydreams of becoming a pilot. Basie sends Jim on a fool’s errand, telling him to set snare traps outside the barbed wire fence. Actually, Basie is testing the perimeter of the camp for mines. Narrowly spared detection from Nagata, Jim is promised by Basie to be part of his escape plan. Instead, Basie makes a successful break by himself leaving Jim more despondent than ever.
At dawn Jim quietly observes the kamikaze ritual at the adjoining air base and serenades the pilots with the Welsh song Suo Gân. The solemnity of the moment is interrupted by an impromptu attack from American P-51 Mustang fighters, the camp abandoned shortly thereafter as the Japanese leave the prisoners to die in the baron wilderness from fatigue and malnutrition. Jim confesses to Dr. Rawlins that he can no longer recall his parent’s from memory. Left to their own devices the camp’s survivors make their way to an amphitheater built in the middle of nowhere where they discover a graveyard of remnants – crystal chandeliers, furniture and automobiles - from their former glory left to rot and/or rust away. Mrs. Victor, who has been separated from her husband, is near death. Jim decides to stay behind with her while the others forge ahead; experiencing the aftershock of the nuclear bomb detonated on Nagasaki but mistaking its brilliant light as the escape of Mrs. Victor’s soul into heaven.
Jim tosses his meager suitcase containing all of his childhood memories and possessions into the nearby river – a symbolic gesture meant to represent his utter break with, and abandonment of, his past before returning to Soochow Creek where he and the Japanese teenager he befriended are reunited. The teen is utterly distraught over his country’s surrender but compassionate, offering Jim a mango to satisfy his obvious hunger. However, as he prepares to slice into it with his katana the teen is shot to death by Basie who has also returned to loot the camp of its Red Cross food stuffs. Jim is enraged, his childhood affection for Basie forever fractured by his insistent refusal to accompany Basie back to Shanghai. Miraculously, Jim is discovered by American soldiers and taken to a Shanghai orphanage where he is reunited with his mother and father; his stoic – near shell-shocked – resolve almost unable to identify them at first. In this penultimate moment of bittersweet reunion Spielberg falls back on one of the primary precepts of his film-making prowess – namely, the convenient ‘feel good’ happy ending; strangely unsettling herein as the movie concludes with a shot of Jim’s abandoned suitcase still floating down river; presumably symbolic of a journey in Jim’s mind that will never end.
Empire of the Sun is compelling. Yet it lacks the emotional center essential to make meaning from the mayhem. A war story told from the adult perspective might have succeeded without this latter commodity, the familiar mantra of ‘war is hell’ sufficient to sustain not only the action but the tone and mood of the piece. But Empire of the Sun is relayed from a boyhood memory – albeit one forty years removed in its recollections made by author, J. G. Ballard. And for all his astute maturity, there is something genuinely deficient in Christian Bale’s central performance – a sense of boyhood wonderment dashed to pieces and/or recklessly matured. Yes, Bale’s performance will break your heart, but it peculiarly fails to enter it completely – the actor’s craft too advanced to make Jim Grahame anything more or better than a well-rehearsed bit of play acting.
The story is also bereft of enduring influences from any of the adult actors; just a lot of well-intended stick-figure characterizations. Empire of the Sun is not a story of adult heroism but of a child’s sustained opinions of the adults who populated his life and how these perceptions are changed through wartime experiences. Basie’s calculated exploitation of Jim’s good nature and sense of adventurism to suit his own means is a miscalculation that leaves the audience unappreciative of John Malkovich’s skills as an actor. We don’t love or hate Basie so much as we loathe his despicableness. Miranda Richardson’s Mrs. Victor is an even less sympathetic creature; aloof and lacking even a shred of maternal instinct. If she was, as the film professes, a good friend of the Grahames, she and her husband certainly have an odd way of showing their friendship; all but ignoring Jim. Nigel Havers’ Dr. Rawlins is about the best of the lot; yet more by our built-in appreciation for Havers - the actor - rather than by anything his character actually says or does throughout the story.
One of the movie’s gross and inexcusable misfires is that it utterly fails to establish any sort of familial solidarity within the Grahame household before the war tears them apart. Jim’s relationship with his parents is scantly represented at best but he seems, at least superficially, closer to his father, John. His mother, Mary is an uncommunicative shrike, brittle and terrorized as she is devoured by the fleeing mob in the streets of Shanghai, leaving the film’s penultimate moment, when mother and son are reunited at the orphanage, strangely underwhelming. In the end Empire of the Sun is not one of Spielberg’s best films. It has Spielberg’s unquestionable hallmark of impeccable craftsmanship to recommend it, but it miserably lacks in any emotional content – just another war story, albeit one told from the fascinating resurrection of a child’s long-lost perspectives reconstituted and revisited as an adult.
Warner Home Video has at long last released Empire of the Sun on Blu-ray. The title was originally listed last October then pulled without explanation just weeks before. Allen Daviau’s cinematography looks marvelous on the whole, although this new 1080p transfer didn’t exactly overwhelm me. Color fidelity is good but colors don’t really pop. Flesh looks very natural but reds appear a tad washed out. The image is quite crisp without being artificially sharpened; no edge effects or boosting of contrast either. Grain is accurately represented as are fine details. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the image. I just found it average rather than spectacular. The new DTS 5.1 audio is a minor revelation. Warfare sequences will give your speakers a workout and John William’s memorable underscore excels as never heard before on home video. Warner rounds out the extras by two: a vintage ‘making of’ that is rather extensive and has its nuggets of fascination to unearth, regrettably in 720i, and a DVD extra ‘Warner Goes To War’ – a feature length documentary on the studio’s vast assortment of wartime propaganda movies from Hollywood’s golden age, appropriately narrated by Steven Spielberg. Given the delay in this release it would have been great to have an audio commentary from Spielberg. Too bad. A lost opportunity. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)