The Color Purple proved that Steven Spielberg was more than a genre director. He showed he is a storyteller that can convey true human emotion without the crutch of amazing special effects. In 1987 he upped the ante even higher with his adaption of J.G. Ballard’s acclaimed novel Empire of the Sun. Spielberg had already covered World War II with 1941. That experience probably provided little assistance in dealing with the more traumatic drama of this story, though like 1941 it does cover a part of history that is often overshadowed. Empire of the Sun allowed Spielberg to continue his transcendence into becoming a complete auteur. He improved on many of his past mistakes with Color of Purple, but clearly still had room to grow. With the help of an outstanding performance by a young Christian Bale Empire of the Sun was Spielberg’s most ‘grown up’ film to date. Far more effort went into melding his trademark style with more serious material to make it uniquely his own.
The film begins shortly before the events of Pearl Harbor. It centers around Jamie Graham, played by Christian Bale, a spoiled boy aristocrat growing up in British controlled Shanghai. Though he is surrounded by Chinese culture his family has kept him isolated from it. In fact, due to this love of aviation, he wishes to join the Japanese Air Force on day. Eventually the war does come to Shanghai as the city becomes occupied by the Japanese. During the chaos Graham is separated from his parents and is forced to survive on his own in this war torn country.
Jamie’s lack of identity was one of the more intriguing aspects of this story, but it was also completely underutilized. There is a falsity to his entire upbringing. Even though he has lived in Shanghai his entire life he is still a foreigner, and his country of origin, a place he has never visted, is half a world away. His parents have attempted to keep his British routes intact, yet he still feels little ownership to his patriotic duties. When the war finally starts he has more interest in the display of firepower than the outcome. Similar to the person who only watches football when Super Bowl comes around; his interest is not routed in who will claim victory instead he is more invested in the spectacle of the entire event. While you understand his plight, the overall effect feels hallow. It seems Spielberg, like Jamie, got too caught up in the spectacle as well. Many of the adults ignored Jamie’s fetishizing of the Japanese soldiers as nothing more than childhood ignorance. It was unfortunate that Spielberg did the same.
One the other hand Spielberg was able to get one remarkable performance out of 13 year old Christian Bale. Films like E.T. showed Spielberg’s knack for cultivating quality performances from children, but Bale’s performance in this is not a great child performance—it is simply a great performance for an actor of any age. The entire movie is put upon his shoulders and he carries that weight with little hesitation. There are moments, like him running around Shanghai attempting to surrender to the enemy, that are truly gut-wrenching. He starts off as this innocent child oblivious to everyone else’s struggles, and then transforms into a harden miscreant who was seen far too much of tragedy.
Eventually Jamie does get captured and placed into a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp. During this time Jamie also establishes a kinship with many of the captured American soldiers. One solider in particular, played by John Malkovich, becomes quasi role model for Jamie. In many ways he finds his first true home in this prison camp. He is constantly keeping busy by trading goods, stealing supplies from the Japanese, and occasionally taking in a school lesson from the camps doctor. Though most of it is a charade to keep his mind occupied, as the camp is full of hungry, disease, and misery.
When people talk about the horrors of World War II very few people tend to mention that atrocities Japan inflicted upon China. Empire of the Sun does not necessarily shine more light on those horrors, but it does provide a different perspective. There are moments that perfectly convey the disproportional struggles that gripped Shanghai. The film begins as the British elite are gathering for a costume ball. As they travel in their fine automobiles they are forced to pass through hoards of Shanghai citizens who have taken to the streets. It was this prefect representation of the separation of struggle. When that is juxtaposed with the life at the prison camp it flawlessly expresses how war can quickly remove the foundations of our society. War has many victims and this film eloquently displays that fact.
Part of that display is due to the fine work of cinematographer Allen Daviau, who worked with Spielberg previously on E.T. and The Color Purple. Here he crafts imagery of tranquil beauty and devastating dismay. There is one moment where Japanese fighter pilots are about to embark on an apparent kamikaze mission that is truly haunting. With the setting sun behind them, their venture into the ultimate sacrifice becomes even more surreal. John Williams again shows he is as versatile as ever by creating a score that eerily fits this setting. The Welsh lullaby that leads most of the score is calming presence in a setting of chaos and disaster. Often when you hear a Williams score you can spot it for a mile away, but much of his trademark sound in this is appropriately absent. Unlike Spielberg who relied on much of his trademark camera work to tell this story. His style that previously immersed you into out of this world adventure brings you into an atmosphere of pure dread. Empire of the Sun molded Spielberg’s sensibilities with a maturity that was vastly beyond his previously films. While the film is not lacking in issues, Empire of the Sun was still further proof that Spielberg could wholeheartedly do it all.