“I learned a new word today. ‘Atom bomb.’ It was like a white light in the sky. Like God taking a photograph. ”
“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.”
“P-51! Cadillac of the sky!”
I wasn’t sure when I started “Empire of the Sun” but now I am. I had never seen this movie before which continues Steven Spielberg’s foray into the historical drama genre after “The Color Purple”. The lame “1941” was his first World War II movie and “Empire of the Sun” continues what will become a topic of the director’s fascination over his career. A thing I admire about the film right off the bat is that I cannot think of many other movies capturing this particular vantage point of the war.
“Empire of the Sun” takes place in Shanghai where a British family lives in 1941 in the middle of a 4 year undeclared war between China and Japan. That family has a spoiled boy, Jim, who is obsessed with airplanes and lives in ease and comfort under the wings of his parents. Jim is portrayed by (can you believe it?) a thirteen year old Christian Bale in one of his first movies. Japan would soon invade Shanghai and Jim gets separated from his parents. The boy is taken to Soo Chow Confinement Camp next to a captured Chinese airfield.
So the movie is a coming of age tale of sorts but also another Spielbergean device of seeing events of the world through a child’s eyes (or in this case, a pre-teenager). The horror of war, invasion, shootings and death as well as bombing campaign’s will be perceived from Jim’s perspective.
While in the confinement camp, with sickness and food shortages, Jim becomes an inspiration to fellow prisoners that include Basie (it’s John Malkovich) and Dainty (Ben Stiller at the beginning of his career). Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers) would become a father type figure to Jim within the camps and participate in the trading network that is setup among the prisoners.
The uniqueness of this approach to the war is Spielberg avoiding a completely pro-allied perspective on the conflict. The young teenager Jim befriends a Japanese teenager who is a trainee pilot. He also witnesses a kamikaze ritual done at dawn by Japanese pilots and is fascinated by the cultural element. To be clear, this is not an anti-American film. Spielberg is not as interested in taking sides but showing the humanity of all involved. With our current drift toward nationalism in the States, “Empire of the Sun” reminds of us of people all around the world who may be as loyal to their country as we are or who may be disillusioned or somewhere in between. Rather than a binary, there are a multiplicity of perspectives all along the spectrum.
A particularly harrowing moment is when Jim arrives at a football stadium near Nantao and subsequently witnesses the flashings in the sky from the bombing at Nagasaki. The scene is portrayed as light ripples streaming across the sky. It is a moment of awe and horror at the same time. “I learned a new word today. ‘Atom Bomb.’ It was like a white light in the sky. Like God taking a photograph.”
All of this hums along to the score by John Williams who by this time had an already legendary collaboration with Spielberg. Williams, while not having his most well known score here, was already famous for performing the music for “The Sugarland Express”, “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “1941”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”, and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Quite a career already.
“Empire of the Sun”, all in all, is an underrated movie in Spielberg’s catalog. One that is not talked as much about in comparison with his more famous offerings. There are a few moments that drag but there is no denying the rare perspective this offers into the World War II conflict and the power of experiencing these moments through the eyes of a pre-teen.
Lester Lauding Level: 4 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)
Empire of the Sun
The Color Purple (Review here)
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
1941 (Review here)