Empire of the Sun is a 1987 American epic coming-of-age war film based on J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical 1984 novel of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.
Plot[edit | edit source]
|Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
During Japan's invasion of China during World War II, a British upper middle-class boy named Jamie Graham is enjoying a privileged & spoiled life in the Shanghai International Settlement, but he becomes separated from his parents after the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese occupying the settlement. His mother shouts at him over the panicked mob to wait at their house and promises that they will come back for him.
Jamie spends some time living in his deserted home, but after eating all the food he ventures out into the city. While searching for food, he tries to surrender to some Japanese soldiers, but they shrug and laugh him off. After being chased by a street urchin, Jamie is taken in by Basie, an American expatriate and hustler and his partner Frank, who nicknames him "Jim".
They first intend to leave Jamie in the streets when they are unable to sell his teeth for cash, but Jamie promises to lead them back to his neighborhood where there are valuables to loot. While there, Jamie finds his house lit and sees a figure in the window whom he thinks is his mother, but when he runs to the door, the house is occupied by Japanese troops, who take Jamie, Bassi and Jim prisoner.
The three of them are then taken to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center in Shanghai for processing. A truck later arrives to take selected internees to the Suzhou Creek Internment Camp; Basie is among those selected to go, but Jamie is not and because he knows of the camp's location, Jamie is able to convince the soldiers to take him.
On arrival at the camp, Jim wanders to the airfield to witness workers servicing a squadron of Zero fighters and he reaches out to touch one, he is confronted by a trio of fighter pilots. Jim salutes the pilots and the pilots salute him in return.
It is now 1945 and near the end of the Pacific War. Despite the terror and poor living conditions of the camp, Jim survives by establishing a successful trading networ which even involves the camp's commander, Sergeant Nagata. Dr. Rawlins (who is the camp's British doctor) becomes a father figure and teacher to Jim.
One night after a bombing raid, Nagata orders the destruction of the prisoners' infirmary as reprisal. He only stops when Jim (who is now fluent in Japanese) begs forgiveness. Through the barbed wire fencing, Jim befriends a Japanese teenager, who is a trainee pilot. He also visits Basie in the American POW barracks where Jim idolizes the Americans and their culture. Basie eventually sends Jim to set snare traps outside the camp's wire; though Jim succeeds, Basie is only using him to test the area for land mines—plotting to escape. As a reward, Basie allows Jim to move into the American barracks with him.
One morning at dawn, Jim witnesses a kamikaze ritual. Overcome with emotion, he salutes and sings the Welsh song "Suo Gân" and base is suddenly attacked by a group of American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft. Jim is overjoyed and climbs the ruins of a nearby pagoda to better watch the airstrike.
Dr. Rawlins chases Jim up the pagoda to save him where Jim breaks down in tears because can't remember what his parents look like. Due to the attack, the Japanese decide to evacuate the camp. Basie escapes during the confusion even though he promised to take Jim with him. The camp's prisoners march through the wilderness where many die of fatigue, starvation and disease.
After arriving at a football stadium near Nantao (which is filled with luxuries that were confiscated by the Japanese), Jim recognizes his parents' Packard. After waking up next to a woman's corpse, he witnesses flashes from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles away.
Jim slips away from the group and wanders back to Suzhou Creek. Along the way, he hears news of Japan's surrender and the end of the war. He encounters the Japanese teenager that befriended earlier, who has since become a pilot, but is now disillusioned.
The youth remembers Jim & offers him a mango and cuts it for him with his katana. Basie reappears with a group of armed Americans who have arrived to loot the Red Cross containers being airdropped over the area. One of the Americans (who thinks that Jim is in danger) shoots and kills the Japanese youth.
Basie offers to help Jim find his parents, but Jim (who is upset over his friend's death) chooses to stay behind. Jim is eventually found by American soldiers and is placed in an orphanage.
The movie ends with a deeply traumatized Jim reuniting with his parents over the sound of the Welsh lullaby and the final scene shows Jim's suitcase floating in the river in Shanghai (which he had thrown in the water during the march to Nantao stadium).
Cast[edit | edit source]
- Christian Bale as Jamie "Jim" Graham
- John Malkovich as Basie
- Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Victor
- Nigel Havers as Dr. Rawlins
- Joe Pantoliano as Frank Demarest
- Leslie Phillips as Maxton
- Masatō Ibu as Sergeant Nagata
- Emily Richard as Mary Graham
- Ben Stiller as Dainty
- Robert Stephens as Mr. Lockwood
- Guts Ishimatsu as Sergeant Uchita
- James Walker as Mr. Radik
- Yvonne Gilan as Mrs. Lockwood
- Ralph Michael as Mr. Partridge
- James Greene as British Prisoner
- Peter Copley as British Prisoner
- Burt Kwouk as Mr. Chen
- Paul McGann as Lieutenant Price
- J.G. Ballard as Masquerade Party Guest
Production[edit | edit source]
Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to "Empire of the Sun" with Harold Becker planned to direct and Robert Shapiro to produce it. Tom Stoppard wrote the first draft of the screenplay, on which Ballard briefly collaborated. Becker dropped out of directing the movie and David Lean came to direct with Steven Spielberg as producer.
Lean explained that: "I worked on it for about a year and in the end I gave it up because I thought it was too similar to a diary. It was well-written and interesting, but I gave it to Steve."
According to Spielberg, "From the moment I read J. G. Ballard's novel I secretly wanted to direct myself." He found the project to be very personal. As a child, his favorite film was Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (which also takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp).
Spielberg's fascination with World War II and the aircraft of that era was stimulated by his father's stories of his experience as a radio operator on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers in the China-Burma Theater. Spielberg hired Menno Meyjes to do an uncredited rewrite before Stoppard was brought back to write the shooting script.
Filming[edit | edit source]
The movie filmed at Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom and on location in Shanghai & Spain. It was also filmed in Trebujena in Andalusia, Knutsford in Cheshire and Sunningdale in Berkshire.
The filmmakers searched across Asia in an attempt to find locations that resembled 1941 Shanghai. In 1985, they entered negotiations with Shanghai Film Studios and China Film Co-Production Corporation and after a year of negotiations, they were granted permission for a three-week shoot in early March 1987. It was the first American film shot in Shanghai since the 1940s.
The Chinese authorities allowed the crew to alter signs to traditional Chinese characters as well as closing down city blocks for filming. Over 5,000 local extras were used in the movie (some of them were old enough to remember the Japanese occupation of Shanghai 40 years earlier).
The members of the People's Liberation Army played Japanese soldiers and Spielberg attempted to portray the era accurately, using period vehicles and aircraft. Four Harvard SNJ aircraft were lightly modified in France to resemble Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft. Two additional non-flying replicas were used.
Three restored P-51D Mustangs: two from 'The Fighter Collection' of England & one from the 'Old Flying Machine Company were flown in the film.
These P-51s were flown by Ray Hanna (who was featured in the film flying at low-level past the child star with the canopy back, waving), his son Mark and "Hoof" Proudfoot and took over 10 days of filming to complete due to the complexity of the planned aerial sequences which included the P-51s actually dropping plaster-filled replica 500 lb bombs at low level that had simulated bomb blasts.
A number of large scale remote control flying models were also used in the movie (including an 18-foot wingspan B-29), but Spielberg felt that results were disappointing, so he extended the film contract with the full-size examples and pilots on set in Trebujena, Spain.
Special Effects[edit | edit source]
Industrial Light & Magic designed the visual effects sequences with some computer-generated imagery also used for the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Norman Reynolds was hired as the production designer while Vic Armstrong served as the stunt coordinator.
Box Office[edit | edit source]
At first, "Empire of the Sun" was given a limited release on December 11, 1987 before being wide released on Christmas Day 1987.
It earned $22.24 million in North America and $44.46 million in other countries which accumulated a worldwide total of $66.7 million, earning more than its budget, but according to Spielberg, it was considered a box office disappointment.
Critical Reception[edit | edit source]
Rotten Tomatoes gave "Empire of the Sun" a score of 83% based on reviews from 40 critics and by comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 60 out of 100 based on 17 reviews.
Critic J. G. Ballard gave the movie positive feedback & was especially impressed with Christian Bale's performance.
The reaction from critics was not universally affirmative, but Richard Corliss of Time magazine stated that Steven Spielberg "has energized each frame with allusive legerdemain and an intelligent density of images and emotions."
Janet Maslin from The New York Times called it "a visual splendor, a heroic adventurousness and an immense scope that make it unforgettable."
Julie Salamon of The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was "an edgy, intelligent script by playwright Tom Stoppard, Spielberg has made an extraordinary film out of Mr. Ballard's extraordinary war experience."
J. Hoberman from The Village Voice decried that the serious subject was undermined by Spielberg's "shamelessly kiddiecentric" approach.
Roger Ebert gave the movie a mixed reaction, writing in his review: "Despite the emotional potential in the story, it didn't much move me. Maybe, like the kid, I decided that no world where you can play with airplanes can be all that bad." On his TV show with Gene Siskel, Ebert said that the film “is basically a good idea for a film that never gets off the ground”. Siskel added, “I don’t know what the film is about. It’s so totally confused and taking things from different parts. On one hand, if it wants to say something about a child’s-eye view of war, you got a movie made by John Boorman called Hope and Glory that was just released that is much better, and much more daring in showing the whimsy that children’s view of war is. On the other hand, this film wants to hedge its bet and make it like an adventure film, so you’ve got like Indiana Jones with the John Malkovich character helping the little kid through all the fun of war. I don’t know what Spielberg wanted to do."
Accolades[edit | edit source]
In his second starring role, Christian Bale received a special citation for Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, an award specially created for his performance in the movie.
At the 60th Academy Awards, "Empire of the Sun" was nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Music Score, Costume Design (to Bob Ringwood) and Sound (to Robert Knudson, Don Digirolamo, John Boyd and Tony Dawe).
But, it did not convert any of the nominations into awards. Allen Daviau (who was nominated as cinematographer) publicly complained, saying: "I can't second-guess the Academy, but I feel very sorry that I get nominations and Steven doesn't. It's his vision that makes it all come together, and if Steven wasn't making these films, none of us would be here."
It also won awards for cinematography, sound design & music score at the 42nd British Academy Film Awards. The nominations included production design, costume design, and adapted screenplay.
Spielberg was honored by his work from the Directors Guild of America while the American Society of Cinematographers honored Allen Daviau.
At the 45th Golden Globe Awards, the movie was nominated for "Best Motion Picture (Drama)" and "Original Score" and John Williams earned a Grammy Award nomination.