Spielberg: Empire of the Sun

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Jim Graham is a boy living a pampered, sheltered life in a rather unusual circumstance — he is the son of well-to-do Britons in the suburbs of Shanghai in the 1930s. When the Japanese invade Shanghai in 1941, he is separated from his wealth, his privilege, his nationality, and most important, his family. His identity stripped away and his sense of self shattered, Jim looks desperately for an authority figure who will take the place of his family — in short, something to believe in, a leader to follow.

The structure of Empire of the Sun goes something like this:

ACT I (0:00-27:00)
We see Jim in his environment, among the wealthy, transplanted Britons and their strange, insulated lifestyle. We know that their days are numbered, and if we don’t, Spielberg lets us know by sending Jim to a Christmas costume party where one grownup comes as Marie Antoinette and another comes as Death.

Jim, we see, like Donna Stratton in 1941, has a fetish for warplanes — he admires their power. We will come to find that Jim admires power for its own sake — part of Jim’s story how he learns to survive, like the ancient Italian whoremonger in Catch-22, by surrendering to whoever seems to be in power at any given time. Aircraft, for Jim, are always a symbol of a greater power — this he shares, of course, with Roy Neary in Close Encounters.

At the close of Act I, in Spielberg’s most sophisticated crowd-mayhem setpiece yet, Shanghai is invaded by the Japanese and Jim is separated from his parents and his lifestyle.

ACT II (27:00-1:02:00) This multi-part, complicated act involves Jim’s journey from wealthy British expat to prisoner of war. Separated from his parents, he returns home, assuming they will meet him there. Instead of finding his parents, he finds his servants looting the place. When he challenges them he receives a slap in the face. He stays in his house until he runs out of food, then ventures into the city as the Japanese occupation takes hold. He tries to surrender to the Japanese army, who laugh at him. He is chased through the streets by a teenage orphan boy, who is unnamed but who isexactly the right age to be a grown-up Short Round from Temple of Doom.

(Most of the direction in Empire of the Sun is fresh, daring and a new page for Spielberg, although he does occasionally overstate a beat or rely on his fluent shooting skills to turn an action beat into a visual gag. In Act I, Jim doesn’t just have one or two plane hanging from his bedroom ceiling, his room is festooned with model planes, and they all move in the breeze. In the brilliant Shanghai sequences, when Jim is chased by Short Round, Spielberg cannot resist an off-tone do-si-do on a crowded street of rickshaws. And when Jim walks past the local movie theater, they are, of course, showing Gone With The Wind.)

Jim tries to find other Brits, is refused by the Japanese and is threatened by the locals. He is eventually found by Frank and Basie, a couple of American black-marketeers. He is, at first, seen as valuable for sale or trade, and Jim embraces his status as commodity in this new reality as eagerly as he embraced his status as rich-kid. Jim, in his desperate search for authority, has an unerring eye for figuring out who is in charge. If heartless capitalism is in charge, well then, he’ll be a happy commodity and strive to be a worthy commodity.

The locals don’t want to buy Jim as a slave, and Basie is about to cut Jim loose when Jim, facing another loss of an authority figure, quickly sells out his birthright, advising Basie to loot his home in the suburbs. His home, in his absence, has been taken over by the Japanese and he, Basie and Frank are taken prisoner.

Jim is relocated to an internment camp, where he meets the Brits he knew in the suburbs now reduced to refugees. They are shattered, but Jim, taking his cues from wily capitalist Basie, learns how to live in this environment. When it comes time to be transferred to a larger camp, Basie is ready to give up Jim in a flat second, and Jim has to figure out a new way to scam a ride.

And somewhere in this part of the movie I jotted down in my notes “fiercely committed performance from Christian Bale.” Indeed, you watch Bale’s performance in this movie and you have no trouble imagining the man who will eventually go on to do American Psycho, The Machinist and Batman Begins.

ACT III (1:07:00-1:37:00) At the Soochow Internment Camp, adjoining a Japanese airfield, we see Jim mastering the system, playing every conceivable angle to ensure his survival. He steals, trades, gambles and gets by on pluck and charisma. This, in his mind, makes him an American. The Brits we focus on, a doctor and Mr. and Mrs. Victor, the despairing couple with whom Jim shares a room, are too wrapped up in their cultural identity to bend much with their new circumstances. They refuse to bow to their Japanese captors and wilt under the humiliation of their reduced lives. The Americans, meanwhile, are full of energy and vigor, brimming with optimism and plans.

Meanwhile, across the street, so to speak, Jim is lured by the lives of the Japanese pilots, who might be flying off to their deaths, but at least they are committed to what they see as greater power, a fate Jim sees as ideal.

Jim also witnesses Mr. and Mrs. Victor making love, an early Spielberg stab at shooting an adult, realistic sex scene.

At the climax of the act, Jim negotiates a supposed minefield to capture a pheasant for Basie. The pheasant goes uncaptured and Jim survives the errand thanks to a fellow plane-crazy adolescent from the Japanese airfield, but Jim’s skill in negotiating minefields is already well established by this point in the narrative. For his survival skills and wiliness, Jim is granted admittance into the American barracks.

ACT IV (1:37:00-1:57:00) No sooner does Jim gain admittance into the American barracks than his father-figure Basie falls from grace. Caught stealing the camp commandant’s soap (that Jim stole for him), Basie is beaten and hospitalized, his possessions stolen by his fellow Americans — a clear argument against the limits of capitalism. When you’re on top, everything is great, but when your employees sense your weakness they will become your competitors and rip you off without a second thought.

Against this, the Kamikazes training next door seem more honorable and enticing than ever to young Jim. His teen pal from the airfield is getting ready to go on a bombing run when the American Air Force shows up, and Jim’s allegiance instantly shifts again to the force with the superior air power. He’s ready to embrace the attacking airplanes even if it means getting blown up. At the height of the American bomb run, the British doctor snaps him out of his delirium and Jim suddenly realizes that he doesn’t remember what his parents look like — his search for an authority has erased from his mind the most basic authority of all.

ACT V (1:57:00-2:25:00) The war over, the again-homeless Jim heads back the British barracks and the sad, tired Victors. His experiences have left him utterly confused about what is important — family, country, ideals, home? (It’s telling that Jim, born in Shanghai, has never seen the Britain everyone tells him is his home.) And it’s to Spielberg’s credit that he doesn’t offer an easy answer — every solution to Jim’s problem comes with its own difficulties.

The camp commandant flees, the teen Kamikaze next door can’t get his plane off the ground, Basie vanishes and the British trudge like sheep toward the city. Jim throws the suitcase that bears his name, and contains all his identity, into the river. None of the authorities Jim has pursued have turned out to be up to the task.

The Brits arrive in an abandoned stadium, where all their precious belongings are being stored like a ruling-class yard sale. Jim finds his family’s limousine and camps out there with the ailing Mrs. Victor. Mrs. Victor dies in the night and Jim awakens to see the flash of the atomic bomb — the ultimate authority in this conflict, which Jim mistakes for Mrs. Victor’s soul ascending into Heaven. In that moment, Mrs. Victor, who symbolizes Britain, Mother and sex object for Jim, is consumed by death, fused in his mind with the unanswerable power of the dawn of the atomic age.

His identity annihilated and with nowhere else to go, Jim heads back to the internment camp where, unexpectedly, supply canisters drop from the sky and Jim finds himself in a world of plenty. In a mirror of Act II, Jim, at home in this place of homelessness, rides his bike around the deserted camp, picking up chocolate bars, cans of milk and cartons of cigarettes. He meets up with his Japanese Kamikaze friend, who is killed by Basie, who has come back to loot the camp and move on. He tries to bring the Kamikaze back to life, assuming, for a moment, the authority that he’s been searching for throughout the movie. Soon the American army shows up and Jim gratefully “surrenders” to them.

Shortly thereafter, Jim is reunited with his parents at an orphanage. They don’t recognize him at first and he doesn’t recognize them at all. What would ordinarily be a crushing Spielberg moment of reunion is undercut, both by Jim’s loss of identity and by his newly-won skepticism. Confronted with his mother, he inspects her, rather like one would inspect a gift horse, touching her lipstick, scrutinizing her hair.

At the end of this, Spielberg’s most complex, most ambitious, most daring, least sentimental movie yet, Jim is restored to “his place,” as the son of a wealthy British family, but in another sense he will never be the same, and the final shot is of his suitcase, still adrift, in the harbor of Shanghai.hitcounter


12 Responses to “Spielberg: Empire of the Sun”
  1. jbacardi says:

    It’s not exactly his most entertaining film, but I do believe that this may be his best overall. I found it engrossing and challenging- perhaps it is the lack of his often saccharine sentimentality that makes it so for me.

    • Todd says:

      It isn’t his most entertaining movie, and that, I think, is partly the nature of the narrative, which is the opposite of something like Jaws, where the narrative consistently picks up speed until the final act is almost in real time, and partly Spielberg’s attempt to shoot something where the answers aren’t easy, the outcome isn’t wholly positive, the protagonist isn’t sure where he’s going. Challenging is a good word, because it’s challenging for both the audience and for the director. Like The Color Purple, Spielberg is way outside his comfort zone with this movie. Unlike The Color Purple, he chooses to find new ways to get across complex human emotions without relying too much on visual gags and manufactured suspense.

  2. curt_holman says:

    “he learns to survive, like the ancient Italian whoremonger in Catch-22, by surrendering to whoever seems to be in power at any given time.”

    One of my favorite lines from Catch-22 involves that character. An American G.I. is appalled by the Italian’s lack of loyalty and willingness to collaborate, and declares “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” And the Italian says, “No, it’s better to live on your feet than die on your knees.”

    “His teen pal from the airfield is getting ready to go on a bombing run when the American Air Force shows up, and Jim’s allegiance instantly shifts again to the force with the superior air power.”

    I remember these scenes very well from the film, and how strange it is, because Jim goes from saluting the Japanese and singing that religious song to them in his angelic voice, to wildly cheering and celebrating their destruction via the U.S. Air Force. As I remember it, he doesn’t even register any ambivalence at the death of the Japanese pilots.

    • Todd says:

      The whole movie is like that — Spielberg consistently undercuts his own sentimentality. Just when we think “aha, that’s the answer,” another thing comes along and contradicts it.

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    I think that it’s his most political movie. I’m tempted to call it his “anti-libertarian” one, but it’s wider than that.

  4. craigjclark says:

    Have you ever real J.G. Ballard’s novel (which, incidentally, is based on his own wartime experiences)? Naturally, it goes into a lot more detail than Spielberg can cram into two and a half hours, but I think Tom Stoppard’s screenplay encapsulates it nicely. I haven’t read Ballard’s follow-up, The Kindness of Women, which is about his experiences watching this very film being made, but it’s on my to-do list.

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t read the novel. Ballard is one of those authors I can’t seem to get into — although it’s my understanding that Empire is much more straightforward than, say, The Atrocity Exhibition.

      That Stoppard fellow seems to be quite talented.

  5. pseydtonne says:

    It’s also the best context about J.G. Ballard’s life before adulthood. This boy becomes the man that writes The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. This man as a boy appeals to Spielberg; the man as an adult, whose desires result from this pursuit of authority during turmoil, appeal to Cronenberg.

    Imagine Cronenberg trying to make a movie out of Empire of the Sun. He would want The New Flesh to emerge from the ruins of Shanghai and the ruins of Jim’s mind. The sex scenes would be more involved, the torture of various captors more luscious, the actual storytelling might fall apart.

    I love this movie. It appeals to my sociopathy: get what you can, understand when to ditch and how to blend. It uses color intensity to convey so many tones of emotion.

    Beautiful analysis of the power play, sir.

  6. teamwak says:

    Wonderful stuff.

    I think this was the movie that made me fall in love with Speilberg as a film maker. The Indy films, then this one. I knew I would be watching his films for the rest of my life.

  7. Again…

    I enjoy this Spielberg from his ‘pre Schindler’ period if you will – as it seems following Schindler, his whole style changed – everything up to that point was a test to see if he could make the most important film of his career, and everything after seems like something from someone who knows it’s not as important as “Schindler’s List.” Good… but not as important.

    but I digress…

    I understand this is a blog about the story of films – but for some reason with Spielberg movies, the movie can’t be judged on story alone. Obviously visuals are the cornerstone to every film (otherwise, we’d be satisfied with simply reading the stories) and few can match the perfection that Spielberg brings visually. Where I would like to add my two cents is in the audio category. John Williams provides one of my most favorite ‘Spielberg-Scores’ for this film. “Cadillac of the Skies” is a triumphant, eloquent piece of music that takes place in one of the most difficult scenes of the movie – and I couldn’t imagine the scene working on any level without it. It’s what I imagine – and stay with me here – an angel would sound like coming down from the clouds, which is exactly what Jim experiences at this moment in the film – Awe, majesty and exodus from a most terrible situation. On a personal note, this song has great significance to me as it is the song I wish to have played at the end of my funeral… whenever that may be.