Empire of the Sun, an underappreciated Oscar-nominated classic, marks the 35th anniversary of its theatrical release in 1987.
In another universe, Steven Spielberg would be producing a David Lean epic set during WWII. With Lean busy at the time, Spielberg ended up directing the film. The end result is one of his most serious films of the 1980s. The film marked the first time that the city of Shanghai opened its doors for a major Hollywood production. Spielberg had previously shot WWII-set films during his teenage years but this film marked the first time doing so as a feature filmmaker. The WWII setting is something that continually pops up in his filmography in films such as 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. Coincidentally, Empire of the Sun features a broken family but it’s not through the product of divorce but forced separation during the war.
After directing The Color Purple, Spielberg once again returns to directing a film with a child protagonist. It’s substantially different from any of his work that had come before. At the film’s core, it is about the loss of innocence. The thing about Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), later Jim in the film, is that he has to grow up really quick. Here is a kid who is without a home, without a family, and must survive. Jim’s innocence dies much in the same way that the world’s innocence dies with the launch of the atomic bomb in 1945. Bale is perfect in the role and he might not have had the opportunity if not for co-starring with Amy Irving in a TV movie.
Pearl Harbor took the bulk of attention on December 7, 1941 and rightfully so. However, something else happened that day and that was the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, leaving many innocent civilians in the crosshairs and relocated into internment camps. There were some 30,000 American and British residents living in the International Settlement. That’s where we meet Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a young boy who is fascinated by military aviation. After being separated by his parents, he ends up meeting a pair of merchant seamen, Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank Demarest (Joe Pantoliano). They have nothing in common but Jamie–now Jim–joins up with them to survive the war.
Following the initial processing, Jim ends up at an internment camp in Suzhou. He ends up staying there until close to the end of the war when the Japanese evacuate the camp and force prisoners to march. It’s at a stadium where Jim witnesses a light in the sky, later revealed as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. After the war’s end, Jim heads back to the camp before Americans find him and place him in an orphanage. He ends up finding his parents but after a few years, it took some time to recognize them.
I regret that it took until the film’s 35th anniversary to watch my first viewing. It’s one of those films that I’ve been meaning to get to for quite sometime. When I noticed that the 35th anniversary was taking place in 2022, I decided to save the film for then. It makes no sense to me that the film didn’t get Oscar nominations for Best Picture or even Best Director. How does the Academy nominate Michael Kahn’s editing and Allen Daviau’s cinematography but not Spielberg’s directing. At least the DGA got it right that year by nominating Spielberg.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the film’s legacy is that by casting Ben Stiller, it would inspire him to make Tropic Thunder. I bet you didn’t have that on your Bingo card, did you?
Empire of the Sun might be underappreciated but the film is in the upper tier of Steven Spielberg’s filmography.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITER: Tom Stoppard
CAST: John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano, Leslie Phillips, Robert Stephens, Paul McGann, and introducing Christian Bale
Warner Bros. released Empire of the Sun in theaters on December 11, 1987. Grade: 4.5/5
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