Empire of The Sun – 1987


Sometimes I wonder what it was that drew me to films before I truly understood them. From the age of about 9-14 I would confidently tell the world that this was my favourite film. I looked back today to see if I could find what I had seen, but could never justify, all those years ago.


A portrait of growing up in one of the most adverse situations, this film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the young boy playing our protagonist Jim. Fortunately this actor is Christian Bale, aged 13, giving a performance that makes you sad that he’s currently best known as Batman. In these two and a half hours, Bale shows us a boy changed from spoilt, prim and naïve to a strong, compassionate and intelligent teenager. The film is basically made by Bale’s performance since the other characters (despite including such names as John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson) are more foils to force Jim’s reactions and growth than anything else.

Spielberg allows the character to progress slowly, letting the changes come on gradually and subtly. Even Jim’s sexual awakening, despite its inherent uncomfortable nature, is handled with grace, but not passed over as if irrelevant. Perhaps this is a testament to a rich source material, after all this is adapted from a memoir. Where else could you find such a sympathetic perspective towards someone spying on another’s intimacy? Yet I digress. What the film captures is more than a memoir, it is a series of emotions; emotions of a boy stuck between childhood and adulthood and dealing with both. He is necessarily erratic, demanding and needy but that doesn’t take away from his ambition to better himself, and his will to survive.

Visually the film is driven by surreal metaphor; an atomic blast becomes a soul in heaven, a toy aeroplane symbolises youth and a suitcase becomes a coffin. There are certainly some striking images that stay with you; the opulence of a fancy dress party next to the screaming, war-torn homeless, or the abandoned artefacts plundered from the rich and forgotten about. Wealth is useless in war. We understand this and so does Jim. Our protagonist often finds himself around aeroplanes. We imagine that had life turned out differently he could have been a pilot. We are poignantly reminded of this fact by a boy who echoes him on the other side of the POW camp wire. The boys recognise each other as kindred spirits despite the physical and metaphorical barriers of war. It is Jim’s respect for these pilots and his understanding, that even his imprisoners are not so different to everyone else, that leads to his survival.

War is equated with innocence for this one boy. He cannot imagine a ‘normal’ life by the end of the film. We see throughout that this is a child who wants to surrender, but somehow this is lost along the way. Even in what should be a happy ending he seems out of place among his own family. It is a bittersweet film. We’ve seen the struggles Jim has been through to survive but we wonder if something more has been lost along the way.


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