After the muddled pomp of Excalibur, let’s see if Steven Spielberg can freshen our palate. Here’s his adaptation of J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, based on his own experiences during the second World War.
Jim Graham (Christian Bale in his first film role) is a young boy living with his parents in Shanghai just before the Japanese invaded.
The first portion of the film shows their life before the invasion – very opulent, much like the life of the rich before the revolution in Dr Zhivago. But you get the feeling everyone knows the party is winding down.
There’s some arresting moments, particularly when young Jim, attending a costume party with his parents, wanders away from the house and finds a crashed plane in a field. He loves aircraft so he sits in the cockpit and imagines himself flying, with the camera swooping around the static plane. Then he walks over to a ridge in the field and discovers a garrison of troops.
When the invasion happens, he’s separated from his parents, and at first he returns to his house, but eventually runs out of food.
He goes into town and tries to surrender to the Japanese army, but is ignored by them, and hassled by others until he hooks up with John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano who reluctantly look after him.
But eventually they’re all captured and taken to a temporary camp. Then they’re taken to a more permanent camp, near to an airfield. Naturally young Jim is drawn to the aircraft.
In the new camp he becomes a scavenger, running errands for everyone, trading this for that, even with the Japanese soldiers. Nigel Havers, a doctor, gives him latin lessons. And Malkovich is still grifting.
In many ways, the film presents his experiences in the camp as slightly magical. But that might come from the book, and Ballard’s actual experience. To a young, imaginative, resourceful boy, such an experience could seem unreal and therefore magical, and this is certainly how Spielberg presents it. It’s a very visual film. There’s not a lot of dialogue, which helps to maintain the magical tone.
When the end of the war arrives, the airfield next to the camp is bombed by American fighters, and rather than be scare, Jim is elated, leaping and whooping as the planes he’s dreamed about all his life come to save him.
Liberation doesn’t quite come immediately, though, and as the Japanese war effort founders, there’s less and less food and drink. Jim has to look after Miranda Richardson, a woman who had reluctantly but coldly looked after him at the start of their internment. She eventually loses the will to live and succumbs to starvation, and as she dies, Jim sees, in the distance, the flash of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and imagines it’s Richardson’s soul.
Even when he’s finally reunited with his parents, it’s not a joyous moment, as this damaged young boy takes time to recognise his mother. He’d earlier admitted to Nigel Havers’ doctor that he couldn’t remember what his parents look like. It’s an ambivalent ending.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this movie, but it’s not quite up there with Spielberg’s best. However, he never fails to make a beautiful film, and this one has plenty of Spielberg magic, and a typically lovely John Williams score.
BBC Genome: BBC One – 28th December 1991 – 20:00
After this, a trailer for Moon and Son, about a psychic detective. I can’t remember if I ever watched this, but I think it would have annoyed me.
Then there’s a brief trailer for Porridge the movie, and the news starts. The recording stops here.