Empire of the Sun
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
No event continues to impress itself on Spielberg’s (and therefore our) consciousness more than World War II, the grandest and most terrifying spectacle in recent human history. Before the terrible majesty of those years, perhaps we are all children, fearful and thrilled.
Spielberg uses the child’s wide-eyed stare as preface to an account of history told in the deeply personal terms of a boy who finds the real secret of his youth in a landscape soaked with blood.
It is December, 1941. The Japanese have surrounded the International Settlement at Shanghai, and are threatening its odd, terrarium-like European-culture-in-miniature. We see "Jamie Graham" (Christian Bale) singing in church, every parent’s dream of a well-behaved child in a world of order and predictability. Then, the languid, well-upholstered lives of the Europeans are shattered when the Japanese attack, and imprison them. Jamie is separated from his parents, and, in classic Spielberg fashion, this painful break transforms the well-behaved child of privilege into a resourceful survivor. When the camera in EMPIRE OF THE SUN famously tracks-in in low angle to Jamie’s astonished gaze at the expanse of teeming misery that is war, we see it as the child does; incredibly, less as a great tragedy than as an opportunity to have an adventure. This is not TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; children in Spielberg films do not learn lessons about the adult world, so much as they find a way out of the straight laces the grown-ups have put them in, and discover the improvisational essence of childhood. Spielberg does not portray the world of his parents, which Jamie leaves behind as at all a cruel one, but as merely an incredibly boring place. The war has tilted and scrambled the society Jamie took for granted, and forced everyone back onto their own devices. Jamie seeks tutelage from "Basie" (John Malkovich) not in how to be a sophisticated adult, but how to be an especially tough, mentally agile child. Basie teaches the boy how to thrive in the strange moral economy of a world at war, and in the process, shows Jamie how to enjoy his rediscovered and authentic childhood. Jamie is an apt pupil. When Jamie meets Basie’s opposite, the selfless English physician "Dr. Rawlins" (Nigel Havers), he must choose, in a moment of crisis, whether to respond ‘like a man,’ or to fall back on his training by the Fagin-like Basie.
Like a grand vacation, the war must end, and Jamie faces the prospect of returning to the structured life he once knew. But, as in many of Spielberg’s films, he does so with palpable regret for the excitement he must leave behind, and a wink in the direction of an audience who, through Steven Spielberg’s cinematic skills, have been able to share that excitement with him, to see the world through the eyes of the child they wish they had been.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.