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Empire of the Sun

(American • 1987 • 154 minutes • color • 35mm)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Christian Bale . . . . . . . . . . Jim
John Malkovich . . . . . . . . . . Basie
Miranda Richardson . . . . . . . . . .Mrs. Victor
Nigel Havers . . . . . . . . . . Dr. Rawlins
Joe Pantoliano . . . . . . . . . . Frank Demarest

The 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:

To say that Steven Spielberg has institutionalized a child’s-eye view of the world is no insult; no director has been able to successfully recreate his audience in the form of a ten-year boy. In both sentimental successes (E.T.) and darker works (HOOK, EMPIRE OF THE SUN), the child’s solipsistic universe is Spielberg’s playground. Stuffed to the brim with fear and exhilaration, and finally a kind of spiritual ecstasy, Spielberg seems to argue that the fantastic adventures his boyish heroes undertake are intended not to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, but as ways of making ‘childishness’ a state of grace. Even in films which lack Spielberg’s boy narrators, such as 1941 and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the awe in which ‘the big world’ is held by protagonists and seen by Spielberg is expressed through mighty vistas suddenly appearing in wide-shot before the camera. These are new worlds of action and danger, into which Spielberg’s ever-childlike heroes plunge, grateful to be released from dull routine.

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

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