David Lean was originally slated to direct the 1987 film version of J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, and to his credit Spielberg keeps intact the sense of the epic that typified so much of Lean’s work. Ballard himself was a fan of this adaptation, re-watching it every couple of years or so, but Empire of the Sun remains one of Spielberg’s worst box-office performers.
Everyone’s favourite professional, Christian Bale, stars as James ‘Jamie’ Graham, a 12 year-old born and raised in Shanghai. Jim is dimly aware that compared to the Chinese his family are ‘lucky’, but this doesn’t stop him from behaving like a total shit towards his Chinese nanny. His parents don’t seem overly concerned with their son’s sense of social justice, dressing him up as Ali Baba and whisking him off to one of those costume parties the English abroad were so fond of. Some attendees are dressed as 18th century French nobility, but it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film if it weren’t heavy handed.
When World War II breaks out, Jamie is separated from his parents during an attack on Shanghai that he himself has inadvertently triggered by signalling to a Japanese boat from a hotel on the banks of the Huangpu River. He makes his way back home to find it abandoned, though there are signs that his mother has been taken by the Japanese. His nanny pauses just long enough to give her former charge a hard slap across the face before leaving with the furniture.
Scenes of Jamie fending for himself now play like a darker version of Home Alone, and it seems the film is veering into even more sinister territory when Jamie encounters a pair of skeezy American sailors, the amoral Basie and Frank (John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano), who attempt to sell him into white slavery. Basie re-christens Jamie with the more American diminutive ‘Jim’ and the pair form a Fagan/Twist relationship that sees Jim drawn into a web of ‘survivalist criminality’. The Japanese eventually take the trio to an internment camp where Basie teaches Jim how to steal from the recently deceased.
Death is a recurring motif in Empire; even the first shot is of coffins drifting on the tides after being launched from the funeral pier at Nantao. Jim’s suitcase, filled with mementoes that constitute all of his material boyhood possessions, is likewise cast adrift at the film’s close. But this is death seen through the eyes of a child. Jim’s life in the camp is presented with a giddy quality – filled with helter-skelter running around and play. Spielberg hints that what we’re seeing is Jim’s reality. The adults are pinched and anxious, slowly starving or succumbing to disease, while the camp doctor, a never-better Nigel Havers, loses his grip on both hope and sanity. (In a line typical of scriptwriter Tom Stoppard’s humour, Jim cheerfully advises that the weevils rife in their meagre rations be eaten for their protein content.)
Flight, and its opposite, is another central theme. Chickens are slaughtered in a market as Jim’s family’s car, complete with its bowed swan mascot, cruises past; a crashed fighter plane lures Jim into too-close proximity to a group of soldiers; Jim’s return for his dropped plane separates him from his mother. More explicitly, the bright light in the sky that Jim takes for a soul ascending to heaven turns out to be the atomic bomb destroying Nagasaki.
Although it loses pace after a taut first hour, Empire is one of Spielberg’s most accomplished and fully realised works. 24 years after its release, the film has not dated, and the ambiguous ending is as close as Spielberg has ever come to giving one of his child characters a bleak outcome and addresses his favourite recurring theme of sons with absent fathers. More than that, this is a story about the beginning of adulthood, not the end of childhood, and it’s time that Empire of the Sun got its due as a Spielberg film of greater merit than the likes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.