Paradise Lost: A tribute to Empire of the Sun

During the early 1980s Steven Spielberg’s body of work were mainly studies in innocence, with a deep desire contained within to remain just so. Then in the mid 1980s something happened. Spielberg was suddenly addressing loss and grief. From 1985 until 1989, he was clearly in a sad mood. In 1985 The Color Purple had him tackling sadness and domestic violence, Always in 1989 had him dealing with the death of a loved one and 1987’s Empire of the Sun dealt with the death of childhood and ultimately, innocence.

Empire of the Sun tells the story of a young boy living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai who upon losing his parents during the terrifying evacuation of Shanghai, becomes a prisoner of war in Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.

Christian Bale plays Jim Graham, the boy who loses everything. Bale was 12 at the time yet his performance belies those tender years. This is very probably the best child actor performance ever committed to screen. Bale has a heavy burden to carry portraying Jim. This is a complicated character. It is essentially four parts in one. Jim begins the film as an arrogant and privileged child who is unaware of the world he lives in and the thin ice his civilised world perches upon.  He then transforms into a lost child who is attempting to make sense of this alien world and evading danger on the streets of Shanghai, then into the streetwise kid in the concentration camp who can get anything for anyone, and finally regresses into a hollow, emotionless husk when it dawns upon him that no one, especially an adult, is to be trusted. As parts go it is a massive load of emotional baggage and Bale is in formidable form. The scene in which he is reunited with his parents is a moment of fragile and devastating poignancy that is like an jagged arrow to the heart and a forceful punch to the throat.

The film was originally to be directed by David Lean, and produced by Spielberg. David Lean left the project fairly early on, “I worked on it for about a year and in the end I gave it up because I thought it was too similar to a diary. It was well-written and interesting, but I gave it to Steve.” Spielberg later admitted that he had wanted to do it all along.  Spielberg felt “from the moment I read J. G. Ballard’s novel I secretly wanted to direct myself.”  Spielberg found the project to be very personal. As a child, his favorite film was Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which similarly takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Spielberg’s obsession with World War II and the aircraft of that era was stimulated by his father’s stories of his experience as a radio operator onNorth American B-25 Mitchell bombers in the China-Burma Theater. Spielberg hired Menno Meyjes (The Colour Purple) to do an uncredited rewrite before Tom Stoppard (Spielberg’s go-to man) was brought in to write the final script.


The film plays heavily with metaphors. At one point Jim sees the distant white flash of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Which Spielberg explained was, “to draw a parallel story between the death of this boy’s innocence and the death of the innocence of the entire world.” Spielberg reflected he “was attracted to the idea that this was a death of innocence, not an attenuation of childhood, which by my own admission and everybody’s impression of me is what my life has been. This was the opposite of Peter Pan. This was a boy who had grown up too quickly.

For all of Jim’s advancing maturity, the film does let you forget that he is still a child and still fascinated by the machinery of war, despite the carnage and upheaval these machines have not only brought into his life, but the lives of everyone on the planet. This is summed up perfectly in the scene in which Jim first arrives at the camp and sees first hand some of the Japanese fighter planes. Despite being surrounded by such sorrow and awful conditions, the sight of an actual fighter plane is almost too much and Jim is the child again.

Perversely, Jim also finds himself admiring the pilots and being totally starstruck by them. Author J.G. Ballard recalled. “Small boys tend to find their heroes where they can. One thing there was no doubt about, and that was that the Japanese were extremely brave. One had very complicated views about patriotism (and) loyalty to one’s own nation. Jim is constantly identifying himself, first with the Japanese; then, when the Americans start flying over in their Mustangs and B-29s, he’s very drawn to the Americans.

The supporting cast are equally as impressive as Bale. John Malkovich plays the duplicitous Basie – a man who teaches Jim many things, but ultimately that no one is to be trusted. Nigel Havers is also fantastic as Rawlins,  the camp doctor. Rawlins becomes a father figure to Jim during his time at the camp and represents stability and a slice of home. While Jim is fascinated by the Americans in the camp, Rawlins provides the sense of comfort lacking in his young life.


John Williams provides the usual kind of delicate score that you would expect from him during this period, however the decision to include the Welsh hymn Suo Gân was a incredibile masterstroke.  A piece of music that wholly incapsulates the emotional core of this kind of story. As filled with hope as it is despair. A perfect marriage with this film. The piece is used perfectly in a scene in which Jim watches (and salutes) the kamikaze pilots leaving for their mission from the base neighbouring the camp.

This is Spielberg at his best. Gentle, emotive, intelligent and deeply memorable. A fun romp for a child who can imagine himself having fun during the camp scenes and a roller-coaster for adults – particularly if you have children. The affecting moments of grief and loss are sometimes too much to bear for adult eyes, but ultimately this film is a thing of beauty and it beggars belief how it is not mentioned more often in the same category as other Spielberg classics.

Originally posted 2013-02-05 14:35:44. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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