By John H. Foote
10. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)
It pains me to list this masterwork at number 10, but the fact is, there were nine stronger films than this one. The day I screened the film for the first time remains as clear to me as the moment that hooked me on cinema forevermore. Walking into the theatre, I already knew the National Board of Review, one of the oldest organizations to award film excellence had named the movie the Best Film of the Year and Steven Spielberg had been named the years’ Best Director. That alone excited me, and I settled into my seat with an attitude of “ok, amaze me, redeem yourself”.
After the double whammy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the astonishing E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982), Spielberg went back to the Indiana Jones franchise with the dark, unsetting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Attacked for the portrayal of child labor in that film, Spielberg decided to make one for him, a movie he wanted to make, hoping to expand his artistry as a filmmaker. Truth be told, he wanted an Oscar and what better way to get one than to direct the film version of a great book, and far outside your comfort zone. Absolutely the wrong reasons to direct a film, any film, and as an artist, Spielberg simply was not ready to make such a dark book into a film. The Color Purple (1985) explored the black experience in the early part of the 20th century and every one of the book’s darker aspects was stripped down and virtually Disney-fied. The colors were impossibly bright, and the blacks, according to Spielberg did not have it that bad, I mean they owned property and stores and could succeed. The lead character Celia was beaten and raped by first her father and then her husband, but she found her inner strength and lashed back to assert her independence.
Alice Walker’s sublime novel was rather extraordinary never shying away from difficult subject matter such as lesbianism and rape, whereas Spielberg shoved it aside, never really making it a part of the film. The very darkness of the book was what gave the novel its raw, primal power, and by stripping the film of such narrative, it hampered the picture.
The Color Purple was but a pale shadow of what the book had been, with one glowing exception, the astonishing performance of Whoopi Goldberg as Celia, the comedian was a revelation. Incredibly the film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, but not among those eleven nominations was there a nomination for Spielberg as Best Director. He was snubbed, which was both cruel and yet just as the film bore no resemblance to the brilliant, spiky book, stripped clean by Spielberg who lacked the courage to go all the way.
His next film?
Oh he went all the way in filming the superb autobiographical book by J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, by far the finest film of 1987 and one of his masterpieces before Schindler’s List (1993). War as seen through the eyes of a child is one grand adventure, that as the years pass, the war and suffering become something terribly serious, causing one to grow up far beyond their years in a hurry.
Jamie (Christian Bale) is the young pre-teen son of a wealthy couple living in Shang-Hai just as the war is about to break out fully around the globe. Entitled, spoiled, the kind of kid who gets everything he wants, he is one annoying little boy, seeming always in motion. When the Japanese invade China, Jamie is separated from his mother reaching for a toy plane and she is swept away, screaming for him with the crowd. He goes home and waits for them, but it quickly becomes clear his parents have gotten out. Sent to a POW camp, Suzhou, Jamie is among thousands of British citizens in the cam trying to stay alive, fed potatoes, often rotten each day, and through growing their own food. He is always on the move, dealing, making agreements with people, most in the service of the shyster Basie (John Malkovich) an American Jamie met before coming to the camp, a man he trusts but a man who is so obviously using him. Knowing anyone caught outside the fence of the camp will be shot for trying to escape, Basie nonetheless talks Jamie into doing it for him, to make sure the area is not mined. Basie apparently has no problem blowing Jim up, though the boy idolizes the American. His reward for doing this? A bed in the American quarters and he believes the never-ending friendship of Basie. Continuing his dealing in the camp Jim comes to the shocking realization that he cannot remember what his parents look like.
Jamie is fortunate to find a young Japanese pilot who shares his obsession with planes. The two form an uneasy alliance eventually not seeing fences, or nationality, just each other, a friend. Finally the Americans attack and drive the Japanese out of the camp, leaving the prisoners to walk out. Along the way they encounter a massive stadium filled with items the Japanese have taken from the opulent British homes, filled like the home of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941). While there, Jamie witnesses the explosion of the Hiroshima bomb, believing it is the soul of Mrs. Victor who has died, leaving for heaven. Later in the day he learns the word “atom bomb”. Housed in an orphan’s camp, Jamie dutifully lines up like the other children when parents come looking for the children. His mother walks almost past him before seeing her son and moves to him. He reaches up and touches her, she embraces him, his eyes looking ancient stare to the skies, and then for the first time, close, and rest. Jamie is old far before his time, having lost his childhood to the war. We see the last striking image of the film, Jamie’s suitcase, containing his treasures, drifts in among the coffins in the sea.
What an astounding film Empire of the Sun is, one of Spielberg’s finest achievements. The early reviews were ecstatic, absolute raves but strangely audiences stayed away, perhaps expecting Indiana Jones and the Empire of the Sun, which it clearly was not.
Having learned from The Color Purple, Spielberg saw to it the book was adapted loyally with no covering up the facts, no painting a pretty picture of what the POW camp was. Granted, to a child it was an adventure, but the reality is never held back. People starve, people die, and Jamie must stay ahead of all of that, proudly eating the weevils alive in the rice, because he is eating protein and the key always be in motion striving towards something, though he never knows what that something might be.
Christian Bale was simply superb as Jamie, hinting at the talents he would show as an adult, with a splendid performance here in a difficult role. He is not the easiest kid to like, entitled and spoiled, but when all that is gone, he is in full survival mode, using all he knows to stay alive and eke out an existence. He becomes feral, often less than human but it is his very humanity that saves him, finding it when he requires it most. When his friend is killed he begins frantically pumping the boy’s chest to regain a heartbeat as he had with one of the doctor’s patients back in the camp, chanting over and over “I can bring him back”. What Jamie does not know but comes to realize is he cannot bring back the boy he was, the child who went into that camp. That boy died a long ago, replaced by this ancient man-child who, though found by his parents, cannot ever return to the childhood he once had. Spielberg himself stated he did not believe Jamie could be with his parents for very long, that he would leave one day and never return. Bale captures with haunting realism the close of those now very old eyes when his mother embraces him, back where he belongs but where he will never belong again. It was an extraordinary performance that richly deserved the praise it received and should have been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor.
John Malkovich is excellent as the shyster Basie, sort of a modern-day Fagin, enticing the boy with promises he can never keep, and though Jamie loves Basie, he comes to realize that his friend is a monster and has never been his friend.
While the performances in Empire of the Sun are indeed sublime, the film in the end belongs to Spielberg and I consider this one of his greatest directorial achievements, right behind Schindler’s List, E.T., Saving Private Ryan, and Jaws. Creating magnificent images throughout the film he allows the audience to view everything through the eyes of Jamie, a child’s wonder, majesty and awe. He walks toward the airplanes he sees outside of the camp like he is seeing God for the first time, reaching to touch them in absolute awe and wonder. The evacuation of Shanghai is a magnificent sequence considering the director had just 15 days to shoot it, that particular scene full of movement and portraying panic and terror.
Initially two-time Best Director Oscar winner David Lean was going to direct the film, but after seeking advice from Spielberg, he decided to let the film go onto Spielberg. Knowing the younger director had a knack for directing young actors, Lean felt and stated that Spielberg was the better choice for the film, and Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay.
Superbly capturing the loss of innocence and youth, the film remains a masterpiece and has gained in prominence since its initial release. Audiences and critics have rediscovered the film to celebrate it as a work of majestic wonder. The first time I saw the picture I emerged from the theatre in tears, positively stunned by what I had experienced. The song young Jamie sings in the church and used later on the soundtrack (“Suo Gan”) haunted me, I think haunted everyone who heard it. Mournful, soaring and melancholy, it is a lullaby from a mother sung to her child.
When it creeps back on the soundtrack when Jamie’s mother spots him, aged, feral, looking more like a captured animal than her son, the tears come to my eyes, and seeing his suitcase thrown into the water, hoping to forget the memories of the previous four years, we know that Jamie is saying farewell to his childhood.
This is among the most breathtaking and brilliant films Spielberg has ever made. It seemed to signal a growing maturity in his work that would allow him to make his masterpiece, Schindler’s List. For years it was Spielberg’s least known masterpiece, but today, 33 years after its release, it has achieved the level always deserved. A soaring work of art, and by far the best film of 1987.
Sadly, the Academy nominated the film in just six categories, and despite a nomination from the Directors Guild of America Awards, Spielberg was ignored for Best Director and the film failed to be nominated for Best Picture. The nominations included Best Cinematography (which it should have won), Best Musical Score (ditto), Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Sound.
Once again the Academy displayed blind ignorance and it hits the top 10 of the eighties for this critic.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.