Empire of the Sun (1987): Spielberg’s Underestimated Drama Starring Young Christian Bale

Warner (Amblin production)

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel “Empire of the Sun” is a disturbing coming-of-age story about a privileged English boy, Jim Graham (the young Christian Bale), who’s caught in the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and detained for the duration of WW II in a civilian internment camp.

The first chapters, set in 1941, are good in depicting the life of an aristocratic family, headed by loving parents (played by Rupert Frazer and Emily Richard), living in the British enclave. This privileged existence is abrupted after the War breaks out. Spielberg recreates in great crowd scenes the chaos and panic of the invasion of Shanghai, and the separation of the boy from his parents.

Despite a serviceable script by Brit Tom Stoppard, with uncredited contribution from Menno Meyjes, “Empire of the Sun” is uneven, lacking narrative drive. The film’s second half is more conventional, depicting life within a prison camp, where the 13-year-old boy falls under the spell of the cynical Basie (John Malkovich), an opportunistic merchant-seaman, and Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson). But the ending is emotionally satisfying, with the yarn building up to a reunion of the boy with his family at the end of the War.

As a childhood saga, “Empire of the Sun” is a more mature and emotionally complex work, featuring a more cynical and pragmatic view than, say, in “E.T.” Spielberg doesn’t shy away from depicting all the nasty tricks and Darwinian methods that Basie imparts to Jim so that he can endure prison life.

Budgeted at $38 million, “Empire of the Sun” received mixed reviews and never found an appreciative audience. With box-office grosses of $10.5 million, “Empire of the Sun” would have to be considered as one of Spielberg’s biggest flopsundeservedly, I think. Time will tell.

As Jim, Christian Bale renders an utterly credible and commanding performance, appearing almost every scene. (Bale would go on to become a major actor). Malkovich and Richardson are also good in conveying the harsh realities of prolonged prison life, where every man is for himself.

After that movie, Spielberg went through a bad period, making disappointing films, such as “Always” and “Hook,” unworthy of his talent or attention. Even so, as a mature drama, “Empire of the Sun” might have paved the way for the director’s future significant movies, the 1993 Oscar winner “Schindler’s List and the 1998 Oscar nominated “Saving Private Ryan.”

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 6

Cinematography: Allen Daviau Art Direction-Set Decoration: Norman Reynolds; Harry Cordwell Sound: Robert Knudson, Don Digirolamo, John Boyd, and Tony Dawe Original Score: John Williams Film Editing: Michael Kahn Costume Design: Bob Ringwood

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1987, another historical epic swept all the Oscars, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” which has the distinction of winning in each of its 9 nominated categories. Was it a coincidence that two major films set in China were made in the same year