SYNOPSIS: When the International Settlement in Shanghai is occupied by the Japanese in 1941, spoiled rich kid Jamie Graham is separated from his parents. He finds a surrogate father in the Fagin-like black marketeer Basie (John Malkovich). When they are captured by the Japanese and placed in a camp, Jamie is torn between the part of the camp that has families in it and the part that is single white males run by the King Rat-like Basie. Jamie treats his life as something of a bizarre summer camp.
BACK-STORY: “Empire” was based on a biography by J.G. Ballard. It was published in 1984. Originally, Warner Brothers tapped Harold Becker to direct and when he dropped out, David Lean took over with Spielberg as producer. Lean decided the source material was too much like a diary, so he turned directing over to Spielberg who was much more enamored with the book than he was. Spielberg jumped at the chance because of his admiration for Lean’s films (especially “Bridge on the River Kwai” which it resembles). Spielberg also loved WWII topics. This was his third WWII movie after “1941” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It incorporated common Spielberg themes like separation of a child from his parents (Spielberg was deeply affected by his parents’ divorce when he was 14) and coming of age. Loss of innocence is also a theme of the movie. The movie was filmed at a studio in the United Kingdom and on location in Spain and Shanghai (the Chinese government allowed the first movie filming there since the 1940s). 5,000 Chinese extras were used. The movie was not a box office success.
TRIVIA: Wikipedia, imdb
1. Three authentic P-51s were used. They dropped plaster-filled mock 500 pound bombs in the movie.
2. Spielberg’s father had been a radio operator on a B-25 Mitchell in the China-Burma Theater.
3. Christian Bale was cast over 4,000 auditionees partly because author J.G. Ballard felt he resembled him at that age. Bale was suggested by Amy Irving (Spielberg’s wife at that time) who had co-starred with him in “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna”.
4. Academy Award nominations for: Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Music Score, Costume Design, and Sound.
5. One of the Zeros (which were actually modified Harvard SJN trainers) was flown by Tom Danaher, a Marine night fighter pilot from WWII who shot down the last Japanese bomber in the war.
6. The scene where Jim is tucked in by his parents was modelled after the Norman Rockwell painting for FDR’s “Freedom from Fear”. The painting is on the wall in the prison camp.
7. Ballard appears as an extra in the party scene.
Belle and Blade = 2.5
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 3.8
War Movies = N/A
Military History = not on list
Channel 4 = #43
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
OPINION: “Empire of the Sun” is a fine coming of age tale set in wartime. It features a career-boosting performance by child actor Christian Bale and has an indelible performance by Malkovich. It’s audience is not really war movie fans. It is a typical Spielberg movie in that it does not dare to show the real horrors that the foreign civilians must have gone through. This is not “Schindler’s List”. On the other hand, it avoids some of the schmaltzy elements of most of Spielberg’s films. It is not as good as the similar “Hope and Glory” and is overrated at #82. I would not have it in the top 100.