“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”. 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.
The movie opens in 1941. Foreigners are living safely in the International Settlement in Shanghai. Their lives are fairly unchanged even though the Japanese army occupies the rest of the city. Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a spoiled rich kid living in a mansion where he is waited on by Chinese servants. His family lives a Rolls Royce life in a rickshaw city. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decide to occupy the International Settlement. This catches the naïve and clueless foreigners by surprise. In the chaos of trying to escape the city, Jamie is separated from his parents. He returns home to a well-deserved slap and lack of concern from his former servants. When he runs out of food, he hooks up with a pair of grifters. Basie (John Malkovich) dominates his partner Frank (Joe Pantoliano), but he takes a liking to Jamie. He becomes a Fagin-like figure in Jamie’s life. He continues to mentor Jamie after they are captured and put in an internment camp. Jamie is torn between the part of the camp where the families live and the part where Basie and the other single males bunk. Basie runs his barracks like a King Rat figure. The camp is like a summer camp to the crafty Jamie. It is especially enjoyable because it is adjacent to a Japanese fighter base. Jamie is obsessed with air craft and finds a kindred spirit in a young Japanese pilot wannabe.
“Empire” incorporates common Spielberg themes. Jamie is separated from his parents and has to survive through his wits. Jamie will have to come of age in the years covered by the movie. (This theme is a bit diluted as the movie makes a massive three-year jump while he is in the camp.) Another theme is loss of innocence. This is punctuated by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki which also serves as a loss of innocence for humanity. The movie does not explore the theme of “war is hell” much. This is not “Schindler’s List”. The Japanese are not demonized and the life in the camp is not hellacious. This lack of realism is troubling. I’m sure Spielberg would argue that the events are being seen from the wide-eyes of a child. Thankfully, the themes are explored without the usual Spielbergian excesses. It is not a schmaltzy movie, like “War Horse”, for instance.
The movie is most watchable for the performance by Christian Bale. It’s a star-making turn. He gets the wild-eyed innocence right. Jamie is not a cherub. In fact, he’s something of a little privileged asshole until the shit hits the fan. He then becomes a survivor, but he doesn’t lose his sense of adventure even as he matures into a mini-Basie. Speaking of whom, Basie is a fascinating character. Malkovich is perfect in the role. He is not quite an anti-hero and the closest equivalent would be Corporal King from “King Rat”. (This would make Jamie the equivalent of Marlowe.)
Is it one of the 100 best war movies ever made? No. It could have been if it had been more realistic. The three-year jump is problematical because it shifts the movie from a tale of survival against all odds to one of a child’s evolution in adversity. That is still an entertaining arc and Spielberg is great at that sort of plot. Plus, the movie is a true story, so it deserves credit for not enhancing the tale too much. It just seems like Spielberg has sugar-coated it too much. It’s well worth the watch, however.
GRADE = B-