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Old Film, New Thoughts


Chris James

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I just viewed Steven Spielberg's 1987 movie Empire of the Sun...and once again...WOW!

My admiration is for the film, the director, and the actors. Christian Bale was 13 at the time of filming, his first major casting, and look where he has gone with that career. I am not a major Batman movie fan but he has played a diverse number of roles since Spielberg chose this kid after viewing Bale in a television program.

Images make the film, and Spielberg chose his scenes carefully and with a certain amount of magic. With a cast of thousands, something fairly accessable in China, the visions of a Japanese attack on Shanghai was stunning. A view of the insulated wealthy English trying to maintain their lifestyle amidst the chaos of the Japanese Army closing in on the city caught my eye. Children and adults in party costume riding in their fancy cars amidst the swirling mobs of terrified Chinese...unforgetable.

Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay (he is one of America's best writers for stage and screen), and gave the characters a wonderful voice to express the horrors of war. It only added to the credible images.

I had only vague memories of seeing the film before, but Amazon had it on sale (yeah, that's for me). The purchase was well worth it, and the bonus feature of how they made the film explains a lot of Spielberg's thoughts on what he wanted to accomplish. The story is based on real life experiences of J.G. Ballard who also lends his voice in the short feature....what a nightmare for a small boy to endure.

I would say it is well worth seeing this film again...and no, you may not borrow my copy.

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Here are a couple of links to Suo Gan. When my old school in Wales held a reunion concert the show choir chose Rhythm of Life instead of Suo Gan to avoid all the old boys crying... to a Welshman it's a ... well its the first song I remember. My mother sang it to my baby sister, so go figure.

this link is to one of England's best choristers

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I wondered at the use of the song in the film, especially since it was presented in a church setting by the boy's choir. But then I found the words in English translation which reveal the song has religious overtones and is used as a lullaby. Good choice.

Make your popcorn early, Dude...you may lose your appetite at several points in the film.

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Doh, I'm a huge, huge Spielberg fan and absolutely detested Empire of the Sun. I read Ballard's original book, and I didn't like the fact that they chose to make some drastic changes in the story -- for one, the fact that the kid was never separated from his parents and they were in the concentration camp with him throughout the war. I also don't like the kid's character, since he merely reacts to everything that happens, and never really shows a strong enough personality to actually do something.

The film was a major bomb in its initial release in 1987, costing about $38 million but making only a fraction of that worldwide, and also netting no major awards. I think there are aspects of the film that are good, but the characters in the film are so negative (John Malkovich in particular), it was very hard for me to get into. Roger Ebert gave it a so-so review at the time, and I think his comments parallel mine except that the things that bothered him bothered me a lot more.

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Doh, I'm a huge, huge Spielberg fan and absolutely detested Empire of the Sun. I read Ballard's original book, and I didn't like the fact that they chose to make some drastic changes in the story -- for one, the fact that the kid was never separated from his parents and they were in the concentration camp with him throughout the war. I also don't like the kid's character, since he merely reacts to everything that happens, and never really shows a strong enough personality to actually do something.

The film was a major bomb in its initial release in 1987, costing about $38 million but making only a fraction of that worldwide, and also netting no major awards. I think there are aspects of the film that are good, but the characters in the film are so negative (John Malkovich in particular), it was very hard for me to get into. Roger Ebert gave it a so-so review at the time, and I think his comments parallel mine except that the things that bothered him bothered me a lot more.

Gee! Are we talking about the same film? I totally disagree. The boy used incredible creativity and ingenuity to make it through the experience Malkovich was brilliant in the character he was given... I think the film was one of the best I've ever seen and I've kept the DVD for a couple decades. Ebert? Now there is a windbag... every time he'd appear on TV I'd dive for the remote... what a dork! If the film bombed.. it was because the American public wouldn't know a good film if they saw one. I seldom watch American films as Hollywood fare is more often than not... shallow and dull, memorable as a fireworks show. Most of the video games out today are more interesing than most of what Hollywood turns out.

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I thought the film made a huge impact. The visual impact of the cinematography was stunning. The story was disturbing. The plot is visceral and showed the actual affect of the war on an impressionable youth. Yes, Pec is right, it shows the boy reacting to his circumstances, but then he was what, 11? That's what kids do, react and try to survive their environment. That he lost his innocence, that he became harder and changed from what he was at the beginning of the film to a much more independent, less idealistic teen, was the point of the movie. We weren't asked to like him as much as we did when we first saw him. We were asked to acknowledge that his experiences had changed him as they had changed the world around him. In that, the movie went much further than most do and affected me much more. How many films made that long ago can I still remember as vividly as that one? Not many. That is wasn't the happiest of experiences I had at the theater isn't the point.

C

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Gee! Are we talking about the same film? I totally disagree. The boy used incredible creativity and ingenuity to make it through the experience Malkovich was brilliant in the character he was given...

No, I think the kid has almost no personality: he seems to become whatever he needs to be in order to survive. But to me, that makes him a cypher, a blank slate -- not somebody who necessarily shows courage, honor, or even intelligence. He seemed very bland and milquetoast-ish to me, and I don't think that works well as the lead character of a fairly complicated war picture. Ballard's character in the book was much more resourceful and thoughtful, and I don't think that ever got established in the film.

Here's what Ebert noted:

The movie is always interesting from a narrative point of view. Spielberg is a good storyteller with a good tale to tell. But it never really adds up to anything. What statement does Spielberg want to make about Jim, if any? That dreams are important? That survival is a virtue? The movie falls into the trap of so many war stories, and turns horror into nostalgia. The process is a familiar one. War experiences are brutal, painful and tragic, but sometimes they call up the best in human beings. And after the war is over, the survivors eventually began to yearn for that time when they surpassed themselves, when during better and worse they lived at their peak.

The movie's general lack of direction leads to what seems like a series of possible endings; having little clear idea of where he was going, Spielberg isn't sure if he has arrived there. The movie's weakness is a lack of a strong narrative pull from beginning to end. The whole central section is basically just episodic daily prison life and the dreams of the boy. "Empire of the Sun" adds up to a promising idea, a carefully observed production and some interesting performances. But despite the emotional potential in the story, it didn't much move me. Maybe, like the kid, I decided that no world where you can play with airplanes can be all that bad.

And that's pretty close to what I felt. I don't deny that Christian Bale was (and is) a very fine actor, and he did what the director and writer told him to do. I just don't like the story that was told, nor could I identify with the characters at all.

I worked a little bit on Bale's next major film, Newsies, and I enjoyed that a lot more. But even when we were working on it, everybody from Disney knew for sure it would be a huge bomb -- which it was. The director eventually went on to helm High School Musical and some other major successes, so he eventually did OK.

BTW, if you watch the "Making of Empire of the Sun," there's a great moment where the kid screws up on the climactic shot where the B52's come flying into the concentration camp at the end of WWII. Spielberg is extremely upset, but visibly holds himself back from screaming at the kid. They couldn't redo the shot from scratch, because it involved dozens of explosions and about a thousand extras. They wound up doing the shot in pieces, and Spielberg was not happy, but it worked OK in the final film.

Two other problems I forgot about: the scene where the kid sees the distant blast of Hiroshima is not possible -- Japan is beyond the curvature of the earth, and even an A-bomb would not be visible at that distance in China. Several critics noted this, and writer Ballard acknowledged that this was an invention on Spielberg's part (and not in the book, which was partly autobiographical). They also had to reshoot some scenes for various reasons, and because Bale had cut his hair, he has to wear a god-awful wig, which is the worst-looking hair you've ever seen. Look for it when you see the film -- I was knocked out of my chair when I saw it 25 years ago.

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I won't argue with The Pecman's view of the film, but it sounds like the forest for the trees kind of argument. I do believe that those close enough to an industry to know how things are made often become critics far beyond what us mortal audience members believe. I know I have a hard time sitting in an audience for a stage performance after twenty years of working behind the scenes.

Child actors ony have so much to give based upon their inexperience, and so the director becomes their source of all feelings. To me the character of Jim in this film was more of a mirror for the feelings of the other characters. As the boy stood at the barbed wire fence saluting the pilots and singing Suo Gan, the image of the Japanese sergeant watching with emotion is one of the few moments in the film where this Japanese soldier shows any humanity. But that is Spielberg.

To nearly every adult in the film, the character Jim touches some inner emotion, even the crazy American played by John Malkovich. If there is any doubt of how the horrific experience affected a young mind then you need look no further than the scene where Jim is found by his parents at the end of the film. But all of this is Spielberg because Christian Bale is just an empty vessel, much like the character is in that final scene.

We don't all have to agree if this is a good film or not, and I rarely accepted Ebert's analysis to guide my film viewing. Images and emotions affect us all differently, as do the stories posted on AD. Not everything Spielberg has done is masterful, I am not an E.T. fan, but then I am not a small child either and sometimes Spielberg plays that role quite well.

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