We hadn’t seen a big, epic historical drama for a while, and this is one from the Eighties that we never watched. My fondness for war films is well-documented, too, so we gave EMPIRE OF THE SUN a try and I’m glad we did.
Based on an autobiographical novel by British SF author J.G. Ballard, the story centers around his childhood in Shanghai during World War II. The character, called James Graham in the film, is about twelve years old when the war begins and the Japanese attack and occupy Shanghai. Separated from his parents, young Jim is forced to survive in the devastated city on his own for a while until he falls in with some Americans who are somewhat shady characters. Eventually they’re all captured by the Japanese and forced to live in an internment camp for British and American prisoners until the end of the war.
Boiled down, that’s the plot of the movie, but it’s rich with characters and incidents that fill up its two-and-a-half-hour running time. There’s plenty of spectacle, as you’d expect in a film directed by Steven Spielberg, and yes, while some of it is a little hokey and overblown, it’s also pretty effective. When he tackles big historical dramas like this, Spielberg reminds me a little of David Lean (a director whose films I need to revisit someday soon).
A young Christian Bale plays Jim and does a good job. John Malkovich, eccentric as always, is the American who befriends him and saves his life more than once. The supporting cast is uniformly good, including one young Japanese actor who does a great job as a would-be pilot. (The internment camp is right next to a Japanese airfield, probably to discourage Allied attacks on the field, a strategy that doesn’t always work.)
EMPIRE OF THE SUN is an old-fashioned yarn that I enjoyed a lot. If you like historical dramas and/or war movies and haven’t ever seen it, you ought to check it out.