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The Hidden Treasure of ’87: Empire of the Sun

In 1987, it was all 3 Men and a Baby, Fatal Attraction, Beverly Hills Cop II, Lethal Weapon and Dirty Dancing. Back when Steve Guttenberg was the man, Swayze’s tight-dancing pants were the root of all crimes against decency and Mel wasn’t an anti-Semitic freakshow. Ah, the glory days.

Tucked away in the same year was a little known number by an unassuming and since unheard of director, Steven Spielberg. Oh wait, HE has been heard of. But the movie itself? I bet you think it’s just the name of a band.

The little bit of celluloid heaven that did it for me back in ‘87 was Empire of the Sun, starring a very young Christian Bale as Jim Graham and set in Beijing during the span of World War II. Jim’s privileged life is turned on its head when he is separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion, and he fights to survive with the cunning and innocence that only a pre-teen boy is capable of.

Based on a somewhat autobiographical book by the late GJ Ballard, the story’s heart is at the childhood craving for care and safety and what happens when these two fundamental elements no longer exist – thereby making the theme of innocence lost paramount. It also has elements of a ‘coming of age’ story – the first inkling of sex, the beginning of self-reliance and the sacrifice for others. The autobiographical aspect lends a twinge of disheartening reality to the viewer, as the awareness that a child actually experienced such a horrific turn of events is both sobering and poignant.

Visually, Empire of the Sun is beautiful. Vast fields of abandoned treasures meet the honour and sadness within the kamikaze ritual, alongside the brutality of prison camps, majestic, soaring war planes and the flash of brilliant white atomic light.

The cast is also quite spectacular. John Malkovich plays Basie, a calculating conman who uses Jim and plays on his naivety. Miranda Richardson is Mrs Victor, a reluctant care-giver and “mother” to Jim, who becomes an interesting foil to Basie. Nigel Havers plays Dr Rawlins, who is the only redeeming adult in Jim’s world. And, if you look really closely, you’ll spy a young Ben Stiller. Blink and you’ll miss him, but he’s there, an American soldier lackeying for Basie in the POW camp.

Spielberg isn’t a master filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination – he is middling at best and makes great fun adventure films, but that’s about it. Early in his career, he tried to be taken seriously and this is the product of those years. I must say, it’s an excellent effort, but I do wonder how incredible this film could have been if made by a stronger director – say, David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter and A Passage to India) as was originally planned. Either way, it is a thoroughly enjoyable, gorgeous film, and well worth a couple of hours and the spare change to rent it.

words: Kristen Hodges


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