Blinded by the Light: Madness and Beauty in ‘Empire of the Sun’
There’s something about Steven Spielberg that makes people want to describe him as a child. Given the films that first catapulted him into the top rank of world directors, it’s not hard to see why. From man-eating sharks to loving aliens, Southern melodrama and showdowns with platoons of easy-to-kill Nazis, the pre-1987 Spielberg oeuvre was not the most grown-up body of work.¹ This is not a judgment of the relative merits of Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1941, or even that lugubrious segment he shot for Twilight Zone: The Movie. Whatever one thinks about his films from that period, there’s little evidence that its primary motivation was anything more than to thrill, whether with fright (Jaws), tragedy (The Color Purple), or joy (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). But 1987 brought a change in the filmmaker, with a film showing that the eternally wonder-gazing boy had finally, and somewhat strangely, grown up. However, its weak commercial performance and befuddled critical reception ensured that he wouldn’t return to anything quite so thoughtful and mature until 2005’s Munich.
In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg chose a story with few chases, a rouge’s gallery of foul characters, no uplift, and a healthy dash of surrealism. British speculative fiction novelist J.G. Ballard’s grim autobiographical novel detailed in stark terms the childhood years he spent in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. As adapted by cerebral playwright Tom Stoppard, the story is a chilly one, particularly for a filmmaker who had so shamelessly (and skillfully) plucked heartstrings in the likes of E.T.
The lost boy at the center of it all, James Gray (the auspicious debut of a very young Christian Bale) is no more than a noxious brat who likes to mess with the servants and who will withdraw even further inside the whirlwind of thoughts in his buzzing mind once the war comes. In 1941, his wealthy British family live as near royalty in Shanghai, sonorously ignoring (as the British would) the thousands of Japanese soldiers massing around the city. Jim can’t wait for the invasion, and once it comes, after a few moments of terror after being separated from his mother in a crowded street (a tense sequence that’s just one of many bravura ones in the film), he treats it all as a great game. One could call it a coping mechanism, or simply madness. Madness is, in fact, one of the singular constants throughout the entire film, the only one to date where Spielberg has actually stared the subject in the face and refuses to blink.
When Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, it was hailed in large part as an unflinching and revolutionary portrayal of the harsh reality of war; a problematic belief at best. But in many ways Empire of the Sun, seen by a mere fraction of those who saw the much more conventional Ryan, is a far more honest view of that conflict. One of the biggest reasons for this is the fact that the film is concerned more with civilians than soldiers. This is a war film, but one shorn of most of the genre’s thrills. Battles and bombings are occasional things, but inconclusive for the people we’re seeing, as they aren’t trying to win or lose the battle, they’re simply trying to stay out of the way. Like Jim, most of the characters are non-military, just luckless Brits and the occasional American trying not starve to death or go stark raving insane in their arid waste of a Japanese prison camp. This is a film where people die in unremarkable ways, starving to death or simply giving up. The opening shot is, in fact, of coffins and funeral flowers floating just off Shanghai, and getting crudely knocked aside like so much garbage by a Japanese warship.²
This is not to say that Empire of the Sun isn’t an eye-popper of a widescreen Technicolor spectacle. It imagines the devastation of war on a grand scale. There is an undeniably epic scope to these arching vistas, blood-red suns, and churning cityscapes, backdropped by John Williams’ florid and haunting score, all melancholy piano and heavenly choirs. Spielberg’s purpose, though, is not simply to transport the audience but rather to put them in the mind’s eye of Jim, a boy obsessed with planes and warfare, simultaneously overjoyed and traumatized by the devastation erupting all around him.
Rather than immersing audiences in the excitement of combat, Spielberg’s take, like Ballard’s book, is that of the dry-eyed ironist,³ where all the battling armies are so much window-dressing, an absurd distraction from the serious business of finding enough rice to eat. In any other Spielberg film up to this time, Jim’s terrifying separation from his parents would have been followed first by trial and tribulation, but then some sort of triumph. Instead, triumph here is mere survival. Latching on to a Fagin-like rat of a grifter (John Malkovich in full crepuscular anti-glory), chomping down on the weevils in his rice (for the protein), and cheering in full psychotic breakdown as P-51s strafe the prison camp,⁴ Jim is a child spiraling down to spiritual devastation.⁵
There are elements of Conrad in Jim’s episodic journeys in the last passages of the film⁶, as chaos breaks out amidst the collapsing Japanese war effort. Self-consciously but still effectively referencing Marlow’s journey, Jim’s struggle across the barren Chinese fields, with their starving soldiers and dying refugees, is like a ticking off of symbolic signposts towards the final stripping away of his humanity.⁷ The climax comes not with Jim’s return to civilization (such as it is), but with the stripping away of his last illusion. Having been forced to put aside all childish (and even most human) things during the war, at one moment near the end of the film Jim seemed to feel like a person again. When a woman from the camp, Mrs. Victor, dies, Jim sees a beautiful white light and a scudding of clouds. Later, coming across an army radio broadcasting a news bulletin, he learns the flash was actually the atomic bomb annihilating Hiroshima, not, as he had thought, “Mrs. Victor’s soul going up to heaven.”
Some of Empire of the Sun can be, and was, written off as pure pretension — Spielberg wants to make an art film. How else to explain the often preciously symbolic imagery and spacious gaps in plot? But some license must be given to a wunderkind director who had been handed the keys to Hollywood quite early in his career but then found he wanted to stretch his wings. After taking people to the bleak, mad world of Empire of Sun, Spielberg’s next film was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
He had learned his lesson. For the time being, at least.
¹ No matter what some Euro-critics — who applied their well-starched Marxist analysis to his nearly wordless 1971 car-chase flick, Duel — thought.
² It’s a smart nod to the novel’s closing line: “The flowers formed a wavering garland around the coffin as it began its long journey to the estuary of the Yangtze, only to be swept back by the incoming tide among the quays and mud flats, driven once again to the shores of this terrible city.”
³ Supposedly David Lean had tried to get the film made before Spielberg, and it’s easy to see why, the cold and anti-nationalistic mind behind Bridge On the River Kwai would have synced quite nicely with Ballard and Stoppard’s de-romanticized worldview.
⁴ The aerial assault on the camp and the Japanese air base next to it is an extended and stunningly choreographed battle sequence, one of the greatest ever put to film. But even that pales next to its shattering coda, when the cheering and babbling Jim is shaken back to reality by the camp doctor, only to have a glimpse of the child Jim once was break through his prematurely adult facade as he blurts out: “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
⁵ You can easily imagine that Jim’s scars will be with him long after the peace treaties are signed and he’s back in comfortable England. He’ll be like those concentration camp survivors you read about who, sixty years later, still can’t bring themselves to throw out a stale crust of bread for fear of starving later without it.
⁶ As there are in much of Ballard’s fiction.
⁷ A state of mind that Empire of the Sun captures well is the mood of tired resignation that washes over most of its characters by the end of the war. It’s mindful of the old meaning of the Viking word “fey,” which Lee Sandlin described in a perceptive 1997 Chicago Reader article as a sort of tragic acceptance in which people who had been at war long enough “surrendered to that eternity of dread: the inevitable, shattering resumption of an artillery barrage; the implacable cruelty of an occupying army … They got so used to the war they reached a state of acquiescence, certain they wouldn’t stop being scared until they were dead.”