The Death of Identity: Spielberg and Empire of the Sun

Christian Bale as Jim Graham in Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun has been called Steven Spielberg’s ‘death of innocence’ film, but that description doesn’t quite capture the true desolation of what remains the director’s bleakest, most hopeless work. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s same-titled autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun breaks the rules of biopics and historical epics by shrouding in mystery the very subject it should be illuminating. In doing so, it emerges as a complex and rewarding wartime drama that’s as much about the death of identity as the death of innocence, both of which were subjects Spielberg was struggling with when he made and released the film across 1986 and 1987.

Empire of the Sun began life under the eye of one of Spielberg’s cinematic heroes, David Lean. Spielberg was due to produce the film for Lean, but he secretly harboured ambitions to take the reins himself. Eventually he got his wish as Lean dropped out, feeling unable to make the long trip for location shoots in China. The decision represented a huge opportunity for Spielberg. Not only could he direct a picture in the mould of Lean’s own Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago (both of which Spielberg cites as key influences on his career), but he could also explore his changing role in the world — both personally and professionally.

Two years prior to Empire of the Sun’s release, Spielberg had become a father for the first time, and it had a significant influence on his approach to his work. A hands-on father even before young Max’s birth, he abandoned plans to direct a musical adaptation of Peter Pan because he wanted to be at home with his child, instead of shooting on location in London with a group of kid actors. Indeed, the wonder of on-screen childhood, which had played such a significant part in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., was waning in Spielberg’s eyes. The Color Purple, his first ‘serious’ drama, hit cinemas in 1985, the year of Max’s birth, and he told reporters that one of the lures of Empire of the Sun was that it was the inverse of what had up to that point been his defining approach: “a man discovering things through the child in him.” Empire of the Sun would be the child discovering things through the man in him.

It’s a dark and disturbing path of discovery that undermines identity through its adulthood/childhood conflicts. Beginning with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and concluding with the atomic attack on Nagasaki four years later, the film focuses on the story of Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a British boy brought up in China and living in a state of cultural confusion. The opening scene sees him singing Welsh hymn Suo Gân in a Chinese church decorated to resemble a British one. Later on, he strays from a costume party dressed flamboyantly as Sinbad and stumbles across a battalion of Japanese soldiers as he tries to find a lost toy plane. These moments, with their stark visual contrasts and distant framing, isolate Jamie from his surroundings, the audience and even his own sense of self. He’s a lost boy in the truest sense, and while other examples of this type of character in Spielberg films eventually get found, Jamie remains tragically adrift.

As is typical of his film-making, Spielberg links Jamie’s fractured identity to his lack of a reliable father figure. John Graham (Rupert Frazer) is a negligent parent who seems more concerned with his golf swing than his son. A rich businessman, he attends the costume party dressed as a pirate but his plunder stands for nothing when he and his wife are separated from Jamie during the occupation of Shanghai. When the boy returns home hoping to find them, all he discovers in this once opulent abode is scattered talcum powder scarred by clinging finger prints and imposing boots marks — ghostly indicators of the violence that’s poisoned his life.

The clashing of dreams and reality form a key part of Spielberg’s vision

Such scenes inspired critic Andrew M. Gordon to refer to Empire Of The Sun as “a child’s dream of war” and this sense of dreamy fantasy comforts the boy as, when the film moves to its primary location, the Suzhou Creek Internment Camp, he conjures two flawed father figures to replace the one he’s lost. American ship steward Basie (John Malkovich) is the first and the most difficult to pin down. Almost identical to a character on a comic book Jamie carries with him, Basie is literally a fantasy come to life and his survivalist, something-from-nothing spirit makes him an embodiment of the American Dream and an immediate hero to Jamie. He comes to dress like him, talk like him, and act like him. The boy has invented and adopted an heroic avatar in order to keep his will to survive strong.

However, Basie’s a dark twist on American endeavour who reduces life to dollars and cents. Seeing the boy as an asset, he takes ownership by renaming him Jim (“a new name for a new life”) and tries to trade him to anyone who needs a labourer. “Buying and selling,” he says triumphantly, “you know: life!” His dim view on Jim and his expendability re-emerges later on when he sends the child out to hunt a pheasant at great risk. To Basie, Jim’s worth is measured only in terms of how much he can enhance Basie’s life at the camp. If he dies in the process of proving that worth, too bad. There’ll be another poor schmuck to exploit somewhere along the line.

British doctor Rawlins (Nigel Havers) is the second father figure and stands as the polar opposite to Basie. A refined British ideal of heroism, he nurtures Jim by maintaining his education and teaching him moral responsibility. He’s a good man and a better role model than Basie, but like Jim’s father, he’s clueless about the culture he lives in. When the camp’s commanding officer, Sergeant Nagata (Masatô Ibu), arrives to destroy Rawlins’ hospital in retaliation to American bombing, the doctor fights back, leading to further violence that only ceases when Jim bows to Nagata, showing him the proper cultural respect.

It’s a moment that muddies Jim’s identity further, with Spielberg highlighting the positive elements of his cultural confusion, where before he’d shown mostly the negative aspects. Unlike everyone else, Jim can connect with other nationalities and rejects the good/evil binary that war has forced upon him. He makes friends with a Japanese boy (Takatarô Kataoka) and repeatedly associates Japanese pilots with the sun, a key Spielbergian signifier of truth and realisation. The Japanese are human beings for him, not ‘the enemy’, and the warmth Jim has towards them suggests he could grow up to become a better man than all the fathers he aspires to be, one with more compassion than John and Basie, and more cultural understanding than Rawlins.

However, this new identity is never allowed to take shape. War catches up with Jim when American planes bomb Suzhou Creek in one of the film’s defining sequences. Amongst the madness, Spielberg focuses on one pilot as he swoops past Jim, whose run to the highest point he can to watch the planes he’s so passionate about close up. Shot in slow-motion, the pilot waves triumphantly, forcing Jim to identify with American heroism again. Unsure of who to idolise and which identity to try to become, Jim finally breaks down, crumbling into Rawlins arms and revealing that he can no longer remember what his parents look like.

He’s morphed so much, retreated so far into false notions of heroism, nationality and identity, that there’s no real, true Jamie Graham left any more. This is brought into literal truth in the film’s closing scene, which reunites Jim with his parents in a Shanghai orphanage. A grey-faced Jim stands in the middle of a crowd of children seeming disinterested and hopeless. Spielberg’s camera moves with uncertainty across the crowd and when Jim enters the frame we struggle to recognise him, despite having spent two-and-a-half hours following his life. His parents are the same and he, similarly, fails to acknowledge them.

When Mrs Graham finally realises this broken boy is her son, they embrace, but it’s a hardly a happy ending. Jim stares over his mother’s shoulder with glassy eyes that tremble with tears and confusion. Spielberg cuts to a shot of a celebrating Shanghai and then to one of Jim’s suitcase containing all his belongings, floating in a river. The child Jamie is dead and the adult Jim never got a chance to live. What then will become of the shell that remains? Spielberg, who’d retreat into a new Indiana Jones film two years later and release the cluttered and confused duo of Always and Hook shortly after, was no more clear.