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Film: Empire of the Sun

P-51! Cadillac of the sky!
Jim Graham (Christian Bale)

Empire of the Sun is a 1987 American Coming of Age war film based on J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun novel. Steven Spielberg directed the film, which stars Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers. The film tells the story of Jamie "Jim" Graham, a young boy who goes from living with his wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.


The film adaptation provides examples of:

  • And Starring: "And introducing Christian Bale".
  • Bilingual Bonus: At the internment camp, the lady serving Jamie and the other refugees their potatoes speaks in un-subtitled Mandarin Chinese. What she says translates to "you should be happy that you get to eat, I don't get to eat."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Because of the war, Jim has lost his innocence from witnessing so much death from the people around him and near the end he finally sees the true colors of the man he looked up to throughout the film, but by the last few minutes he not only survives the war and is rescued, he is also reunited with both of his parents.
  • Break the Cutie
  • Children Are Innocent:
    • Jamie starts off not having any concept of the brutality of war, but he slowly learns the ugly truth.
    • Meta-example: Late-movie Jim doesn't look like a teen who's lived on starvation rations for years, because it would've been highly unethical to ask then-13-year-old Bale to starve himself. As an adult, he's made a thing of radical physical transformations for differing roles.
  • Child Soldiers: One of the kamikaze pilots stationed near the internment camp.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Jim.
  • Cool Car: Jim's parents' Packard limo.
  • Cool Plane: "P-51, Cadillac of the Sky!" Jim has something of an airplane obsession.
  • CPR (Clean, Pretty, Reliable): Averted. Jim attempts CPR a couple of times in the film, it works in neither case and the second time, ( when he tries to resuscitate his kamikaze pilot friend), it's not pretty at all.
  • Diegetic Switch: A Welsh lullaby goes from being sung by Christian Bale's character to playing with choral backup after the character has stopped singing.
  • Death from Above: Japanese and American air raids.
  • Ethereal Choir: Jim Graham is a boy chorister, with his singing voice dubbed by real life choirboy James Rainbird. Choirs contribute throughout the soundtrack.
  • Great Escape: Basie and his fellow Americans plan one and are successful, but they leave Jim behind.
  • Imperial Japan: The main antagonists of the film.
  • Jerk Ass: Basie, despite taking care of Jim for the most part, often leans towards this.
  • The Medic: Dr Rawlins, who also tries to act as a Parental Substitute for Jim.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: The Japanese actions against civilian prisoners in retaliation for American bombing of Japanese military targets.
  • Orchestral Bombing: Complete with a score by John Williams.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: Steven Spielberg considered this one of his more important, serious works, but it remains overshadowed by Indiana Jones.
  • Not So Different: Jim and the Japanese boy.
  • Proud Warrior Race: Jim seems to view the Japanese as being something of this, and certainly the Japanese see themselves as this, but for the most part we see Japanese guards beating unarmed prisoners.
  • Rare Vehicles: One of the IJA vehicles, a Nissan 4x4 used in a brief scene had to be custom-built from a Russian GAZ-69 because not one original example exists.
  • Real Person Cameo: JG Ballard appears as a party guest at the fancy dress party; he's wearing a Union Jack costume.
  • Refuge in Audacity: On the way to Lunghua Civilian Assembly Camp, Jim slaps the Japanese soldier driving the truck. And gets away with it, despite being a powerless POW boy. The look on the Japanese man's face is priceless.
  • Second Sino-Japanese War: This movie features the conflict between the Chinese and the Japanese and the effect on Westerners who go caught in the war zone.
  • Shanghai: The location of the first part of the movie.
  • Spoiled Brat: Jim starts out as a spoiled little wuss before he takes a level in badass.
  • Star-Making Role: "And introducing Christian Bale".
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Averted for most of the film, but plenty of flashy explosions when it counts, including the distant flash of a nuclear weapon.
  • The Scrounger: As time goes on, Jim acquires scrounger skills from Basie, an American sailor and master scrounger.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: the story is semi-autobiographical after all.
  • Worthy Opponent: Jim salutes and serenades the kamikaze pilots.
  • War Is Hell: The emphasis of the story is on the impact of war on civilians.
  • Weapons Understudies: Postwar Soviet GAZ-69 SUV as an Imperial-era Japanese military vehicle.
  • World War II: The story takes place during World War II.
  • The X of Y: The Empire of the Sun

Doctor ZhivagoEpic MovieThe English Patient
DollsFilms of the 1980sExtreme Prejudice
Down PeriscopeMilitary and Warfare FilmsEnemy at the Gates
Letters from Iwo JimaWorks Set in World War IIKokoda

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