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Film / Empire of the Sun

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"P-51! Cadillac of the sky!"
Jim Graham

Empire of the Sun is a 1987 American Coming of Age war film based on J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. 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 (Bale), 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.

Not to be confused with the Australian electronic music duo of the same name (especially since Word of God has confirmed that they didn't name themselves after this work).

The film adaptation provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Basie, a charismatic American scoundrel who Jim ends up assisting with his schemes trying to sell junk in order to get somewhere safer, and later with stealing items of internees who've died. Basie ends up abandoning Jim as soon as he can find other kids to act as his minions, although Jim ends up on the same transport as him anyways.
  • And Starring: "And introducing Christian Bale".
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Mentioned by Basie, who states that the worst parts of a war are the beginning and end. True to form, people run in every direction as the Japanese invade, and any token resistance is immediately destroyed. Once the occupation sets in, foreign nationals are corralled into internment camps, where they eke out a somewhat comfortable existence. When the Empire of Japan is defeated, once again chaos reigns as internees are evacuated, any Japanese resistance is wiped out via bombing, and any liberated internees have nowhere to go until Allied forces reoccupy lost territory, and order is established once more.
  • Art Imitates Art: The shot of Jim's parents tucking him in bed is directly lifted from the Norman Rockwell painting Freedom from Fear. Jim's father even holds a newspaper like the father in the painting. The main difference is that in the painting there are two children in bed. The painting is also featured when Jim is at a camp - in one moment he rearranges the pin-ups on his wall, Rockwell's painting is one of them.
  • Artistic License – Geography: It would not have been possible to witness the atomic bombing of Nagasaki all the way from Shanghai. See this for an analysis.
  • Artistic License – History: CPR was not invented until 1960.
  • Battle Discretion Shot: When Basie gets beaten by Japanese soldiers, first at Jim's house and later again at the camp, we only see Jim's reaction to it with a few shots of Basie getting whopped.
  • 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.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Blood is pouring out of the dead Japanese pilot's mouth due to Jim trying too hard to revive him via CPR.
  • Book Ends: The movie starts and finished with a close-up of objects floating on water.
  • Brick Joke: The running gag "You want a Hershey's bar?" becoming real by the end.
  • Broken Pedestal: Jim was looking up to Basie until the latter escapes without him.
  • Call of the Wild Blue Yonder: Jim is a huge aviation enthusiast.
  • Captivity Harmonica: One inmate at the camp is playing the harmonica.
  • Character Witness: The teenage Japanese pilot saves Jim's life by distracting Sgt. Nagata after Jim showed his good character by returning the model airplane earlier.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Jim is shown to be a gifted choir singer way before we see him singing at the camp.
  • Children Are Innocent:
    • Jamie starts off not having any concept of the brutality of war, but he slowly learns the ugly truth.
    • The Japanese pilot that Jim befriends is only a teenager. Compared to the other Japanese soldiers, he's much nicer and friendlier, at least to Jim.
    • Meta-example: Late-movie Jim doesn't look like a teen who's lived on starvation rations for years, for the simple reason that allowing a child actor to starve himself would be both unethical and illegal. As an adult, Christian Bale has a reputation for both gaining and losing weight with potentially unhealthy speed to fit roles.
  • Child Soldiers: One of the kamikaze pilots stationed near the internment camp seems to be in his late teens.
  • 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.
    • The Japanese Zero makes an appearance as well.
  • 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.
  • Creator Cameo: JG Ballard, author of the book, appears as an extra in the costume party.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The "dogfight" (if it can even be called that) between the IJN Zeroes and USAAF P-51s.
  • Death from Above: Japanese and American air raids.
  • Despair Event Horizon: After Mr. Victor goes missing during the march to the stadium, Mrs. Victor goes along with Jim telling her to pretend to be dead so that the Japanese don't make them march somewhere else. She does so (and it's something of a Pet the Dog moment, as she listens to him without qualm and falls asleep on his chest, after having spent the entire movie neutral about him), but ends up dying in her sleep.
  • 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.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The Asian housekeeper slaps Jim in the face once there is no fear of retaliation.
  • Ethereal Choir: Jim Graham is a boy chorister, with his singing voice dubbed by real-life choirboy James Rainbird. Choirs contribute throughout the soundtrack.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Jim's hair is noticeably shorter after the Time Skip of three years he spent in the camp.
  • Futile Hand Reach: Both Jim and his mother try to reach out for another when they get separated in the crowd.
  • Great Escape: Basie and his fellow Americans plan one and are successful, but they leave Jim behind.
  • Heaven Above: Discussed Trope; Jim asks his mother whether "God is above" means he is flying.
  • If We Get Through This…: After Basie was beaten into a pulp by Sgt. Nagata, Jim plans for both of them to live together after the war.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Mrs. Victor is seen coughing to show us that her days are numbered.
  • Innocence Lost: Jim loses his thanks to the war and Basie's true colors.
  • Ironic Echo: In the first minutes of the second act, one of the American internees named Dainty (played by Ben Stiller), gives Jamie a pretty mean joke:
    Dainty: Hey kid, would you like a Hershey bar?
    Jamie:Oh yes please, Dainty!
    Dainty:So would I kid. Have you got one?
    • After being accepted into the American dormitory, Jamie repeats this rude rebuttal to a little girl named Nina. In the end, Jamie does end up getting a Hershey bar as a parting gift from Basie.
  • Jerkass: Basie, despite taking care of Jim for the most part, often leans towards this.
  • Madness Mantra: Jim starts repeating "I can bring everyone back...everyone" while he tries in vain to revive the Japanese pilot he befriended.
  • The Medic: Dr. Rawlins, who also tries to act as a Parental Substitute for Jim.
  • Missing Child: Your child is separated from you in the chaos of an invasion, and you spend four years not knowing whether he's alive or dead. Even if he survives, having your child taken and living through such trauma and suffering would be awful.
  • Opening Crawl: The film opens with exposition in the form of text scrolling across the screen.
  • Orchestral Bombing: Complete with a score by John Williams.
  • 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.
  • Ransacked Room: Jim entering the mother's bedroom after it was raided.
  • 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.
  • The Scrounger: As time goes on, Jim acquires scrounger skills from Basie, an American sailor and master scrounger.
  • Spoiled Brat: Jim starts out as a spoiled little wuss before he takes a level in badass.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ambiguously so for Mr. Maxton. In the novel, Maxton wastes away from starvation and exhaustion, Jim stays with him as he dies. The last time Jim sees Maxton in the film, he's alive (though exhausted and frail) and his ultimate fate is left open-ended.
  • Stab the Salad: The Japanese pilot uses his sword to help Jim cut open a mango. Basie doesn't realize this and shoots him.
  • 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.
  • That Man Is Dead: Subtle example. When Jim tries futilely to revive the kamikaze kid pilot with CPR, he sees himself at the start of the film laying on the ground instead. Who Jim was at the start of the film is never coming back.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Jim gives one in the ending since he has lost his innocence and witnessed all the death and violence of the war along with the true colors of someone he once looked up to.
  • Time Skip: In the second half of the movie, it skips from 1941 to 1945.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story is semi-autobiographical after all.
  • 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.
    • Same goes for the Zeroes, which are replicas created from T-6 Texan trainers not unlike the ones featured in Tora! Tora! Tora!
  • Where Were Jamie's Parents the Whole Time?: Jamie ends up reuniting with his parents, but no mention is made to where they went to or what they did during the five long years (let alone them coping over Jamie being lost from them) and the book doesn't specify either. In reality, J. G. Ballard's parents were sent to another camp with even worser conditions than the one their son was imprisoned in.
  • Worthy Opponent: Jim salutes and serenades the kamikaze pilots.
  • The X of Y: The Empire of the Sun