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Empire of the Sun
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Steven Spielberg
Frank Marshall
Kathleen Kennedy
Robert Shapiro
Written by J. G. Ballard (novel)
Tom Stoppard (screenplay)
Starring Christian Bale
John Malkovich
Miranda Richardson
Nigel Havers
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Allen Daviau
Editing by Michael Kahn
Studio Warner Bros.
Amblin Entertainment
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) December 25, 1987
Running time 154 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $35 million[1]
Gross revenue $66.24 million

Empire of the Sun is a 1987 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, a young boy who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.

Harold Becker and David Lean were originally to direct before Spielberg came on board. Spielberg was attracted to directing the film because of a personal connection to Lean's films and World War II topics. He considers it to be his most profound work on "the loss of innocence".[1]



The Empire of Japan had been at war with China since 1937 before declaring war on the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. During the conflict, Jamie Graham, a British upper middle class schoolboy living in Shanghai, is separated from his parents. He spends some time living in his deserted house and eating remnants of food; eventually, he ventures out into the city and finds it bustling with Japanese troops. Jamie is captured along with Basie, an American sailor, who nicknames him "Jim". They are taken to Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center in Suzhou. By 1945, a few months before the end of the Pacific War, Jim has established a good living, despite the poor conditions of the camp. He has an extensive trading network, even involving the camp's commanding officer, Sergeant Nagata.

Dr. Rawlins, the camp's British director, becomes a father figure to Jim. Through the barbwire fencing, Jim befriends a Japanese teenager, who shares Jim's dream of becoming a pilot. Still idolizing Basie, Jim frequently visits him in the American soldiers' barracks. At one point, Basie charges him to set snare traps outside the wire of the camp and while Jim succeeds, thanks to the help of the Japanese teenager from the other side, the real reason for sending Jim into the marsh was actually to test the area for mines, not to catch game. As a reward, Basie allows him to move into the American barracks with him. Basie then plots to escape.

Nagata visits Basie's barracks and finds a bar of soap that Jim had stolen earlier. Thinking that Basie had stolen it, Nagata beats him severely. While Basie is in the infirmary, his possessions are stolen by other men in the camp. One morning at dawn, Jim witnesses a kamikaze ritual of three Japanese pilots at the air base. Overcome with emotion at the solemnity of the ceremony he begins to sing the Welsh song Suo Gân. Later, the camp comes under attack by a group of American P-51 Mustangs. As a result of the attack, the Japanese decide to evacuate the camp, and Basie escapes during the confusion, leaving Jim behind, although he had promised to let Jim come with him. The camp's population marches through the wilderness, where many die of fatigue, starvation, and disease. During the march Jim witnesses a flash from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles away, and hears news of Japan's surrender and the end of the war.

Jim sneaks away from the group and goes back to Suzhou, nearly dead from starvation. He finds the Japanese boy he knew earlier, who has since become a pilot and appears distraught at the surrender of his country. The boy remembers Jim and offers him a mango, cutting it for him with his samurai sword. As Jim is about to eat it, Basie reappears with a group of armed Americans, who have arrived to loot the Red Cross containers that were dropped after the Japanese surrender. The Americans shoot and kill the Japanese boy. Jim, furious, beats the American who had shot his friend. Basie drags him off and promises to take him back to Shanghai to find his parents, but Jim refuses the offer and stays behind. He is found by a unit of American soldiers and put in an orphanage in Shanghai with other children who had lost their parents. When his parents come looking for him, Jim is so scarred from his experiences that he does not recognize them at first. His mother finds him in the crowd, and eventually Jim collapses into her arms.


  • Christian Bale as James "Jamie" Graham: Jamie goes through a coming of age from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center during World War II. J. G. Ballard felt Bale had a physical resemblance to himself at the same age.[2] The actor was 12 years old when he was cast. Amy Irving, Bale's co-star in the television movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, recommended Bale to her then-husband, Steven Spielberg, for the role. Over 4,000 child actors auditioned.[3] On the experience, Bale reflected, "After I finished the movie I got this really nice mountain bike. Because it was a big deal where I lived that I was in this movie, I had jealous bullies threatening to beat me up and girls who wanted to kiss me. I just wanted to ride my bike."[4]
  • John Malkovich as Basie: An American ship steward stranded in Shanghai during Japanese occupation. Basie forms a friendship with Jamie, giving him the nickname of "Jim".
  • Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Victor: A British woman who was Jim's "neighbour" at Suzhou. She dies in the wilderness, where Jim sees a bright light in the sky to the East. He believes it to be her soul floating to Heaven but finds out later it was the flash from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, hundreds of miles away.

Cast notes


Warner Bros. purchased the film rights, intending Harold Becker to direct and Robert Shapiro to produce.[6] Tom Stoppard wrote the first draft, which J.G. Ballard briefly collaborated on.[7] Becker dropped out, and David Lean came to direct with Spielberg as producer. Lean explained, "I worked on it for about a year and in the end I gave it up because I thought it was too similar to a diary. It was well-written and interesting, but I gave it to Steve."[6] Spielberg felt "from the moment I read J.G. Ballard's novel I secretly wanted to direct myself."[6] Spielberg found the project to be very personal. As a child, his favorite film was Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which similarly takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Spielberg's obsession with World War II and the aircraft of that era was stimulated by his father's stories of his experience as a B-25 Mitchell radioman in the China-Burma Theater.[6] Spielberg hired Menno Meyjes to do an uncredited rewrite before Stoppard was brought back to write the shooting script.[7]

Empire of the Sun was filmed at Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom, and on location in Shanghai and Spain. The filmmakers searched across Asia in an attempt to find locations that resembled 1941 Shanghai. They entered negotiations with Shanghai Film Studios and China Film Co-Production Corporation in 1985.[8] After a year of negotiations, permission was granted for a three-week shoot in early-March 1987. It was the first American film shot in Shanghai since the 1940s.[7] The Chinese authorities allowed the crew to alter signs to traditional Chinese characters, as well as closing down city blocks for filming.[8] Over 5,000 local extras were used, some old enough to remember the Japanese occupation of Shanghai 40 years earlier. Members of the People's Liberation Army played Japanese soldiers.[2] Other locations included Trebujena, Andalusia, Knutsford, Sunningdale and Berkshire.[8] Lean often visited the set during the England shoot.[7] Spielberg attempted to portray the era accurately, using period vehicles and aircraft. Computer-generated imagery was used for the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The A6M Zero and P-51 Mustangs seen in the film were a combination of CG-scale models. Industrial Light & Magic designed the visual effects sequences. Norman Reynolds was hired as the production designer while Vic Armstrong served as the stunt coordinator.[9]


Empire of the Sun was given a limited release on December 11, 1987, before being wide released on December 25, 1987. The film earned $22.24 million in North America,[10] and $44.46 million in other countries, accumulating a worldwide total of $66.7 million, a box office disappointment.[7] Based on 36 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 81% of the critics enjoyed the film.[11] By comparison Metacritic calculated an average score of 60, based on 17 reviews.[12] J. G. Ballard gave positive feedback, and was especially impressed with Christian Bale's performance.[2] Richard Corliss of Time stated that Spielberg "has energized each frame with allusive legerdemain and an intelligent density of images and emotions."[13] Janet Maslin from The New York Times called the film "a visual splendor, a heroic adventurousness and an immense scope that make it unforgettable."[14] Julie Salamon of The Wall Street Journal wrote that the film as "an edgy, intelligent script by playwright Tom Stoppard, Spielberg has made an extraordinary film out of Mr. Ballard's extraordinary war experience."[15] Roger Ebert gave a mixed reaction. "Despite the emotional potential in the story, it didn't much move me. Maybe, like the kid, I decided that no world where you can play with airplanes can be all that bad."[16]

In his second starring role, Bale received a special citation for Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, an award specially created for his performance in Empire of the Sun.[17] At the 60th Academy Awards, Empire of the Sun was nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Music Score, Costume Design and Sound. It did not convert any of the nominations into awards.[18] Allen Daviau, who was nominated as cinematographer, publicly complained, "I can't second-guess the Academy, but I feel very sorry that I get nominations and Steven doesn't. It's his vision that makes it all come together, and if Steven wasn't making these films, none of us would be here."[7] The film won awards for cinematography, sound design and music score at the 41st British Academy Film Awards. The nominations included production design, costume design and adapted screenplay.[19] Spielberg was honored by his work from the Directors Guild of America,[20] while the American Society of Cinematographers honored Allen Daviau.[21] Empire of the Sun was nominated for Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Original Score at the 46th Golden Globe Awards.[22] John Williams earned a Grammy Award nomination.[23]


Flying symbolizes Jim's possibility and danger to escape from the prison camp. His growing alienation from his prewar self and society is reflected in his hero-worship of the Japanese aviators based at the airfield adjoining the camp. "I think it's true that the Japanese were pretty brutal with the Chinese, so I don't have any particularly sentimental view of them," J.G. Ballard recalled. "But small boys tend to find their heroes where they can. One thing there was no doubt about, and that was that the Japanese were extremely brave. One had very complicated views about patriotism [and] loyalty to one's own nation. Jim is constantly identifying himself, first with the Japanese, then when the Americans start flying over in their Mustangs and B-29s, he's very drawn to the Americans."[6]

The apocalyptic wartime setting and the climactic moment when Jim sees the distant white flash of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki gave Spielberg powerful visual metaphors "to draw a parallel story between the death of this boy's innocence and the death of the innocence of the entire world."[24] Spielberg reflected he "was attracted to the idea that this was a death of innocence, not an attenuation of childhood, which by my own admission and everybody's impression of me is what my life has been. This was the opposite of Peter Pan. This was a boy who had grown up too quickly."[1] Other topics that Spielberg previously dealt with, and are presented in Empire of the Sun, include a child being separated from his parents (The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist) and World War II (Close Encounters, 1941 and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Spielberg explained "My parents got a divorce when I was 14, 15. The whole thing about separation is something that runs very deep in anyone exposed to divorce."[1]

Popular culture

The dramatic attack on the Japanese prisoner of war camp carried out by P-51 Mustangs is accompanied by Jim's whoops of "...the Cadillac of the skies!", a phrase believed to be first used in Ballard's text as "Cadillac of air combat" and in the screenplay that has now entered urban mythology as being attributed to the war years.[25] Steven Bull inaccurately quotes the catchwords in the Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation (2004) as originating in 1941.[26] John William's soundtrack includes the "Cadillac of the Skies" as an individual score. The phrase has now been appropriated by other aircraft including the F-111 in Australian service.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Forsberg, Myra. "Spielberg at 40: The Man and the Child". The New York Times, October 1, 2008. Retrieved: September 17, 2008. 
  2. ^ a b c d Sheen, Martin (narrator), Steven Spielberg, J. G. Ballard, Christian Bale. The China Odyssey: Empire of the Sun (television Special) American Broadcasting Company, 1987.
  3. ^ Wills, Dominic. "Christian Bale Biography". Tiscali. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  4. ^ "Christian Bale: 'I Was Bullied Because Of Fame'". Star Pulse. July 18, 2008. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  5. ^ Vary, Adam B. "First Look: Tropic Thunder." Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 2008. Retrieved: May 27, 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d e McBride 1997, p. 392.
  7. ^ a b c d e f McBride 1997, pp. 394–398.
  8. ^ a b c Walker 1988, p. 49.
  9. ^ Walker 1988, pp. 63–65.
  10. ^ "Empire of the Sun". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  11. ^ "Empire of the Sun". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  12. ^ "Empire of the Sun (1987): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  13. ^ Corlisss, Richard. "The Man-Child Who Fell to Earth: Empire of the Sun." Time, December 7, 1987. Retrieved on September 16, 2008.
  14. ^ Maislin, Janet. "Empire of the Sun." The New York Times, December 9, 1987. Retrieved on September 16, 2008.
  15. ^ Salmon, Julie. "Empire of the Sun." The Wall Street Journal, December 1987. Retrieved on September 16, 2008.
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Empire of the Sun." Chicago Sun-Times, December 11, 2007. Retrieved on September 16, 2008.
  17. ^ "National Board of Review Special Citation: 1987 Awards". Variety. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  18. ^ "60th Academy Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 16, 2008. 
  19. ^ "41st British Academy Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 17, 2008. 
  20. ^ "DGA Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 17, 2008. 
  21. ^ "ASC Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 17, 2008. 
  22. ^ "46th Golden Globe Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 17, 2008. 
  23. ^ "Grammy Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 17, 2008. 
  24. ^ McBride 1997, p. 393.
  25. ^ Ballard 1984, p. 151.
  26. ^ Bull, Steven. Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2004. ISBN 978-1573565578.
  27. ^ "Hansard: Commonwealth of Australia Parliamentary Debates." House of Representatives Official Hansard, No. 17, November 27, 2006. Retrieved: September 26, 2009.
  • Ballard, J.G. Empire of the Sun. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, First edition 1984. ISBN 0-575-03483-1.
  • Dolan, Edward F. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Hamlyn, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Gordon, Andrew and Frank Gormile. The Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham, MD : Scarecrow Press, 2002. pp. 109–123, 127–137. ISBN 0-8108-4182-7.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Faber & Faber, 1997. ISBN 0-571-19177-0.
  • Walker, Jeff. "Empire of the Sun." Air Classics Volume 24, Number 1, January 1988.

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