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Empire of the Sun (film)

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Empire of the Sun (film)

Empire of the Sun
Against the backdrop of orange sun is the smoke trail of a falling aircraft. In the foreground is the silhouette of a boy jumping for joy.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by
Screenplay by Tom Stoppard
Based on Empire of the Sun 
by J. G. Ballard
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Allen Daviau
Edited by Michael Kahn
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • December 11, 1987 (1987-12-11) (Premiere)
  • December 25, 1987 (1987-12-25) (United States)
Running time
154 minutes
Country United States
  • English
  • Japanese
  • Mandarin Chinese
Budget $35 million[1]
Box office $66.2 million

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, a young boy who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.

Harold Becker and David Lean were originally to direct before Spielberg came on board, initially as a producer for Lean.[2] 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 film received critical acclaim but was not initially a box office success, earning only $22,238,696 at the US box office, but it eventually more than recouped its budget through revenues in other markets.[3]


Japan had been at war with China since 1937 before declaring war on the United States and the United Kingdom. Amidst the war, Jamie Graham, a British upper middle class schoolboy fascinated with Japanese planes and pilots, is enjoying a privileged and spoiled life in the Shanghai International Settlement. At a costume party he attends with his parents, he wanders off and encounters a Japanese airplane that had been shot down. Nearby he finds a camp full of Japanese troops in a trench and is taken aback. Jamie's father finds him and forces him to leave, Jamie not realizing the impending danger. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Japanese begin to occupy the Shanghai International Settlement and in the ensuing chaos to escape the city and catch the next ferry out of Shanghai, Jamie is separated from his parents in the crowds of panicking people. Over the crowds of people Jamie's mother shouts at him to wait for them back at their house and promises that they will come back for him. He spends some time living in his deserted house, occupying his time by waiting and eating remnants of food but eventually he ventures out into the city and finds it bustling with Japanese troops.

Hungry, he desperately tries to surrender to the Japanese troops who shrug and laugh him off. After being chased by a street kid, and almost hit by a truck, he is taken in by Basie (an American expatriate and somewhat of a con-man) and his companion, Frank, who nicknames him "Jim". They intend to leave the boy in the streets when they are unable to sell his teeth for cash, but Jamie promises that he knows where there are houses filled with opulent things they can sell and leads them to his neighborhood and home. Jamie's house is lit and a wispy figure can be seen through the windows as one of Jamie's mother's favorite pieces of music is heard being played on a piano inside the house. Jamie runs to the house calling for his mother and the door flies open as Japanese soldiers, who had been occupying the house as a rest area, come pouring out the front door. Basie and Frank try to escape in their ramshackle truck but are captured by the Japanese troops and severely beaten. Jamie along with Basie are taken to Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center in Shanghai. At the center, life hangs in the balance and Basie teaches Jim how to survive by any means possible as Jim nurses Basie back to health. Later, a truck arrives to take selected internees to the Soochow Creek Internment Camp. Basie is among those selected to go but Jamie is not. Because he knows of the camp's location, Jamie convinces them to take him by providing directions to the driver with whom he is in constant disagreement about which way to go. On arrival at the camp Jim is drawn to the sounds of men working and finds himself wandering amongst men servicing a squadron of Zero fighters. As Jim reaches out to touch the gleaming metal of one of the planes, he is confronted by a trio of fighter pilots. Jim, out of respect, salutes the pilots, and they, in return, stand at attention and salute Jim.

It is now early 1945, a few months before the end of the land mines. As a reward, Basie allows Jim to move into the American barracks with him. Basie then plots to escape.

During a surprise inspection of the American barracks Nagata discovers a bar of soap, from Nagata's personal supplies, that Jim had stolen as a gift for Basie. Nagata severely beats Basie and while he is in the infirmary, his possessions are stolen by other men in the barracks. 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". As the Zeros begin to take off the base comes under attack by a group of American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft. Jim is overwhelmed and climbs the ruins of a nearby pagoda to better watch the airstrike. Dr. Rawlins chases Jim up the pagoda to get him out of harm's way, but Jim refuses to leave, too excited by the planes flying by. Jim finally breaks down in a pool of emotions and confesses to Dr. Rawlins that he cannot remember what his mother looks like. As a result of the attack the Japanese decide to evacuate the camp. During the confusion, Basie escapes, leaving Jim behind, although he had promised to take Jim with him. The camp's prisoners march through the wilderness where many die of fatigue, starvation, and disease. During the march, Jim witnesses flashes from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles away, and later hears news of Japan's surrender and the end of the war.

Jim sneaks away from the group at a football stadium near Nantao, filled with items confiscated by the Japanese, and goes back to Soochow Creek, nearly dead from starvation. He encounters the Japanese teenager he knew earlier, who has since become a pilot but whose plane would not start and now lives in shame that he could not fulfill his obligations to the Empire as a kamikaze. The youth remembers Jim and offers him a mango, and will cut it for him with his katana. As the teenager draws back his blade over Jim holding the mango, Basie reappears with a group of armed Americans, who have arrived to loot the Red Cross containers. One of the Americans, thinking Jim is in danger, shoots and kills the Japanese youth. Jim, furious, beats the American who 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 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 rugged and scarred from his experiences that his parents do not initially see him but his mother soon recognizes him as only a mother could. The film ends with Jim hugging his mother inside the orphanage.


  • Christian Bale as Jamie "Jim" Graham, who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war during World War II. J.G. Ballard felt Bale had a physical resemblance to himself at the same age.[4] 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. More than 4,000 child actors auditioned.[5]
  • John Malkovich as Basie: An American ship steward stranded in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. He forms a friendship with Jamie, giving him the nickname "Jim".
  • Joe Pantoliano as Frank Demarest: A companion of Basie, he was the one who almost hit Jamie with a truck. He joins Basie and Jamie at the prison camp.
  • Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Victor: A British woman who was Jim's "neighbor" at Suzhou. She dies in a stadium to which they moved right after the bombing of the prison camp. Jim sees a bright light in the sky to the East. He believes it is her soul floating to Heaven but finds out later it was the flash from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, hundreds of miles away.
  • Nigel Havers as Dr. Rawlins: Jim's father figure at Suzhou. Rawlins finds difficulty teaching Jim humility.

Cast notes

Smaller roles in the film by notable actors include Leslie Phillips, Burt Kwouk, Robert Stephens, Emily Richard, Paul McGann, and Ben Stiller, with Masatō Ibu and Guts Ishimatsu as Japanese soldiers. Ballard himself makes a cameo appearance at the costume party scene.[4] Stiller conceived the idea for Tropic Thunder while performing in Empire of the Sun.[6]



Warner Bros. purchased the film rights, intending Harold Becker to direct and Robert Shapiro to produce.[7] Tom Stoppard wrote the first draft of the screenplay, on which Ballard briefly collaborated.[8] 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."[7] Spielberg felt "from the moment I read J. G. Ballard's novel I secretly wanted to direct myself."[7] 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 fascination with World War II and the aircraft of that era was stimulated by his father's stories of his experience as a radio operator on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers in the China-Burma Theater.[7] Spielberg hired Menno Meyjes to do an uncredited rewrite before Stoppard was brought back to write the shooting script.[8]


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.[9] 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.[8] The Chinese authorities allowed the crew to alter signs to traditional Chinese characters, as well as closing down city blocks for filming.[9] 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.[4] Other locations included Trebujena in Andalusia, Knutsford in Cheshire and Sunningdale in Berkshire.[9] Lean often visited the set during the England shoot.[8]

Spielberg attempted to portray the era accurately, using period vehicles and aircraft. Four Harvard SNJ aircraft were lightly modified in France to resemble Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft.[10] Two additional non-flying replicas were used. Three restored P-51D Mustangs, two from 'The Fighter Collection' of England, and one from the 'Old Flying Machine Company', were flown in the film.[10] These P-51s were flown by Ray Hanna (who was featured in the film flying at low-level past the child star with the canopy back, waving), his son Mark and "Hoof" Proudfoot and took over 10 days of filming to complete due to the complexity of the planned aerial sequences, which included the P-51s actually dropping plaster-filled replica 500 lb bombs at low level, with simulated bomb blasts. A number of large scale remote control flying models were also used, including an 18-foot wingspan B-29, but Spielberg felt the results were disappointing, so he extended the film contract with the full-size examples and pilots on set in Trebujena, Spain.[11][12]

Special effects

Industrial Light & Magic designed the visual effects sequences with some computer-generated imagery also used for the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Norman Reynolds was hired as the production designer while Vic Armstrong served as the stunt coordinator.[12]


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,[3] and $44.46 million in other countries, accumulating a worldwide total of $66.7 million, earning more than its budget but still considered a box office disappointment by Spielberg.[N 1][8]

Critical response

Review aggregation website [17] 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."[18] J. Hoberman from The Village Voice decried that the serious subject was undermined by Spielberg's "shamelessly kiddiecentric" approach.[7] Roger Ebert gave a mixed reaction, "[D]espite 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."[19] On his TV show with Gene Siskel, Ebert said that the film “is basically a good idea for a film that never gets off the ground”. Siskel added, “I don’t know what the film is about. It’s so totally confused and taking things from different parts. On one hand, if it wants to say something about a child’s-eye view of war, you got a movie made by John Boorman called Hope and Glory that was just released that is much better, and much more daring in showing the whimsy that children’s view of war is. On the other hand, this film wants to hedge its bet and make it like an adventure film, so you’ve got like Indiana Jones with the John Malkovich character helping the little kid through all the fun of war. I don’t know what Spielberg wanted to do."[20]


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.[21] At the 60th Academy Awards, Empire of the Sun was nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Music Score, Costume Design (Bob Ringwood), and Sound (Robert Knudson, Don Digirolamo, John Boyd and Tony Dawe). It did not convert any of the nominations into awards.[22] 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."[8] The film won awards for cinematography, sound design, and music score at the 42nd British Academy Film Awards. The nominations included production design, costume design, and adapted screenplay.[23] Spielberg was honored by his work from the Directors Guild of America,[24] while the American Society of Cinematographers honored Allen Daviau.[25] Empire of the Sun was nominated for Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Original Score at the 45th Golden Globe Awards.[26] John Williams earned a Grammy Award nomination.[27]


Flying symbolizes Jim's possibility and danger of 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," 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."[7]

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."[28] 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, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist)[N 2] and World War II (1941, and Raiders of the Lost Ark).[29] 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]

In 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"[30] and in the screenplay that has now entered urban mythology as being attributed to the war years. Steven Bull quotes the catchwords in the Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation (2004) as originating in 1941.[31] John Williams' soundtrack includes the "Cadillac of the Skies" as an individual score cue. The phrase has now been appropriated by other aircraft including the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark in Australian service.[32]

See also



  1. ^ In 1989, Spielberg was quoted as saying: "...Empire of the Sun wasn't a very commercial project, it wasn't going to have a broad audience appeal... I've earned the right to fail commercially."[13]
  2. ^ Film historian and author Kowalski collectively links these films as Spielberg's "family" or conversely, as his "displaced father" films.[29]


  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. ^ McBride 1997, p. 391.
  3. ^ a b " Empire of the Sun". Box Office Mojo ( Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d Sheen, Martin (narrator), Steven Spielberg, J.G. Ballard, and Christian Bale. The China Odyssey: Empire of the Sun American Broadcasting Company, 1987.
  5. ^ Wills, Dominic. "Christian Bale Biography". Tiscali. Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  6. ^ Vary, Adam B. "Tropic Thunder"First Look: . Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 2008. Retrieved: May 27, 2008.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g McBride 1997, p. 392.
  8. ^ a b c d e f McBride 1997, pp. 394–398.
  9. ^ a b c Walker 1988, p. 49.
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Walker 1988, pp. 63–65.
  13. ^ Friedman and Notbohn 2000, p. 137.
  14. ^ "Empire of the Sun". Rotten Tomatoes (Flixster). Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  15. ^ "Empire of the Sun (1987): Reviews". Metacritic (CBS). Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  16. ^ Corliss, Richard. "Empire of the Sun"The Man-Child Who Fell to Earth: . Time, December 7, 1987. Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  17. ^ Maislin, Janet. "Empire of the Sun". The New York Times, December 9, 1987. Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  18. ^ Salmon, Julie. "Empire of the Sun". The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 1987. Retrieved: January 31, 2011.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Empire of the Sun". Chicago Sun-Times, December 11, 1987. Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  20. ^ "Empire of the Sun". Siskel & Ebert. Disney-ABC Domestic Television. December 12, 1987. Television.
  21. ^ "National Board of Review Special Citation: 1987 Awards". National Board of Review, 2003. Retrieved: January 31, 2011.
  22. ^ "Nominees & Winners for the 60th Academy Awards" Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved: January 31, 2011.
  23. ^ "42nd British Academy Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  24. ^ "DGA Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  25. ^ "ASC Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  26. ^ "The 45th Annual Golden Globe Awards (1988)". Golden Globes. Retrieved: January 31, 2011.
  27. ^ "Grammy Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  28. ^ McBride 1997, p. 393.
  29. ^ a b Kowalski 2008, pp. 35, 67.
  30. ^ Ballard 1984, p. 151.
  31. ^ Bull 2004, p. 184.
  32. ^ "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.
  • Bull, Steven. Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, 2004. ISBN 978-1-57356-557-8.
  • 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.
  • Friedman, Lester D. and Brent Notbohm. Steven Spielberg: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. ISBN 978-1-57806-113-6.
  • Gordon, Andrew and Frank Gormile. The Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham, Maryland: 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.
  • Kowalski, Dean A. Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Book. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8131-2527-5.
  • 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, January 1988.

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