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(2 for Tues) Favorite Scenes & ’87 Flashback: Empire of the Sun

September 7, 2010

This past weekend I was at a dinner party, and at some point I said “There isn’t a Spielberg film that I do not love.”  I was countered with “You just threw down a gauntlet,” and I guess I did.  But I didn’t though, because it it’s the truth.

I  can’t think of a single Spielberg film that I don’t enjoy.  The conversation centered, for the most part, around how Spielberg doesn’t face the fears and difficulties that plague other filmmakers.  If Spielberg says he wants to make a film about a man who works in a box factory, he can get a $100,000,000.00 budget tomorrow.  The man would be played by Tom Hanks.  The love interest would be played by someone half his age, probably Kate Winslet, and the movie will be great.  The score will be by John Williams or Hans Zimmer, and the premiere will be in a theater built to look like a box factory.

If another filmmaker wanted to make a film about a man working in a box factory, he or she would need to overcome and outsmart unscrupulous producers, budget issues, casting difficulties, and so on.  So, is it fair that Spielberg has the never-ending resources and Hollywood support which he does?  And/ or is it okay that he consistently makes good commercial Hollywood films?  I think it is.  He consistently shows us that in the midst of the biggest budgeted Hollywood blockbuster the most important elements of a film are a good script and characters the audience can relate to.

I’ve had this Empire of the Sun (1987) blog saved as a draft for sometime, and now seemed as good a time as ever to share it.

“P-51 the Cadillac of the sky!!” is what Jim declares as we see the awe and wonder of  youth morph into a kind of shell-shocked madness. While most boys his age had toy planes to play with, Jim had the real thing.  Of course he was watching it bomb the work camp which was confined to, but he made do with that.

When I was in film school, my roommate worked at a very cool video store on Eighth St in Manhattan.  One day I wandered in and rented Empire of the Sun.  I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters.  It just suddenly appealed to me.  I went back to the apartment, popped it right in, and sat on my bed.  I was enthralled.    By the time I had reached the final couple of scenes, I was sobbing like a baby.  How the hell did this happen?  I’m not a particularly emotional person.  What in this film did THIS to me?  I had to know.  I rewound the tape (wow I miss VHS suddenly) and watched it again immediately.  Two hours later, there I was all teary eyed in a dark apartment.  It was really pissing me off.  This movie did this to me twice in five hours.  What the F#CK!?

CLICK – The door opened.  My roommate returned from work.

“Are you crying?”

“Shut up!”  I think I stood up and hit him.  We had that sort of friendship.  The kind that often degenerated into good old-fashioned violence.

Jim, played by Christian Bale, let his imagination runs wild throughout the first half of the film. He romanticized about being ‘in’ with the American’s in the work camp. He collected magazine clippings about warplanes the same way a kid in New York hordes baseball cards. The war was his playground. He had no concept of the danger he was in from day-to-day.  His precociousness made people want to protect him even as it infuriated them.

Empire of the Sun , had a profound effect on me both as a child and later as an adult. It is one of those films that will always evoke real emotion when I see it. If it is on TV I need to watch it. I need to sit down, shut my phone off, and watch it.  Why is that?  The characters.  This was the first time I had seen ‘real’ people in a war film.  Up until then, war movies were Patton, Red Dawn, Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, etc.  All of these films were stories of heroes fighting evil.  Telling the story from the point of view of someone being displaced by the war was new, fascinating, and terrifying for me.

The complete loss of innocence that Jim undergoes is a brutal sight beautifully presented to us by Steven Spielberg.

I have two favorite scenes in this film, and I can’t decide which is the best, so here they are:

1.  A Fatal Misunderstanding.  Jim just witnessed his Japanese friend getting shot dead by Baise, an America P.O.W.  He jumps through the air and attacks the soldier who thought he was rescuing Jim.

Jim: Bastard! He gave me a mango!
Basie: I’ll give you a whole goddamn fruit salad. There are Frigidaires falling from the sky. It’s kingdom come!
Jim: He was my friend!
Basie: He was a Jap!
Jim: The war’s over!

The humanity that Jim is able to display, even after being a Japanese prisoner is amazing.  He tells Baise,

“Learned a new word today. Atom bomb. It was like the God taking a photograph.”

and tries to administer CPR to his dead friend.  This is such a heart-wrenching roller coaster of a scene.

2. Lastly, the Cadillac of the Sky scene.

If you have not seen this film, please go rent it.  It is one of the best character driven war films I’ve ever seen.

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