The Empire of the Sun phenomenon can be highlighted for some as the actor Christian Bale’s finest hour. Certainly, his career has been scattered with incredible performances, yet it is arguably his portrayal of the 11 year old Jim, in the film Empire of the Sun, that sets him apart form any other actor, specifically child-actors. The film itself has a remarkable ability to draw the viewer into it as if one could be standing with the sordid reality all around you, but it is the numerous lessons to be learned within its context that makes it memorable.
As with any film, there will be those who love it and those that loathe it, but it is not whether r not the film is accurate or not, that makes it great, it is the lessons and meanings within it that matter. Perhaps what Spielberg relates to the viewer most of all is how we take our freedom for granted, along with man other aspects of our lives. Indeed, no one’s life can be described as totally secure. World War I and II proved that, and more recently September 11th highlighted the fact that your world can change tomorrow.
The historical context of the film relates the era when Italy, Germany and Japan had begun a totalitarian campaign to overthrow the Allied forces. At this stage, the British were joined by British Isles except for Ireland who wanted very little to do with Britain or Germany. British citizens residing in colonies across the world were being evacuated with the onslaught on Britain threatening all citizens residing in anti-British countries (Gale, 2006)). However, at this stage, America was also fighting Japan, with the culmination of the Pearl Harbour tragedy.
America was, in fact fighting World War II and their own personal vendetta against Japan. But Japan had never intended a full scale war with Britain, believing their part was only small (Matloff: C 23). This complicated matters somewhat, resulting in the pairing up of the American Marine, Basie and the English boy, Jim. Jim had lived in a stately home in Shanghai, which had its own International Colony consisting of the Art Deco inspired homes and facades that clashed greatly with the fine and reserved building of the old Chinese tradition (Rowe, 2008).
Empire of the Sun was made in 1987 by director Steven Spielberg, as an adaptation of the novel by J. G Ballard, part of the script was written by the legendary playwright Tom Stoppard. The film stars two of the most prolific and inspiring actors of our time, Christian Bale as Jim and John Malkovich as Basie. “Ballard’s tale is at its root a wartime coming-of-age story: It’s about the forces that assault childhood. The central character is a precocious 11-year-old English boy named Jim (Christian Bale) who lives with his parents in the suburban British quarter of Shanghai’s International Settlement.
At the film’s beginning, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, Jim is too absorbed in his boy’s adventure fantasies to pay much mind to the gathering war clouds. ”(Hinson, 1987). Indeed, as Hal Hinson denotes, Jim is precocious, but it is this, it can be argued, that saved him in the end. In fact, Jim exhibits a strange combination of immaturity and extraordinary adult decisions. Initially, Jim is not terribly concerned about the impending war, preferring to play games along the neighbouring streets.
When the invasion occurs, it is as if Jim’s entire world is turned inside out, separated by the stampeding masses from his parents, Jim is taken in by Basie, a marine whose primary interest in life is to take opportunities when they arise. Here is the first contrast in character: Jim is not studied in the art of survival, he has never had to be, while Basie has learnt the art so well it is his personality. Jim perhaps takes much of his life for granted at this stage, but Basie doesn’t.
The complete and sheer desperation of the situation has forced him to develop his mercenary skills that give him the ability to live each day to the fullest…even if it means he has to cheat his way through it. It is defined as a case of ‘survival’ of the fittest, and in this manner, being mentally fit is the only substitute for lack of brute force. At this stage, Jim cannot rely on any physical attributes, so he has to develop the same skills. He has to exercise parts of his brain he has never used before.
Given that as a child however, the brain rarely functions beyond the acquisition of material things and the food on your plate each day, it suffices to say that Jim was a privileged child. So firstly, he has all he needs and does not have to worry about being fed, clothed and schooled. This all changes quite dramatically though and we see a shift of focus in Jim. Learning from Basie and Basie’s friend, Jim realises that he cannot take these things for granted anymore. He learns to negotiate and he trade, a skill he would not have previously needed.
Jim also learns not to take parents and guardians for granted either, knowing that at any stage, the people close to him can be obliterated. Although Jim despises much of the behaviour of Basie, it is Basie in the end that ‘fathers’ him and he cannot ignore this. Basie acts a catalyst in Jim’s life, where the Merchant Marine giving Jim the opportunity to grow in a time when it is each man for himself, BUT survival depends on working together. This is a strange and awful aspect of war. Basie also uses Jim to an extent to further his own entrepreneurial endeavours.
Jim is used as a reconnaissance due to his size, climbing and sliding under fences into mine-fields. Whether or not Jim wants to do this is not the question, the problem is that he has to. He learns that in order to survive within the camp, he has to do things in return for his relative freedom. Basie, although not Jim’s idea of a father-figure, gives Jim presents for his birthday and Jim learns not to take this small kindness for granted. He learns to use this ‘friendship’ in a symbiotic manner. Jim learns also not to take other human life for granted.
With death surrounding him, he realises the fragility of life and of allies in this situation. He learns from the camp physician everything he can and much later believes he save the life of an incinerated pilot, by administering CPR. Sadly, he learns that at this stage, childish dreams of this kind are beyond his control. He learns that life is not in his hands. To a point it could be argued that Jim learns not to take life for granted at all and that he himself is living on borrowed time. To take a closer look at this, we can examine Basie’s character with reference to the lives of Merchant Marines at the time.
Stranded in a foreign country and eventually captured by the Japanese, Basie represents a class of men who are street-wise. Comparatively, looking at Marines of the time and Japan’s allegiance to Germany, one Marine describes being captured I the following terms: “The German doctor had given me a letter to hand over to the Japanese about my medical condition. Well, I handed it over all right, and the next thing you know I was hit by the broadside of a sword. I certainly knew that things were going to be different then. “(Willner, 1942).
So life was not pleasant unless you could by means of persuasion and shrewd method, win the favour of the enemy. As with Basie, the fate of the above mentioned Marine was not for him. Willner further describes the punishment existing in within the camps and how the Japanese appeared to be ruthless: “”I remember a really good friend, Dennis Roland, who was very sick, and I managed to steal a duck from down by the river to keep him alive. We bribed a British soldier, a one-legged Englishman who did some work for the Japanese, to keep the duck, and in exchange we would give him one egg per week.
Willner’s friend survived, but the Englishman was boiled alive by the Japanese after overheating their bathwater. ” (Willner, 1942). The process of staying alive not only required a great deal of intellectual savvy, but also an amount of luck, which both Basie and Jim are aware can turn at any moment. Freedom is also often taken for granted in modern times. Women have been emancipated and so have slaves, but true freedom includes having access to healthcare, education, food and shelter. The downside of war is that while these aspects are available to you in limited quantities, they are also used as a form of punishment.
Should you not comply with the level of obedience required, food is removed from the equation. Basie and Jim both learn to take where they can get. Previously taking for granted that food and medicine is always provided either by parents or employers, the awful reality is here that at times it is necessary to find things for yourself. Freedom is completely removed from the prisoner and where Jim had been able to walk the streets of his Shanghai home and freely play in the gardens, now the ability to play and run free is but a distant memory and perhaps a hope.
We also take our childhood for granted, although not consciously. Jim has had his childhood forcibly removed. There is no possible way he can return to the carefree youngster he had once been, the war has changed that. When his mother and father come to look for him after he has been released, the sense of change is overwhelming to the viewer. He looks at his parents without recognising them, they look at him without recognising HIM. There is an incredible sense of loss of innocence.
He has changed from being a precocious and pedantic child to being an adult (in the guise of a child) who has resorted to sneakiness and shrewdness to survive. He learnt to thrive on underhanded deals and ducking ‘justice’. A child cannot know that they are taking their childhood for granted or their freedom, but perhaps it teaches us that we need to instil that value in our children and teach them to be grateful for what they have. How do we see the changes in Jim throughout this movie and why does it persuade the viewer to take life a little less for granted?
To begin with, as 11 September 2001 has shown us, we never know what tomorrow will bring. Also, like Jim in the beginning when he is separated from his parents and returns to his house to find it empty, we realise that that there are some things, which when gone, can never come back again. Jim has everything he wants and needs as a child and then he suddenly has to fight for what he presumed would be his in the first place: Basie: Jim, didn’t I teach you anything? Jim: Yes! You taught me that people will do anything for a potato.
This is the crux of the story in fact, it is where we see a complete turn around in Jim who now realises he can both use these needs for personal gain and also knows he has to be grateful for the gains he is granted. It is also a time when Jim has fallen out of being British, because in a camp, where everyone is in the same proverbial boat, no one is American, British, French – they are all just people whose common goal is to escape. Friendships are made and bonds are formed and sadly, a life Jim has lived can never be understood by his parents and this foreign- ness is seen in the closing scene where Jim meets his parents.
We take a lot for granted, we always have, but it is only hardship that teaches us to appreciate what we have (or had). Jim lost his childhood, he lost his home, his innocence, his family, but he gained an experience that is certain to have shaped his future in an irrevocable way. Any loss can be counted as a gain in terms of experience and learning (provided of course, that some lesson HAS been learned). We need to teach our children to appreciate the small things in life, because it is the small things that matter when the crunch comes.
These small things such as a warm bed, a bath, dinner, the teddy-bear they cuddle at night are every day things that we relate to and once taken away, our lives do not resemble what we are used to anymore. No one is immune from loss and no one ever will be. The Tsunami took everything from holiday-makers in Indonesia, with no warning and there is no telling that something similar cannot happen to anyone else. Jim and Basie teach us that resilience and persistence and an appreciation for all we have, no matter how little we have, in the end makes us successful, full human beings.