Filmed in Shanghai, Spain, and England, Empire of the Sun is based on English author J. G. Ballard's critically acclaimed novel drawn from his own childhood experiences as a prisoner in a Japanese camp during World War II. Steven Spielberg has made a gripping film that vividly conveys the brutality, betrayal, and senseless violence of all wars.
In 1941, China has been at war with Japan for four years. Jim (Christian Bale) lives with his parents (Rupert Frazer and Emily Richard) in the International Settlement of Shanghai. A typical eleven-year-old, he sees the world as made for his own enjoyment. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Army invades Shanghai. Jim is separated from his parents during the ensuing confusion.
He returns to his house and learns that everything has changed. For a while, he enjoys life without adult supervision. But food is hard to find, and he doesn't know whom to trust. Jim eventually links up with Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), American merchant seamen turned scavengers.
All their survival skills are needed when Jim and the two Americans are captured by the Japanese and taken to a Shanghai detention center with other Westerners many of whom are dying of starvation. Basie tutors Jim in the tricks of staying alive. By the time they move to Soochow Creek prison camp. Jim has learned to look out for himself.
In his book about children caught in war zones, journalist Roger Rosenblatt observed: "War has a way of elevating our irrationalities to magnificent heights. It occurred to me that children recognized this madness, feared it, and felt superior to it all at once." This point certainly comes across in the screenplay of Empire of the Sun written by Tom Stoppard and Menno Meyjes. Jim capitalizes on the support he receives from adults in the prison camp over a three-year period. He runs errands for Basie, continues his education with lessons from a doctor (Nigel Havers), and tries to keep up the waning spirits of Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson), an English friend of his parents. At the same time, Jim feels superior to these adults after all, he is the only one who really understands the courage of the Japanese kamikaze pilots.
Empire of the Sun was the second major film of 1987 to deal with war as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Whereas John Boorman's Hope and Glory paid tribute to the personal attributes needed to maintain a quality of life in London during the Blitz, this story reveals the ways in which war dehumanizes individuals. In the terrifying conclusion of the film, Jim's character is tested during a death march and at a stadium when he witnesses the flash of light from the Nagasaki atomic bomb.
While in prison camp, Jim follows Basie's advice and constantly learns new words as a pleasant pastime. But there are no words to adequately describe what he sees at the stadium the dawn of the nuclear age. Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote: "The human race's prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves." Jim's brief vision, he senses and we know, changed war and the world irrevocably.