Empire of the Sun (film)

Empire of the Sun is a 1987 American epic coming-of-age war film based on J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and 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.

Empire of the Sun
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced by
Screenplay byTom Stoppard
Based onEmpire of the Sun
by J. G. Ballard
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyAllen Daviau
Edited byMichael Kahn
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 11, 1987 (1987-12-11) (Limited)
  • December 25, 1987 (1987-12-25) (United States)
Running time
154 minutes
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • Japanese
  • Cantonese Chinese
Budget$25 million[1]
Box office$66.7 million[2]

Harold Becker and David Lean were originally to direct before Spielberg came on board, initially as a producer for Lean.[3] 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 positive reviews 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.[4]


Amidst Japan's invasion of China during World War II, Jamie Graham, a British upper middle class schoolboy, is enjoying a privileged and spoiled life in the Shanghai International Settlement. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese begin to occupy the settlement, and in the ensuing chaos, Jamie is separated from his parents. Jamie's mother shouts at him over the panicked mob to wait at their house and promises that they will come back for him. He spends some time living in his deserted home, but after eating all the food he ventures out into the city.

Hungry, Jamie tries to surrender to some Japanese soldiers, who poke fun at him for trying to do so. After being chased by a street urchin, he is taken in by Basie—an American expatriate and hustler—and his partner Frank, who nicknames him "Jim". They intend to leave the boy in the streets when they are unable to sell him for money, but Jamie promises to lead them back to his neighborhood where there are valuables to loot. There, Jamie finds his house lit and sees a figure in the window whom he thinks is his mother. He runs to the door only to discover the house is occupied by Japanese troops, who take the trio prisoner. They are then taken to Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center in Shanghai for processing. A truck later arrives to take selected internees to the Suzhou Internment Camp; Basie is among those selected to go but Jamie is not. The soldiers tasked with moving the prisoners to the camp do not know its location as their map is damaged. Because he knows of the camp's location, a desperate Jamie manages to convince the soldiers to take him.

It is now 1945, nearing the end of the Pacific War. Despite the terror and poor living conditions of the camp, Jim survives by establishing a successful trading network—which even involves the camp's commander, Sergeant Nagata. Dr. Rawlins, the camp's British doctor, becomes a father figure and teacher to Jim. One night after a bombing raid, Nagata orders the destruction of the prisoners' infirmary as reprisal. He only stops when Jim (now fluent in Japanese) begs forgiveness. Through the barbed wire fencing, Jim befriends a Japanese teenager who is a trainee pilot. Jim also visits Basie in the American POW barracks, where Jim idolizes the Americans and their culture.

One morning at dawn, Jim witnesses a kamikaze ritual. Overcome with emotion, he salutes and sings the Welsh song "Suo Gân". The base is suddenly attacked by a group of American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft. Jim is overjoyed and climbs the ruins of a nearby pagoda to better watch the airstrike. Dr. Rawlins chases Jim up the pagoda to save him, where the boy breaks down in tears—he cannot remember what his parents look like. As a result of the attack the Japanese decide to evacuate the camp. Basie escapes during the confusion, though he had promised to take Jim with him. The camp's prisoners march through the wilderness where many die of fatigue, starvation, and disease.

Arriving at a football stadium near Nantao, where many of the Shanghai inhabitants' possessions have been stored by the Japanese, Jim recognizes his parents' Packard. Jim spends the night there and witnesses flashes from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles away.

Jim wanders back to Suzhou. Along the way he hears news of Japan's surrender and the end of the war. He encounters the Japanese teenager he befriended earlier, who has since become a pilot but is now disillusioned. The youth remembers Jim and offers him a mango, and will cut it for him with his guntō. Basie reappears with a group of armed Americans who have arrived to loot the Red Cross containers being airdropped over the area. One of the Americans, thinking Jim is in danger, shoots and kills the Japanese youth. Basie offers to help Jim find his parents, but Jim—infuriated over his friend's death—chooses to stay behind.

Jim is eventually found by American soldiers and placed in an orphanage, where he is reunited with his mother and father.


Author J.G. Ballard makes a cameo appearance as a house party guest.



Warner Bros. purchased the film rights, intending Harold Becker to direct and Robert Shapiro to produce.[5] Tom Stoppard wrote the first draft of the screenplay, on which Ballard briefly collaborated.[2] 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."[5] Spielberg felt "from the moment I read J. G. Ballard's novel I secretly wanted to direct myself."[5] 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.[5] Spielberg hired Menno Meyjes to do an uncredited rewrite before Stoppard was brought back to write the shooting script.[2]


J.G. Ballard felt Bale had a physical resemblance to himself at the same age.[6] 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.[7] Jim's singing voice was provided by English performer James Rainbird.[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.[2] 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.[6] Other locations included Trebujena in Andalusia, Knutsford in Cheshire and Sunningdale in Berkshire.[9] Lean often visited the set during the England shoot.[2]

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] J.G. Ballard makes a cameo appearance at the costume party scene.[6]

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 Christmas Day, 1987. The film earned $22.24 million in North America,[4] 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][2]

Critical response

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 75% based on reviews from 51 critics, with an average rating of 6.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "One of Steven Spielberg's most ambitious efforts of the 1980s, Empire of the Sun remains an underrated gem in the director's distinguished filmography."[14] By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 62 out of 100 based on 22 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[15] J. G. Ballard gave positive feedback, and was especially impressed with Christian Bale's performance.[6] Critical reaction was not universally affirmative,[5] but Richard Corliss of Time stated that Spielberg "has energized each frame with allusive legerdemain and an intelligent density of images and emotions."[16] Janet Maslin from The New York Times called the film "a visual splendor, a heroic adventurousness and an immense scope that make it unforgettable."[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.[5] 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."[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]


The film won awards from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures for Best Film and Best Director, and Bale received a special citation for Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor, the first National Board award bestowed on a child actor.[21][22] 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.[23] 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."[2] 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.[24] Spielberg was honored for this work by the Directors Guild of America,[25] while the American Society of Cinematographers honored Allen Daviau.[26] Empire of the Sun was nominated for Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Original Score at the 45th Golden Globe Awards.[27] John Williams earned a Grammy Award nomination.[28]


Jim's 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 American."[5]

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."[29] 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).[30] 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]

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".[31] Steven Bull quotes the catchwords in the Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation (2004) as originating in 1941.[32] John Williams' soundtrack includes "Cadillac of the Skies" as an individual score cue.

Ben Stiller conceived the idea for Tropic Thunder while performing in Empire of the Sun.[33]

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.[30]


  1. Forsberg, Myra. "Spielberg at 40: The Man and the Child". The New York Times, October 1, 2008. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  2. McBride 1997, pp. 394–398.
  3. McBride 1997, p. 391.
  4. " Empire of the Sun". Box Office Mojo (Amazon.com). Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  5. McBride 1997, p. 392.
  6. Sheen, Martin (narrator), Steven Spielberg, J.G. Ballard, and Christian Bale. The China Odyssey: Empire of the Sun American Broadcasting Company, 1987.
  7. Wills, Dominic. "Christian Bale Biography" Archived 2008-09-13 at the Wayback Machine. Tiscali. Retrieved: September 16, 2008.
  8. Bullock, Paul. "Spielberg Questions #4: Did Christian Bale sing in Empire of the Sun?". From Director Steven Spielberg. Retrieved: March 5th 2016.
  9. Walker 1988, p. 49.
  10. Air Classics: 10. January 1988. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. Air Classics: 63. January 1988. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. Walker 1988, pp. 63–65.
  13. Friedman and Notbohn 2000, p. 137.
  14. "Empire of the Sun (1987)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  15. "Empire of the Sun Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  16. Corliss, Richard (December 7, 1987). "Cinema: The Man-Child Who Fell to Earth EMPIRE OF THE SUN". Time. Archived from the original on June 8, 2008. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  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. "'Empire of Sun' said best film by National Board". The San Bernardino County Sun. San Bernardino, CA. AP. February 17, 1988. Retrieved October 20, 2016 via Newspapers.com.
  22. "National Board of Review 1987 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved: October 21, 2016.
  23. "Nominees & Winners for the 60th Academy Awards" Archived 2010-04-08 at the Wayback Machine Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved: January 31, 2011.
  24. "42nd British Academy Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  25. "DGA Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  26. "ASC Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  27. "The 45th Annual Golden Globe Awards (1988)" Archived November 24, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Golden Globes. Retrieved: January 31, 2011.
  28. "Grammy Awards: 1988". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved: September 17, 2008.
  29. McBride 1997, p. 393.
  30. Kowalski 2008, pp. 35, 67.
  31. Ballard 1984, p. 151.
  32. Bull 2004, p. 184.
  33. Vary, Adam B. "First Look: Tropic Thunder". Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 2008. Retrieved: May 27, 2008.


  • Ballard, J.G. (2002). Empire of the Sun, first edition. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. ISBN 0-575-03483-1.
  • Bull, Steven (2004). Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood. ISBN 978-1-57356-557-8.
  • Dolan, Edward F. (1985). Hollywood Goes to War. London: Hamlyn. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun (2000). Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Friedman, Lester D; Notbohm, Brent. Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-113-6.
  • Gordon, Andrew; Gormile, Frank (2002). The Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. pp. 109–123, 127–137. ISBN 0-8108-4182-7.
  • Hardwick, Jack; Schnepf, Ed (1989). "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films (General Aviation Series, vol. 2).
  • Kowalski, Dean A. (2008). Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Book. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2527-5.
  • McBride, Joseph (1987). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-19177-0.
  • Walker, Jeff (January 1988). "Empire of the Sun". Air Classics, vol. 24.

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