Empire of the Sun (1987)

It’s amazing how much the Little Christian Bale looks, acts, and speaks like the Big Christian Bale.  His voice, his lips, his eyes:  all Christian Bale.  Now, you might be wondering why I say his lips here, but since he became Batman, one can’t help but focus on his lips when he’s in the Bat Suit. It’s a legitmate observation.  And, it makes me think about growing up in general: how we are really just smaller, pre-versions of ourselves when we are little. Interesting.

Anyway, on to the film. 

I like how Spielberg presented the idea of wealth as being something you certainly can’t take with you, as something that’s not an inherent part of your Self.  However, objects (no matter how small or dirty) are a major part of these characters’ lives.  Take Basie (John Malkovich) for instance: he asked Jim to take care of his stuff and when Basie had recovered from the beating he got from the Japanese camp commander, all of it was gone because Jim said he was too small to defend it for him.  And Basie’s character was someone who continually pursued possessions, relentlessly in fact. I think Spielberg is telling the viewer something here because the viewer can’t help but feel the “greasy” factor with Basie:  he’s a swindling, selfish rat that can’t be trusted, and yet everyone flocks to him.  We go from that to the arena scene when everyone’s flocking away from all of the discarded wealthy possessions.  Even Jim discards his little suitcase along the road to the arena:  I suppose this is because it is too heavy and he doesn’t really need any of it anyway.  It’s very much an “Everyman” moment (the medieval miracle play, that is).

Another instance in the film when expectations over possessions (and social hierarchy) get a nice peripetetic slap in the face is when Jamie returns home after being separated from his parents and his Chinese Nanny slaps him as she and another older house servant were carting away some piece of furniture.  This was an appropriate reaction considering earlier in the film he said to her “You have to do what I tell you.”  Little Jamie was a little rich prick, let’s admit it. Maybe not the worst ever, but nonetheless a little rich prick.  They were taking some of his possessions but, really it was all worthless anyway.  He had an entire house full of rich things, but when the food ran out he had to leave.  Expensive dressers and pianos won’t fill your belly.

But, Jamie/Jim possessed a quality that was truly remarkable:  resilience.  He managed to take every situation he was in and make the best of it.  He pushed on and on and on.  And in the end, it worked out for him, but not after much suffering, and sometimes worse, watching the suffering of others.

Jim also showed genuine compassion for everyone:  for his young Japanese Kamikaze-in-training friend, for the doctor and his patients, and for Mrs. Victor (among others).  Going from Jamie-the-prick, to Jim-the-resilient-and-compassionate-human-being is really an amazing feat for a 10-14 year old boy.

I think what made Jim such a remarkable character was how true he was to himself.  He was resilient, compassionate, AND he respected the universal idea of, I suppose I can call it, heroism.  By this, I mean he respected the Japanese pilots for what they were:  heroes.  Even though he was not on their “political” side (I think, because children do not truly grasp such complicated concepts as politics and war), it was obvious throughout the film that Jim was someone who loved planes and loved anyone who flew one.

Jamie had an innocence about him based on being raised in a particular socio-economic class, in that he didn’t know any better because he was taught to act in a particular way. But Jim had another, more developed innocence (if that can be considered not an oxymoron) about him that kept him true to a purer sense of humanity because he was struggling along with everyone else, but he still had the seeds of himSelf (the Self that is inherently good and compassionate) and his interests (aviation & planes) without the expected, and highly developed biases of adulthood.

Spielberg did a good job presenting this little boy’s story.

I would like to add something to this post (1/10/09):

Duly noted is Jim/Jamie’s love of planes and flying. Jim/Jamie is played by a young Christian Bale. 

Also duly noted is how Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s film, Rescue Dawn.  Dieter Dengler loved planes and flying also.  AND, planes got Dieter in a lot of trouble, like Jim/Jamie (remember, it was Jamie going back for his little plane that cuased him to get separated from his mother!) Werner Herzog also made a documentary about Dieter Denger called Little Dieter Needs to Fly (which I haven’t seen).

So, as SL and I were discussing: I wonder whether Herzog cast Bale as Dengler to capitalize on his earlier role.  Maybe, maybe not.

Either way, I think it’s awesome how things are connected in interesting ways like this.

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