Empire of the Sun (1987) is one of my favorite movies of all time. The Tom Stoppard-adapted, Steven Spielberg-directed World War II flick tells a little-known story about an era that has been done to death on film. Additionally, Christian Bale, as the twelve-year-old lead, Jamie “Jim” Graham earned his stripes as a serious actor, and predicted the success he would have in his later career.
Empire of the Sun tells the story of prisoner of war camps that were set up in China specifically to hold American and British citizens who had been living mostly in Shanghai before the war. Although Japan and China had been at war since 1937, Japan declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom later. Because of their perceived safety, many British and Americans remained in China in the early years of the war between the two nations.
The extremely-affluent Graham family got separated during the time when British and American nationals realize that they need to get out of China. Jamie is left to fend for himself, as he’s lost his parents in a wave of people. He tries to live at his parents’ house, but soon runs out of food, and takes to the street to find some.
He meets Basie, an American sailor, who takes care of Jamie—who he dubs Jim—throughout the rest of the film. Eventually, Basie and Jim are captured by Japanese soldiers, and are taken to internment camps in China.
There, Jim becomes something of a messenger boy for Basie. He also is taken in by the camp’s British doctor, Dr. Rawlins, and a British married couple, the Victors. The prisoners live in poverty, but relative stability for the duration of the war.
As 1945 rolls around, however, the Japanese realize that they are on the verge of losing the war. They become more and more hostile to their western prisoners, and eventually smash all of the windows to their cabins. Then, the Japanese force their once-affluent prisoners to march across much of China without food, water or rest. Many of the prisoners die on these marches, but Jamie manages to survive.
After the war, Jamie is reunited with his parents, but he has changed from a privileged, spoiled boy into a war-hardened adult.
The movie is a well-made and beautifully-shot introduction to a little-known chapter of World War II. It’s well worth several watches.