My Top 20 Favourite Films #19: Empire of the Sun

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey


Amongst the various historical films that Steven Spielberg has directed over his career this is one of his more forgotten pieces.

I was debating whether I should place Saving Private Ryan here, but in the end Empire of the Sun won out. Saving Private Ryan is undoubtably one of the greatest, most gut-wrenchingly emotional stories ever put on screen; but I prefer Empire of the Sun because it allows me to feel for the characters more. I am not saying Saving Private Ryan doesn’t do this but I think my number 19 spot does it better. In Empire of the Sun we focus on less characters which means we have more time spent with them making it easier to become emotionally invested in their story.

The film, based on J. G. Ballard’s semiautobiographical novel, is about a young British boy named Jim (played by Christian Bale) who lives with his wealthy family in Shanghai during World War II. He is a spoiled, naive, and selfish brat who gives the servants a hard time and expresses a nearly callous attitude to the political surroundings.
During a riot he and his family are separated and Jim eventually is forced to make a living in a Japanese internment camp.

Jim’s development throughout the film, especially in the internment camp is striking. We see his naivete and narcissism fade away when he witnesses the violence, destitution, and greed on the streets of Shanghai and in the camp. One of the most difficult scenes in the film to watch is where Jim, broken and altered by his experiences, comes to realise that one his friends who had taken him and helped him had used and lied to him the whole time.

How the film ends I won’t spoil, but it’s a satisfying and emotional finale that left me impressed and realising that I had seen a true gem of filmmaking.
I am not entirely sure why Empire of the Sun has not been embraced as a classic like many of his other historical films had, but it definitely deserves a better chance. It’s realistic, emotional, entertaining, and mesmerising with it’s cinematography, music, and acting. I recommend giving it a view.


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