And so we begin the Top Ten. Nothing but greatness from here on out, and nothing that should come as a real surprise to anyone who either knows their Spielberg or knows me. The order might come as a surprise, especially to those who followed my 30 Days of Movies posts on Facebook, since it turns out the film I listed there as my favorite movie of all time is not the number one film on this list. But not very far from it.
But enough preamble. I mentioned yesterday that a lot of people saw The Color Purple as Spielberg’s first “grown up” film. But I was late to that party: I didn’t see it until it was on HBO a few years later. Empire of the Sun was the first serious Spielberg for me, even if for a little while after the film was announced I held out hope that the title was referring to some kind of galactic empire. I saw it at a time when my appreciation of film was going from “Whoa, cool, spaceships!” to something a little deeper, a little more appreciative, no doubt inspired by my embarking on an English degree in college and having to do the same thing with literature. So in a way, Spielberg’s move to a more grown-up type of film-making coincided with my move to a more grown-up type of film watching. We’d both gone on to college, so to speak.
Spielberg has always been a master of visual storytelling, so adept at letting his images (often with a timely assist from the score) convey information and emotion without burdening us with dialog. Empire of the Sun cranks this up to an insane degree. Here in this story sent against war and destruction are, for my money, some of the most hauntingly lyrical sequences Spielberg has ever put on film. The one that always stays with me is when Jim first arrives at the prison camp. While all the adults can see is the dreariness of their new surroundings, Jim sees the planes, these big, beautiful swoop-winged angels that he’s only seen as toys or battered wrecks. They’re literally bathed in light from the acetylene torches being used to repair them, giving them an air of magic. He doesn’t care that they belong to the people who are responsible for his being uprooted from his comfortable existence; all he sees is his dream brought to life. And all while he’s approaching the planes in reverent awe, John Williams is softly building the score until we’re at the moment where Jim salutes the pilots, who at this point must seem like gods to him. Then they salute back and the score crescendos and I’m a shattered wreck sitting there in the theater. Some might claim that this is just typical manipulative Spielberg, leaning on the soundtrack and pretty pictures to trick us into feeling something. Well, show me a film that isn’t trying to make you feel something. That’s kind of the entire point. And it works here not just because the scene is visually and musically beautiful, but because by this point, we’ve become invested in Jim as a character. We know what this moment means to him. We’re not simply eavesdropping, we’re sharing it.
Which means it’s all the more heart-breaking as we watch Jim learn that his boyish notions have been turned upside-down just as much as the world around him. Empire of the Sun drew some criticism in its day for what some viewed as turning World War II into some kind of boys’ adventure rather than the human tragedy it was. But that’s the entire point of the film: Jim’s transition from a wonder-eyed boy to a haunted young man whom his parents don’t even recognize when they’re first reunited. We’ve seen him literally throw his childhood away when he tosses his suitcase full of knickknacks into the river, the same suitcase we later see drifting among the coffins we saw at the beginning of the film. All those times when Jim saw his imprisonment as one big Boy Scout trip are dead, along with his innocence. That’s the reality of war that eventually breaks through even the wildest of childhood fantasies. And that’s what Spielberg shows us as the film gets darker and bleaker. In the end, Jim desperately tries to retreat back into his childhood, madly laughing and riding a bicycle in circles, but it doesn’t work; he’s rescued by the U.S. Army, plucked away from this one last grasp at being the boy he used to be. He can’t go back. And even when he’s reunited with his parents, the seeming happiness of the ending is undercut by the realization that neither child nor parents are getting back exactly what they lost. Wars end, peace comes, but nothing is ever as it was before.
It’s fitting that an examination of the death of childhood would come in a film that marks the beginning of Spielberg’s efforts to become more than just a purveyor of childish fantasies. And it’s also sort of telling that after the relative commercial failure of Empire of the Sun (it’s the second lowest grossing film in his career), he went backwards, offering up an Indiana Jones sequel (Last Crusade), a remake of a favorite film from his childhood (Always), and a film that is nothing short of an attempt to regain his youth (Hook). Like Jim, he saw what the adult world had to offer and wanted nothing more than to go back to the simplicity and wonder of childhood, only to find it wasn’t possible. It wouldn’t be until six years after Empire of the Sun that Spielberg would learn how to move on — thanks to the healing power of dinosaurs.
Tomorrow: Back from the dead.