Like God Taking a Photograph – The Indelible Images of Empire of the Sun
On April 15 2020, the sad news broke that cinematographer Allen Daviau had died. Daviau shot ET, Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Color Purple, Harry and the Hendersons, Bugsy, Fearless, Congo, The Astronaut’s Wife, Van Helsing and my favourite film of all time – Empire of the Sun.
Empire of the Sun (1987) is one of Steven Spielberg’s most under-seen films. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by JG Ballard, the film follows Jamie/Jim Graham (Christian Bale), a boy born in Shanghai, China in the ex-pat British community that is stationed there. Jamie is the quintessential English public schoolboy, complete with a cut-glass accent despite having never been to the UK. The Graham family have their sheltered and privileged lives in the British enclave shattered when the attack on Pearl Harbor happens and the Japanese invade Shanghai. Jamie is separated from his parents and for a while he tries to stick it out in the family’s palatial home. Eventually, he is forced out onto the streets and is picked up by two American opportunists – Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano). The three of them are eventually rounded up and placed in an internment camp, where the boy Jamie is gradually transformed into the worldly teenager Jim, under the conflicting mentorship of Basie and the English Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers).
Empire of the Sun is full of unforgettable images that stick with the viewer long after watching the film. The very first shot of the film is of coffins floating in the Huangpu river, clearly foreshadowing how much death is about to seep into Jamie’s life. Towards the end of the film, Jim throws his suitcase full of childish things (pictures from magazines, his toy plane) into the river, signifying the death of his childhood.
At the start, we see Jamie cycling on the lawn around his father practicing his golf-swing, holding a model plane which he’s set on fire. War is still a game to the naive Jamie at this point, full of excitement and glamour. Jamie idolises pilots, particularly hero-worshipping the “brave pilots” of the Japanese air force and planes are a recurring motif throughout the film.
The first sign that Jamie’s perfect world has been corrupted is when he returns home after being separated from his parents in the crowded, panicked confusion of the streets after the Japanese invade. He is still in his prim-and-proper public school uniform and fully expects to be reunited with his parents in their idyllic house. He finds the house empty and runs up to his mother’s bedroom, calling for her. There he finds a scene of turmoil – clothes, make up and accessories flung all over the room. He sees a footprint in his mother’s white face powder, which is now covering the floor. Daviau’s camera captures Jamie’s face moving from hopeful (as if it might lead him to his mother) to bewilderment and fear as he registers other footprints with shoes on and then handprints, clawing and dragging their way through the powder. He throws the window open so the wind can erase the traces of the horrific scene before him.
Jamie sticks it out on his own in the house for as long as he can, enjoying his freedom but becoming increasingly desperate as food supplies dwindle. At one point he finds a box of liquor chocolates – treasures in the colours of jewels – and scoffs them down; luxury juxtaposed with necessity. He bicycles around the rooms indoors and walks in his empty swimming pool. Life has been upended and it seems as though nothing will be normal again. The cycling around indoors is replicated at the end of the film, when Jim does the same in the abandoned camp. Jim hasn’t completely lost his sense of childlike wonder. Back at home (at the start of the film) in the dregs of the empty pool, Jamie finds innocuous household objects that remind him of a simpler time – golfballs, a wine glass, sunglasses and a silver coin. Daviau lingers on each one as Jamie inspects them – like his mother’s face powder, everyday items have taken on a new significance. It is the combination of Daviau’s camerawork and Bale’s performance which imbues each one with meaning.
In both the scene in Jamie’s mother’s bedroom and the scene in the empty swimming pool, Bale is shot from below instead of from an adult’s perspective. Spielberg and Daviau centre Jamie and his experiences, reactions and emotions at all times. This is a child’s point-of-view of war and this point-of-view changes drastically during the film, from innocence to experience, naivete to weariness.
Once Jamie arrives at the internment camp, there is a time-jump from 1942 to 1945. The boy Jamie, around 11 years old, becomes the teenager Jim; about 14 years old. Although in many ways, he is more grown-up and hangs out with the Americans in a desperate effort to be cool, he is still the same plane-mad boy who can’t help being in awe of the Japanese. The kamikaze pilots are watched by Jim at dawn, as they complete their ceremonies and prepare for their fateful mission. The rising sun is in the centre of the frame, an obvious reference to the Japanese flag and the name of the film, but also infuses the whole scene with a romantic orange glow. This conveys how much Jim glamourises the pilots, as he salutes them and serenades them with a Welsh lullaby he sang as a choir boy.
This scene also echoes the one from when Jamie first arrives at Soochow and immediately gravitates towards the airfield which borders the camp. On that occasion, the orange glow is provided by sparks caused by someone working on the plane and again, Jamie salutes the pilots, who are silhouetted figures – nameless and faceless in their significance to the boy as symbols of bravery and sacrifice.
The scene of Jim serenading the Japanese pilots segues into the arrival of the American bombers, which he greats with overwhelmed excitement. Jim goes to the roof of the tallest building at the camp and a B51 – “the Cadillac of the skies” – flies past, so low and close that Jim is looking down at the pilot as he waves to him. Once again, Daviau frames the boy as King of all he surveys and the world revolves around him, in the way it does when you are a child. Dr Rawlins comes to tell Jim to get down and he kneels down, so he is at Jim’s height as he pleads with him and embraces him. This is something that Jim’s other mentor, Basie, would never do – he has been grooming Jim to toughen up and view the world as an adult, while Rawlins strives to protect his innocence.
The Japanese know the end is nigh and start to panic, taking their prisoners to an empty stadium full of the furniture and other “rich pickings” they have commandeered from the Westerners’ houses. This is an inversion of the empty swimming pool scene from the start where a setting is unexpectedly full this time of incongruous items – the tiny, starving, sickly figure of Jim is shown overwhelmed by the amounts of ludicrously luxurious items, which are of no use to him now. There is a shot of a marble effigy which is cross-faded with a shot of the dead Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson), who had reluctantly taken on a maternal role to Jim at the camp. At this moment, there is a flash in the sky, which in actuality is the atom bomb dropping on Nagasaki, but which Jim believes is the soul of Mrs. Victor going to heaven. Once again, we are being shown a child’s point-of-view of war and how Jim can only focus on himself and what is close to him, he cannot see the bigger picture.
A little while later, Jim recounts this experience to Basie and says it was “like God taking a photograph.” Daviau uses light reflected off the river to create a lens flare between Jim’s hands – again, focusing on minutiae and something close to Jim in order for him to make sense of the enormous and world-changing events happening around him.
Empire of the Sun is full of imagery which lingers in the viewer’s imagination. When I first saw the film, I was around the same age as Jamie and the thought of having to fend for myself, particularly in an abandoned house, was full of both fear and excitement.
Spielberg and Daviau expertly capture these conflicting emotions in their protagonist by centering him at all times and giving us a view of war which mirrors Jamie’s coming-of-age. Having Jim go through puberty in a camp, surrounded by strange adults who he has to trust and rely on for different things, gives us a unique perspective on war.
Seeing the gradual disintegration of the way-of-life of these privileged colonials, while Jim idolises the ‘enemy,’ also means that it is a war film where the ‘right and wrong side’ is refreshingly complicated and nuanced. Even if Allen Daviau had only worked on this one film, his legacy as one of the great cinematographers should be sealed, for Empire of the Sun is a masterpiece.