Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Empire of the Sun


If you have a strong stomach, you should try reading about the six-week series of atrocities known as the Rape of Nanking. The invading Japanese Army indulged in an orgy of executions and rapes of Chinese civilians. (There are some fucking Japs [and I use the term deliberately to insult these assholes; if it offends you, go fuck yourself] who to this day deny it happened at all!) Accurate death figures are impossible to know because the fucking Jap Imperial Army destroyed all the documents. But estimates range from 100,000 to 300,000. Civilians, mind you.

This all happened in 1937, four years before the events in this movie begin. It is now December, 1941, the Jap Army is just outside Shanghai, biding their time. I mention the Rape of Nanking to show you just how terrified the population of the city must have been.

The British were pigs everywhere they went in their Imperial ambitions. (So were all the other imperial powers, but that doesn’t mean I give my British cousins a pass.) They refused to adapt to local conditions, and built replica Britains wherever they went, like in China and India. The sun was never going to set, doncha know? They created enclaves where the only native faces you would see were those of the battalions of servants. (They still do it in places like Indonesia. Americans, too.)

Jim lives a cosseted life, playing with his model airplanes in the Shanghai International Settlement in a mansion with servants all over the place. They trim the lawns on their knees, with garden shears! We see Jim raiding the fridge at night. His amah tells him his mother doesn’t want him doing that. Jim replies, “You have to do what I tell you.” Snotnose little brat. Many Europeans have left already. Finally things start to fall apart and his parents realize they may have waited too long. They escape onto a boat, but Jim is separated from them. He makes his way home, hoping to find his parents. What he finds instead is the servants indulging in a little looting. Hurray! He tells them to stop. The amah walks up to him and slaps him in the face. I loved that scene! The shocked expression, as it begins to sink in that he can’t order the slant-eyes around anymore. Priceless!

Starvation eventually drives him from the family mansion and into the streets, where he is lucky he isn’t forced to sell his ass. He hooks up with John Malkovich, an opportunist who is always looking out only for #1, unless you can do something for him. They both end up at the Suzhou Civilian Internment Camp for the rest of the war. The rest of the story shows the privations he and everyone else has to endure for three years.

I was happy to see the little prick slapped, but that was the last time I didn’t like him. Jim becomes a wheeler-dealer, and shows that there is considerable grit under that finishing-school exterior.

Seeing all this, it is sobering to realize that Suzhou was actually not all that bad, as those things went. Civilians in the Philippines had it a lot worse, and British and American POWs everywhere even worse than that. In one scene Chinese civilians break into the camp to steal the cabbages growing there. Imagine that, breaking into a prison. Try to picture how bad things must have been beyond the wire. These inmates didn’t have much food, and most of it was full of (nutritious!) weevils, but at least they had something.

This is a wonderful film, filled with memorable scenes. Most of them have to do with Jim, who is played with stunning skill by Christian Bale in his first role. In the very last scene he is hugging his mother, and we see his eyes over her shoulder. He has that famous thousand-yard stare down cold. How do you do that when you are twelve? Since then, of course, we have seen that he is moderately crazy but not in a bad way, and willing to do almost anything in a part, including some pretty dumb things like losing 63 pounds for his role in The Machinist.

Like Jim, I am an airplane lover. There are some great ones here. Some were real planes, including four T-6 Texans modified to look like Mitsubishi Zeroes, and three P-51 Mustangs. (One of the pilots was named “Hoof” Proudfoot!) One of the best scenes was when the P-51s were bombing the adjacent airfield and Jim is on the roof shouting at them. For him, it was almost a religious experience. “P-51 Mustang, Cadillac of the air!” I wanted to jump up and down with him. The Mustang was possibly the finest American fighter of WWII, though pilots of P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts might argue.

At one point a B-29 flew over at very low altitude, just prior to crashing nearby. I know that today, 2017, there are only two airworthy Superfortresses in the world, and there probably weren’t many more in 1987. It turns out this was a large scale model with an 18’ wingspan. That made it about 1/8th as large as the real thing!