Empire of the Sun (1987)

PG | 150 mins | Drama | 9 December 1987

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HISTORY

The film opens with a title card, which is read by an unidentified narrator: “In 1941 China and Japan had been in a state of undeclared war for four years. A Japanese army of occupation was in control of much of the countryside and many towns and cities. In Shanghai thousands of Westerners, protected by the diplomatic security of the International Settlement, continued to live as they had lived since the British came here in the 19th century and built in the image of their own country…built banking houses, hotels, offices, churches and homes that might have been uprooted from Liverpool or Surrey. Now their time was running out. Outside Shanghai the Japanese dug in and waited…….for Pearl Harbor.”
       An onscreen title card midway through the film refers to the location of Suzhou by its Romanized name, “Soochow.”
       According to a 31 Jul 1985 Var article, executive producer Robert Shapiro heard about J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, prior to its publication in 1984, and immediately extended an offer to acquire motion picture rights. Warner Bros. Pictures approved development as part of a first-look deal with Shapiro, who went on to hire director Harold Becker. After Ballard declined the opportunity to adapt his work for the screen, the 13 Feb 1985 Var named Alvin Sargent as a prospective screenwriter. A few months later, however, the 14 Sep 1985 Screen International reported that script duties had been assumed by playwright Tom Stoppard. The material was close to Stoppard, who according to a 6 Dec 1987 article in Newsday, had been living in Singapore at the beginning of ... More Less

The film opens with a title card, which is read by an unidentified narrator: “In 1941 China and Japan had been in a state of undeclared war for four years. A Japanese army of occupation was in control of much of the countryside and many towns and cities. In Shanghai thousands of Westerners, protected by the diplomatic security of the International Settlement, continued to live as they had lived since the British came here in the 19th century and built in the image of their own country…built banking houses, hotels, offices, churches and homes that might have been uprooted from Liverpool or Surrey. Now their time was running out. Outside Shanghai the Japanese dug in and waited…….for Pearl Harbor.”
       An onscreen title card midway through the film refers to the location of Suzhou by its Romanized name, “Soochow.”
       According to a 31 Jul 1985 Var article, executive producer Robert Shapiro heard about J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, prior to its publication in 1984, and immediately extended an offer to acquire motion picture rights. Warner Bros. Pictures approved development as part of a first-look deal with Shapiro, who went on to hire director Harold Becker. After Ballard declined the opportunity to adapt his work for the screen, the 13 Feb 1985 Var named Alvin Sargent as a prospective screenwriter. A few months later, however, the 14 Sep 1985 Screen International reported that script duties had been assumed by playwright Tom Stoppard. The material was close to Stoppard, who according to a 6 Dec 1987 article in Newsday, had been living in Singapore at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Several contemporary sources, including the 24 Jun 1987 Var, indicated that Menno Meyjes also contributed to the script, but he does receive onscreen credit.
       By 1986, various sources reported that Steven Spielberg had taken over as director, with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall set to produce through Amblin Entertainment. Newsday stated that Spielberg worked extensively with Stoppard to expand the significance of “Jim’s” relationship with “Basie,” while attempting to make the character more sympathetic to the audience. According to the 16 Dec 1987 NYT, roughly 4,000 young boys auditioned to play Jim before Spielberg cast thirteen-year-old actor Christian Bale, who worked with the director’s then-wife, actress Amy Irving, in the NBC television miniseries, Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986). The 18 Feb 1987 Var “International Sound Track” column noted that Bale won the part after the director viewed advance footage of his performance in the Swedish-Soviet-Norwegian co-production, Mio in the Land of Faraway (1987).
       An article in the 12 Jan 1987 Philadelphia Daily News stated that actor Charles Dance was forced to turn down a supporting role due to a scheduling conflict with the film White Mischief (1988).
       A 13 Mar 1987 Var production chart indicated that principal photography began 1 Mar 1987. According to production notes in AMPAS library files, Kennedy and Marshall anticipated complications shooting in Shanghai, China, due to the notoriously lengthy process of obtaining film permits, and scouted alternate locations. However, with the assistance of the China Film Co-Production Corporation and Shanghai Film Studios, negotiations were completed in just one year, and the production was granted exclusive access to main thoroughfares that had not been closed for filmmakers since 1959. Although China provided ample support services, the 28 Jan 1987 Var indicated that the film was not a U.S.-Chinese co-production, as funding was exclusively American.
       A 6 Apr 1987 news story in The Ottowa Citizen reported that Amblin and Warner Bros. had been fined $13,500 for polluting the densely populated Fengyang Road and Jiu Jang Road areas with toxic fumes emitted by a pile of burning tires used to create smoke effects. The five-day exposure supposedly increased sulphur dioxide exposure almost thirty times the permitted levels and caused damage to nearby trees and houses.
       After three weeks in Shanghai, production relocated to England, with headquarters based at Elstree Studios outside London. Interiors of the “Graham” residence in the International Settlement were shot at existing London homes, since the actual houses had been occupied by several Chinese families. End credit acknowledgments suggest that filming also took place in the towns of Knutsford and Sunningdale. According to the 23 Oct 1987 issue of The Vancouver Sun, J. G. Ballard made an uncredited appearance as a costume party guest at the beginning of the film.
       The final weeks of principal photography took place in Spain, where the “Soochow Creek Internment Camp,” Japanese airfield, and “Nantao” sports arena sets were constructed on the banks of the Gualalquivir River near Trebujena. Not long after their arrival, the 12 May 1987 Orlando Sentinel claimed that Spielberg had offended members of the local press by denying them access to sets, while a 24 Jun 1987 Var article relayed Kathleen Kennedy’s contention that the cost to shoot in Spain was “far higher” than originally quoted. Associate producer Chris Kenny estimated the overrun at about $1 million. Spanish production managers countered that filmmakers incurred excess costs by retaining a largely British crew, importing British construction materials and catering services, and sending film to London laboratories for processing. At the time of production, the British crew was considered illegal, since free circulation of labor between the U.K. and Spain under the European Economic Community did not take effect until 1992. Additionally, a 22 Apr 1987 article in Toronto, Canada’s The Globe and Mail stated that Spanish union representatives filed a lawsuit against Amblin Entertainment for “discriminatory labor practices,” claiming that the company refused to hire many of the region’s unemployed population to play camp prisoners, and instead only favored those who were considered “lame” or “invalid.” However, the Orlando Sentinel stated that the complaint was later dropped after Warner Bros. increased the day rate for those involved.
       A 19 Jun 1987 DV item announced that principal photography had been completed five days ahead of schedule. Various contemporary sources estimated the budget at around $30 million.
       A 2 May 1987 Screen International item suggested that animals were provided by Mike Culling Animal Actors, but the company is not listed in onscreen credits.
       The 1 Dec 1987 LAHExam reported that the Los Angeles, CA, premiere was scheduled to take place 8 Dec 1987 at the Village Theater in Westwood, with proceeds benefitting the St. John Heart Institute in Santa Monica, CA. According to the 19 Dec 1987 Screen International, the film was selected as the “Royal Film” to be screened for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on 21 Mar 1988 at the Odeon Leicester Square in London.
       Despite Spielberg’s box-office appeal, the 16 Dec 1987 Var stated that Empire of the Sun earned just $1,314,509 from 225 theaters during its opening weekend. According to the 30 Dec 1987 Var, release was expanded to 673 theaters in time for the Christmas holiday, taking in a cumulative gross of $6,610,192. That same day, CBS Television Network aired The China Odyssey, a one-hour special about the making of the film.
       Although several critics felt the picture fell short of its potential, reviews were generally positive. The 23 Dec 1987 Var announced that Christian Bale became the first recipient of the National Board of Review’s award for Outstanding Juvenile Performance, while the film received Academy Award nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), and Sound.
       End credits state: “LIFE Magazine; LIFE title and format used with kind permission of TIME Inc.”; and, “The producers wish to thank: Gerry Lewis; U.S. Navy Squadron VP-22 and the people of Shanghai, China – Trebujena, Spain; Sunningdale & Knutsford, England.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
19 Jun 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Dec 1987
p. 3, 58.
LAHExam
1 Dec 1987.
---
Los Angeles Times
9 Dec 1987
Calendar, p. 1.
New York Times
9 Dec 1987
p. 25.
New York Times
16 Dec 1987
Section C, p. 30.
Newsday
6 Dec 1987
Section XI, p. 4.
Philadelphia Daily News
12 Jan 1987
Features, p. 37.
Screen International
14 Sep 1985
p. 8.
Screen International
2 May 1987
p. 388.
Screen International
19 Dec 1987
p. 4.
The Globe and Mail
22 Apr 1987
Section C, p. 7.
The Orlando Sentinel
12 May 1987
Style, p. 3.
The Ottawa Citizen
6 Apr 1987
Section D, p. 7.
The Vancouver Sun
23 Oct 1987
Section C, p. 9.
Variety
13 Feb 1985
p. 31.
Variety
31 Jul 1985
p. 22.
Variety
28 Jan 1987
p. 5.
Variety
18 Feb 1987
p. 51.
Variety
13 Mar 1987.
---
Variety
24 Jun 1987
p. 5, 24.
Variety
24 Jun 1987
p. 22.
Variety
2 Dec 1987
p. 10.
Variety
16 Dec 1987
p. 31.
Variety
23 Dec 1987
p. 25.
Variety
30 Dec 1987
p. 17.
Variety
30 Dec 1987
p. 44.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Starring:
And Introducing
as Jim
Featuring:
British prisoners:
American prisoners:
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Robert Shapiro Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
2d unit dir
Prod mgr
Prod mgr, Shanghai Film Studios
Prod mgr, Spain unit
Unit mgr-China
Unit mgr-Spain
Asst dir
1st asst dir, 2d unit
1st asst dir, Spain unit
2d asst dir
2d asst dir
2d asst dir-U.K.
3d asst dir
3d asst dir-U.K.
3d asst dir, Spain unit
3d asst dir, Spain unit
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Dir of photog, 2d unit
Cam op
Cam op
Cam op-China/U.K., 2d unit
Cam op-Spain, 2d unit
Cam focus puller
Cam focus puller
Focus puller-China/U.K., 2d unit
Focus puller-Spain, 2d unit
Clapper/Loader, 2d unit
Clapper/Loader-Spain, 2d unit
Cam grip
Cam grip
Gaffer
Gaffer, Shanghai Film Studios
Best boy
Grip-China/U.K., 2d unit
Standby grip, 2d unit
Standby grip, 2d unit
Unit stillsman
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Supv art dir
Supv art dir, China unit
Supv art dir, Spain unit
Art dir
Art dir, Shanghai Film Studios
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir, Spain unit
Asst art dir, Spain unit
Prod illustrator
Prod illustrator
Draughtsman
Draughtsman
Draughtsman
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Assoc ed
Assoc ed
Assoc ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Apprentice ed
Negative cutting
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
Asst set dec-U.K.
Prod buyer
Prod buyer
Scenic artist
Supv const mgr
Standby carpenter
Standby stagehand
Standby painter
Standby rigger
Standby plasterer
Supv prop master
Supv standby prop
Prop master, China unit
Prop master, Shanghai Film Studios
Prop buyer, Shanghai Film Studios
Propman, Shanghai Film Studios
Propman, Shanghai Film Studios
Const buyer-U.K.
Standby propman, 2d unit
Standby carpenter, 2d unit
Const mgr, China unit
Const mgr, China unit
Supv dressing prop, Spain unit
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward supv
Ward master
Ward asst, China unit
Ward mistress, Shanghai Film Studios
Ward asst, Spain unit
Ward asst, Spain unit
MUSIC
Mus scoring mixer
Choral cond
Mus contractor
Mus rec at
Rec with
SOUND
Sd mixer
Sd mixer
Boom op
Boom op
Sd maintenance
Sd maintenance
Supv sd ed
Supv sd ed
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Foley ed
Foley ed
Foley by
Foley by
Processed eff
Supv ADR ed
ADR ed
ADR ed
Sd eng, Shanghai Film Studios
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff supv
Sr eff supv
Sr eff tech
Sr eff tech
Titles & opticals
Spec eff sr tech, Shanghai Film Studios
Spec eff tech, Shanghai Film Studios
Spec eff chief, Spain unit
Addl opt eff prod by
Addl opt eff prod by
Addl opt eff prod by
Addl opt eff prod by
MAKEUP
Chief makeup artist
Makeup artist
Makeup artist
Supv hairdresser
Hairdresser
Hairdresser, Shanghai Film Studios
Wigs by
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting-USA
Casting-USA
Casting-USA
U.K. casting asst
Casting-Japan
Casting, Shanghai Film Studios
Crowd casting, Spain unit
Prod co-coord
Prod co-coord
Scr supv
Scr supv, 2d unit
Model airplanes supv
Prod controller
Supv prod accountant
Asst prod accountant
Transport coord
Dial coach
Unit pub
Loc mgr-U.K.
Loc mgr, China unit
Loc mgr, Shanghai Film Studios
Loc mgr, Spain unit
Asst to Mr. Marshall
Asst to Ms. Kennedy-U.K.
Asst to Ms. Kennedy-USA
Asst to Mr. Kenny
Secy to Mr. Spielberg
Secy to Mr. Marshall
Prod assoc
Prod assoc
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst, Shanghai Film Studios
Post prod supv
Post prod coord
Post prod asst
Project consultant, China unit
China Film co-prod liaison, China unit
China Film co-prod liaison, China unit
Loc accountant, China unit
Prod interpreter, China unit
Prod interpreter, China unit
Prod interpreter, China unit
Prod interpreter, China unit
Prod interpreter, China unit
Interpreter, Shanghai Film Studios
Accountant, Shanghai Film Studios
Prod coord, Spain unit
Prod coord, Spain unit
Loc accountant, Spain unit
Accountant, Spain unit
Interpreter, Spain unit
Interpreter, Spain unit
Interpreter, Spain unit
Interpreter, Spain unit
Interpreter, Spain unit
Japanese interpreter, Spain unit
Pub assistant, Spain unit
Aerial coord, Aerial unit
Aerial coord, Aerial unit
Chief zero pilot, Aerial unit
Chief eng, Aerial unit
Chief Mustang pilot, Aerial unit
Mustang pilot, Aerial unit
Mustang pilot, Aerial unit
Loc security by
Loc security by
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Jim's standin
Jim's standin
Jim's standin
Stunt person
Stunt person
Stunt person
Stunt person
Stunt double
Stunt double
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timer
Col by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard (London, 1984).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"Suo Gan," performed by The Ambrosian Junior Choir, arranged and conducted by John McCarthy, soloist James Rainbird
"A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square," by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin, performed by Elizabeth Welch, courtesy of EMI Records Limited
"These Foolish Things," by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, performed by Elizabeth Welch, courtesy of EMI Records Limited
+
SONGS
"Suo Gan," performed by The Ambrosian Junior Choir, arranged and conducted by John McCarthy, soloist James Rainbird
"A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square," by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin, performed by Elizabeth Welch, courtesy of EMI Records Limited
"These Foolish Things," by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, performed by Elizabeth Welch, courtesy of EMI Records Limited
"South Of The Border," performed by Al Bowly/Mayfair Orchestra/Ronnie Munro, courtesy of EMI Records Limited
"Swing Is In The Air," by Al Goodhart, Al Hoffman and Sammy Lerner, performed by Jack Hylton, courtesy of EMI Records Limited.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
9 December 1987
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles premiere: 8 December 1987
Los Angeles and New York openings: 9 December 1987
Production Date:
1 March--June 1987
Copyright Claimant:
Warner Bros., Inc.
Copyright Date:
16 December 1987
Copyright Number:
PA347213
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Lenses/Prints
Primo lenses and Panaflex® camera by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
150
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Languages:
Japanese, Chinese, English
PCA No:
28899
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

During the Japanese occupation of China in 1941, eleven-year-old British expatriate Jamie Graham enjoys a privileged life on his parents’ estate in the Shanghai International Settlement, ignorant to the mounting tensions of war. When the Japanese bomb the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Shanghai erupts into chaos as both Chinese and foreign occupants attempt to flee the city by boat. Separated from his parents in the crowded streets, Jamie returns home in hope that his mother will find him there, but the property remains deserted. After exhausting his supply of food and water, he rides his bicycle into town and desperately attempts to surrender to the indifferent Japanese soldiers. While eluding pickpockets, Jamie is taken in by two American grifters named Frank Demerest and Basie, who give him the nickname “Jim.” Although the men intend to leave him behind, Jim convinces them to survey his neighborhood for valuables. Outside Jim’s house, they are captured by Japanese troops and taken to a holding facility, where Jim struggles to adapt to the harsh conditions. After a few days, Basie is selected for transfer to Soochow Creek Internment Camp, which is situated next to a Japanese airfield. Familiar with the camp location, Jim begs the soldiers to take him along. By 1945, Jim has become a skilled and trusted smuggler, pilfering items to be traded among his fellow prisoners. In his free time, he assists the camp physician, Dr. Rawlins, and ponders what his future life in Britain will be like after the war. During a U.S. air raid, camp commander Sergeant Nagata retaliates by ordering the guards to destroy the American and British barracks. When he begins to beat Dr. ... +


During the Japanese occupation of China in 1941, eleven-year-old British expatriate Jamie Graham enjoys a privileged life on his parents’ estate in the Shanghai International Settlement, ignorant to the mounting tensions of war. When the Japanese bomb the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Shanghai erupts into chaos as both Chinese and foreign occupants attempt to flee the city by boat. Separated from his parents in the crowded streets, Jamie returns home in hope that his mother will find him there, but the property remains deserted. After exhausting his supply of food and water, he rides his bicycle into town and desperately attempts to surrender to the indifferent Japanese soldiers. While eluding pickpockets, Jamie is taken in by two American grifters named Frank Demerest and Basie, who give him the nickname “Jim.” Although the men intend to leave him behind, Jim convinces them to survey his neighborhood for valuables. Outside Jim’s house, they are captured by Japanese troops and taken to a holding facility, where Jim struggles to adapt to the harsh conditions. After a few days, Basie is selected for transfer to Soochow Creek Internment Camp, which is situated next to a Japanese airfield. Familiar with the camp location, Jim begs the soldiers to take him along. By 1945, Jim has become a skilled and trusted smuggler, pilfering items to be traded among his fellow prisoners. In his free time, he assists the camp physician, Dr. Rawlins, and ponders what his future life in Britain will be like after the war. During a U.S. air raid, camp commander Sergeant Nagata retaliates by ordering the guards to destroy the American and British barracks. When he begins to beat Dr. Rawlins outside the infirmary, Jim throws himself on the ground and pleads for Nagata to stop. The next day, Basie asks Jim to lay snares under the prison fence, claiming he has seen pheasants roaming the area. The boy complies, unaware that Basie is using him to determine if there are land mines outside the camp boundaries. Nagata follows him through the marsh, but a young Japanese trainee pilot creates a distraction, allowing Jim to get away. As a reward for his efforts, Jim is granted a bunk in the adult men’s barracks with Basie and the other Americans, who have begun strategizing their escape. One morning, Jim watches from behind the fence as several Japanese pilots partake in a kamikaze ritual before boarding their planes. Moved, he lifts his arm in salute and sings the traditional Welsh lullaby, “Suo Gân,” which he learned in school. Just then, a fleet of American pilots bombs the Japanese airfield, and Jim excitedly watches the raid from the top of a pagoda. As Dr. Rawlins attempts to pull him to safety, Jim bursts into tears, declaring that he can no longer recall his parents’ faces. After the attack, Nagata decides to evacuate the camp. Basie seizes the opportunity to flee, breaking his promise to take Jim as his companion. During the arduous walk to Nantao, many prisoners die of fatigue and disease. Those who survive stop to rest inside a dilapidated sports arena, which has been used to house repossessed property, including Jim’s family car. Although there is no food, Jim opts to stay with Mrs. Victor, a sickly woman who acted as a mother figure to him back at Soochow. When she dies, Jim sees a burst of light in the sky and believes her soul has passed on to heaven. Later, the boy overhears a radio broadcast announcing that the flash was actually the explosion of an atomic bomb over Nagasaki that effectively ended the war. While trudging alone through a rice paddy, he finds food and supplies that have been airdropped by the American Red Cross, and brings them back to Soochow. There, he encounters the Japanese trainee pilot, who expresses remorse over never having the chance to fly in battle. In an act of friendship, the boy gives Jim a mango and offers to help cut it with his katana. Suddenly, Basie and a group of Americans appear and shoot the pilot. Furious, Jim renounces Basie’s help and remains at the camp until he is rescued by a group of American soldiers. Eventually, he is taken to an orphanage, where he is reunited with his parents. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.