Not many people liked Empire of the Sun. Maybe we were all too busy rushing out to catch Bernardo Bertolucci's admirable but evasive Last Emperor. Maybe Emperor and Empire simply shared too much—spectacle scenes shot within (see it now!) the mysterious East; war pageants of devastating futility and horror viewed by children who had been separated from their parents; aspirations to epic scope and epic length. Two such movies in one season—three, if we add John Boorman's smaller scale Hope and Glory—may have been too many. When doppelgangers meet, one of them must die. Emperor rode to glory or at least to the Academy Awards; Empire was left behind, prostrated.
If we want some sense of Empire's distinctive accomplishment, we must recognize the narrative tradition that lies behind it (and that distinguishes it, largely, from works like The Last Emperor—despite the similarities mentioned above). Along with his screenwriter, the British playwright Tom Stoppard, Steven Spielberg worked from J. G. Ballard's novel-memoir, also titled Empire of the Sun. Ballard is a British science-fiction writer who has produced some striking novels about anomie in urban settings; Empire develops a related theme autobiographically and historically.
According to its author, the book "describes my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Langhua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre), where I was interned from 1942 to 1945." The subject is in one way familiar. There have been many other semi-fictional narratives about disoriented victim-observers wandering through World War II, a number of them rather effective. Empire goes a step further, however; it connects this attractive (if easily exploitable) subject with the lore of the Zone.
The Zone was discovered long before anyone thought to call it that. One of its earliest appearances is in Sir Walter Scott's Talisman, where a passel of Crusaders encamped on Syria's sands attempt to comprehend the diplomatic-military maze where they find themselves. Scott imagines a world of overlapping cultures, traditions, and languages, a world not quite at war but not at peace either. Crucial political settlements are held in abeyance; for the moment, anything is possible. Under these charged circumstances it becomes difficult to tell the difference between Christian and Moslem, Englishmen and Scotsmen, sanity and madness.
The historical novel—so often concerned with the fate of discrete nation-states—thus takes a rather different tack than in Scott's earlier work. It becomes an international genre: marked by the dissolution of familiar boundaries (both cultural and geographical); in the absence of these boundaries obsessed with the wildest Utopian or dystopian speculations; haunted, despite an apparent lack of constraints, by immediate, contingent, often quite deadly circumstances.
There are other accounts of the Zone in the nineteenth century; however, not until after World War II does it really flourish as a subject. We can encounter versions of the Zone in a number of important works from the last forty years or so, all of them—more or less—historical novels, all of them following something like the model of The Talisman. John Cowper Powys' Porius (1951) has never achieved the wide readership it deserves, but in retrospect looks like a defining instance for postwar literature. Giinter Grass' Danzig Trilogy (about a "Free City" straddling several ambiguous borders), Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude, Edward Whittemore's Quins Shanghai Circus as well as his later Jerusalem Quartet, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and perhaps portions of Michel Tournier's The Ogre explore various aspects of this topic. (So do the gargantuan canvasses produced by the painter Anselm Kiefer, current darling of American art critics.)
It is Pynchon who names the Zone, Pynchon who associates it most fully with arrangements made in the wake of the war. Narrowly speaking, Pynchon's Zone consists of the occupied zones in Germany. However, as one street-smart character puts it, "there are no zones ... no zones but the Zone." The narrator of Gravity's Rainbow comments further, "Here in the Zone categories have been blurred badly. The status of the name you miss, love, and search for now has grown ambiguous and remote, but this is even more than the bureaucracy of mass absence—some still live, some have died, but many, many have forgotten which they are. Their likenesses will not serve. Down here are only wrappings left in the light, the dark; images of the Uncertainty. . . ."
Pynchon equivocates about whether it is a temporary condition or the beginning of a dispensation in which we still find ourselves. In either case, the Zone offers unique opportunities of knowledge. Because the workaday framework of national sovereignty is suspended here, because old fictions have been obliterated or neutralized without new arrangements immediately hardening in place, forces that would normally remain hidden are exposed; we can talk about realities that would otherwise remain unspeakable.
Ballard shares with other chroniclers of the Zone the desire to present a moment when politics and society as normally understood have collapsed. Empire begins, "Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund." The Bund—to quote a 1935 guidebook —is "the muddy tow-path of fifty years ago which has magically become one of the most striking and beautiful civic entrances in the world."1
This booster-prose contains some truth. There can be few riverfronts more impressive than Shanghai's. However, it is not the Bund as a whole of which Ballard is writing. Just north of the original walled city, at the junction of the Hwangpoo and Woosung Rivers (the Yangtze is actually some miles from the site), the English built their own compound. The French and the Americans followed suit. These foreign sectors had near-autonomy from Chinese Shanghai. Shanghai as it existed during the early twentieth century was thus a group of semi-independent cities clustered together for the overriding purpose of trade.
It was the English Bund, the English riverfront, where civic display flourished most lavishly. The Chinese Bund was much further down the social scale. As Ballard tells us later on (he keeps returning to those gathering corpses, much as they keep returning to the funeral pier), the reason behind the custom of casting bodies adrift was monetary. The funeral pier was for those who could not afford to bury their dead. Shanghai became a town built upon unusually violent economic contrasts; the disruptions implicit in the structure and purpose of the city began to make it a Zone even before the Japanese invasion of 1939: the "striking and beautiful civic entrance" opens up that territory of Uncertainty where life and death will mix in unanticipated ways.
So long as he is protected by British dominance, Ballard's young protagonist Jim need not confront the Zone-like qualities of his city and its environs. More precisely, he can take these qualities for granted, register them while suppressing their implications. Ballard gives us one horrible moment when Yang the chauffeur, driving out of the gates, directs a magnificent car somewhat carelessly over the corpse of a Chinese beggar; Jim looks back through a polished window and sees that the corpse's arm has been severed.2
Once he has lost his privileged status—and, almost simultaneously, been separated from his parents— his apprehension of Shanghai changes, along with the packing-order within the city. Jim does not exactly gain a social conscience. On the other hand, he learns to make certain discriminations; he sees more than he used to, partly because certain facts have become more obvious (e.g., the Chinese need no longer mask with deference their hatred of the British), partly because he is educated by pain and separation.
The great images of Empire, like that opening picture of returning corpses, create a condition of information overload. Jim becomes both hyperactive and disoriented. Mentally as well as geographically, he enters the Zone. Because he is forced to help build an airport runway, just outside the prison camp where he spends most of the war, he identifies with the Japanese pilots who land there. Because he adapts so well to prison life, he comes to hope that the war will never end: Dr. Ransome, one of the more humane characters in Empire, "resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war, that people were only too able to adapt to it."
Ballard dwells on such paradoxes. He uses them as a way into Jim's most compelling confusion. Especially after he has left the camp, herded by the Japanese towards an unstated goal, Jim cannot determine whether he is dead or alive. Ballard briefly mentions the boy's confrontation in the camp hospital with "a Belgian woman who had seemed to come back from the dead." Jim suspects that his own frenetic attempts to stay alive "meant no more" than her seeming resurrection. Though he escapes the Japanese march before it can kill him, his visions of mortality persist. American planes drop rations from the sky. Jim eats Spam. "He associated the chopped ham with those fattened corpses [of prisoners, swollen by death]. Each was enveloped in the same mucus. . . . Food fed death, the eager and waiting death of their own bodies."
I have not thus far mentioned the book's ultimate death-vision. Ballard prepares this moment through a chain of allusions to movies. Yang, chauffeur to Jim's family, works in the Shanghai film industry. He proves an infinitely adaptable character, just as malleable as the play of light and sound. Wandering through Shanghai, Jim sees an advertisement for Gone With the Wind, an historical epic quite different than Ballard's own. Later Jim is imprisoned in an open-air cinema which has become a detention camp: the real purpose of the camp is to nudge as many prisoners as possible into dying quickly and thus putting less strain on food supplies. Those who survive are not released from cinematic tortures. A slowly starving prisoner, Mrs. Vincent, "stared at the whitewashed walls above her son's bunk, as if watching an invisible film. . . . Jim worried that Mrs. Vincent spent too much of her time watching these films."
This sort of reference is recalled when Jim and his fellow prisoners are interned within a "concrete arena . . . built on the orders of Madame Chiang Kaishek, in the hope that China might be host to the 1940 Olympic Games." Here slogans "hung over the darkness like the hoardings above the Chinese cinemas in prewar Shanghai." We are back at the movies. What we see there first is an allegorical tableau. The prisoners lie dying from hunger and exhaustion among a plethora of goods that have been confiscated from Jim's own neighborhood (there are cocktail cabinets, rotting carpets, fifty or so luxury cars; Jim hopes to find a prized Studebaker, which once belonged to a friend of his father's who is now dying beside him).
The morning following this appalling scene, the stadium is filled by light, "as if an immense American bomb had exploded." Lightning, said Jim's governess, was God taking pictures of Shanghai's wickedness. The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, whose flash he is in fact observing, takes one final picture of that debauch. We are faced with an image whose intensity is blinding: it is an ending, also a harbinger. The true Empire of the Sun (neither British nor Japanese) announces itself. Salvation comes from the skies, but not just any old salvation: "Jim smiled at the Japanese [guard], wishing that he could tell him that the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world."
War, film, theology, apocalyptic prophecy, and what Freud called the death drive are at this moment fused together. One feels that the book has been seeking such an intersection, recognizable from earlier accounts of the Zone. It is easy to suspect that Spielberg too has been seeking it. Recall: Close Encounters of the Third Kind had its semi-divine flying saucers present a nighttime air show—an airshow where the power of movies and the power of visiting gods were curiously, one might say perversely, identified.
Raiders of the Lost Ark went for the same sort of muddled, groping climax. The holy ark burned to a crisp the Nazis who dared meddle with it. (This scene almost certainly borrows from the science-fiction ending of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, where the atomic bomb is mythicized into a radioactive Pandora's Box, opened by a femme fatale heroine. Aldrich, of course, never asks us to worship the deadly box; Spielberg does—at least until he abandons it within the same warehouse where Citizen Kane's Rosebud was so memorably incinerated.)
In E.T., most notoriously, the title extra-terrestrial became a Christ-figure fallen from the skies. Here Spielberg worked with a gentler hand than usual, but the dubious identification between holiness and a miraculous technology focused on lighting-displays persisted. The special-effects outfit Spielberg shares with George Lucas is called Industrial Light & Magic; this same phrase might well sum up his career.3
Empire could easily be read as a Spielberg-like work, more grist for the same old mill. And so it might have turned out; the movie could have looked like just another spectacular from the light-factory— beautiful, confused, and in love with its own stunning visual impact. Somehow, though, the project developed differently. I don't want to highlight any one reason for Spielberg's success; there are a great number of things that are right about the film Empire. Nonetheless, a few are worth singling out. Let me note several Spielberg preoccupations that—in this new context— are handled much more intelligently than usual as we work our way towards a glimpse of Nagasaki. And then we will have some sense of why that blast is different from anything in this director's cinematic past.
One good sign is that Spielberg and Stoppard (unlike Ballard) are sparing with references to film. An early crowd scene is dominated by the giant Gone With the Wind poster which Ballard mentions; it looms over a panicked Shanghai mob, trying to escape a city more perilous than Margaret Mitchell's burning Atlanta. Apart from this irresistible detail, there is little about movies before the explosion.
Perhaps Spielberg has finally realized that film allusions within a film tend to function differently than film allusions within a book. The former usually cry out for attention; the latter more easily remain subordinate. We will not be tempted to suppose that the power of film and the power of the atomic bomb are somehow equivalent—even though the analogy between them may help us understand both. Instead, we will be encouraged to focus on matters of greater import (for example, on the logic of violence among Chinese, Japanese, British, and Americans during each successive phase of the war: this is a subject that Ballard handles superbly, especially in a chapter titled "The Eurasian," and Spielberg better than anyone might have supposed. In both novel and film, we are given an intricately-observed social context which prepares us for the violence of the atomic bomb, making it seem a less singular event than it often does).
A second encouraging note: Spielberg has moderated some of his dewy-eyed love for childhood innocence. Childhood as we conventionally understand it is an invention of the nineteenth century. It is a construct to which Spielberg is enormously attracted. (After E.T., it seemed that he might go on to make a version of Peter Pan, with Michael Jackson in the title role.)
Ballard's novel provides a useful counterweight to this inclination. Ballard is ruthless about conveying Jim's . . . originality: for example, his pseudo-religious admiration of wartime violence (especially of Japanese exploits in the air) and his scorn for British efforts to keep up some semblance of conventionally civilized behavior. With one or two lapses—there are some odd family-of-man moments preaching that if people were nice, everything would be OK—Spielberg conveys Jim's point of view without insisting on the moral superiority or moral uniqueness of children. And Christian Bale, a young English stage actor, does superb work as Jim.
A third point. Along with George Lucas, Spielberg has long been fond of that irritating figure, the surly young male adventurer with a heart of gold. There's an Indiana Jones type in Empire, but he proves to be profoundly rotten. (Perhaps I should say superficially rotten: there are no depths here to be corrupted.)
The part of Basic is played by John Malkovich, whom I've somehow avoided seeing in any stage or screen production. There are times when Malkovich seems to be doing his Harrison Ford imitation, but he achieves a fascinating blankness which Ford has never matched and probably isn't capable of reaching. I should note that Stoppard has added an incident in which Basic is humiliated by the Japanese commander of the camp, losing all his hard-won prison possessions; he has also added what looks like a half-developed gay subtext (Basic abandons Jim for a beautiful blond boy named Dainty). Neither of these revisions helps or hurts much, though the first one is more to the point. Basic is capable of turning anything (including Jim) into a commodity. It is his sense of The market, not his sexual aspirations, if any, that count.4
Fourth, Spielberg's attitude towards technology has never been more sensibly thought-out than here. He has always had mixed feelings about science: it is both a gateway to the wonders of the cosmos and a sterile dead-end. There was a problem with this ambivalence. Spielberg seemed to suppose that science could be made OK if only we were persuaded (largely by cinematic means) to class it with magic—that is, with visits from the gods. In Empire of the Sun, this confusion is displaced onto Jim; Spielberg is allowed the possibility of distancing himself from plane-worship, bomb-worship, etc.
When the film came out, people quarrelled about whether he had been able to take this golden opportunity. I think he has, and brilliantly. Like most stories where one character dominates, Empire tempts us to mix up author and protagonist. Ballard's third-person but intimate narration and Spielberg's dogged concentration on the frightened, struggling figure of Jim both push us towards conflating the adult J. G. Ballard with the boy about whom he writes.
But only so far. Ballard maps out certain ways in which Jim is able to resolve his confusions. We are thus made aware, in case we're slow, that he has confusions. Spielberg makes Jim's energies seem terrifyingly pointless (there is a repeated notion of going around in circles, developed with great skill from the barest textual hint) and at the same time pitiable. As in Ballard, though by different means, we are distanced from Jim's semi-fascist mythologies.
This question of mythology is central. If I were to sum up the strength of Spielberg's Empire in one phrase, I would say that Spielberg shows a new respect for fact. To make the point more elaborately: where previous Spielberg films tend to refigure history as fantasy, this one subordinates the fantastic to historical truth.
An incident at the film's beginning offers a succinct confirmation. We see the British elite attending a masquerade party. They are all wonderfully dressed: pirates, clowns, what you will, a pageant of ever-so-elegant dreams. As Jim discovers when he goes out on the lawn to fly a big model airplane, a Japanese squadron is encamped just over the next hill. Spielberg stages this shock well. He reminds us here, as throughout his Empire, that Shanghai was and is an actual place, that it was shaped by a singular blend of geographical, economic, and cultural arrangements, and that all of them surfaced—all became briefly undeniable—at that moment when the city had to be experienced as a Zone, even by people like Jim.
I have identified the Zone with an ability to see what would normally remain hidden, to know what might generally remain unknowable. Perhaps the reader will not need to be persuaded that such an accomplishment is remarkable. Certainly it is scarce within our culture. "Facts are stupid things," mis-spoke a leader whom I will always remember as the President who went to Bitburg. On the Left—especially the literary Left—facts have lost ground through a different logic: a puritanical hostility towards art and rhetoric has encouraged people to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to suppose that a knowledge of things as they are is unreachable through film, painting, fiction, and so forth. If we study art, therefore, facts must be quite beside the point. Most sadly, those who argue for the power of fact have allowed the trivialization of their own concerns. E.D. Hirsch's little book on "cultural literacy" is being marketed for the cocktail-party list at the back, from which readers are tempted to mine those crucial, jewel-like bits of data that every American should be able to produce, just in case he is called to appear on College Bowl.
A last note. I think it would be absurd to expect another movie of this sort from Steven Spielberg. One can hope, all the same. Spielberg is a man with real flair for assembling visual-verbal narratives capable of reaching a wide audience. He happens to have stumbled upon a source and a subject which could change him even while he was at work changing them. Or perhaps more accurately: he discovered a context in which his preoccupations pointed beyond themselves, in which they had more than a narcissistic significance.
There are no geniuses in California. There are no geniuses, least of all among the moguls of the film industry. But there are people in whose vicinity useful work gets done. Spielberg could be one of them. May he, then, keep on striving—and may the bankers open their vaults at his behest, especially if he wants to work in the vein of Empire of the Sun.
A note on videos of Empire of the Sun: you probably didn't see this film when it came to your local theater because it never arrived there. Moreover, a standard video presentation, designed to fit a TV screen, will distort the widescreen compositions. Is there any way to get access to Empire in something like its original form, without renting a sixteen millimeter print? According to The LaserDisc Newsletter, there will be a laserdisc (and evidently a video) version of Empire of the Sun which preserves the original ratios—which gives television viewers the entire picture, instead of cutting it off drastically at both ends. I should add that no such version has appeared in Valparaiso, Indiana. But it may elsewhere.
1All About Shanghai: A Standard Guidebook, with an introduction by H.J. Lethbridge (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1983, first published by the University Press, Shanghai, 1934-1935).
2Other accounts suggest the frequency—and obvious desperation— with which such indigents would enter the residential sections of the British compound, only to be rounded up by the police and expelled. This tug-of-war between police and beggars began well before the twentieth century; the invention of the motor car made it easier for the police to disperse the beggars throughout the country-side, thus preventing their quick return. There were generally other beggars to take their place. For one treatment of this subject, see Pan Ling, Old Shanghai (Heinemann, Asia: Hong Kong, 1984), on the early career of Du Yuesheng. Like Ballard (though without his extraordinary talent), Pan Ling writes history in a form close to the novel.
3I have not mentioned The Color Purple. It is a special case: in its subject-matter twice as interesting as any other Spielberg film, but abandoned so fully to its own gushing sincerity as to negate its considerable virtues. For a more positive view of E.T. than the one I express in this paragraph, the reader will want to consult Mark Schwehn's Cresset essay, "The Reality of E.T.: Meanings and Misunderstandings" (May, 1983).
4Ballard does better here. He notes that most of the men in the camp were either impotent or infertile but that condoms nonetheless were constantly rising in barter value.