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SoundReels: Children's Choirs And Eternal Childhood in 'Empire of the Sun'

color photo of Jim Graham watching the P-51 Mustang in flight in Empire of the Sun
Amblin Entertainment
Jim Graham (Christian Bale) in Steven Spielberg's 1987 film 'Empire of the Sun'

September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland, which opened the floodgates to World War II. On this occasion, this episode of SoundReels looks at a film set in the later years of the war.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1987, Empire of the Sun received six Academy Award nominations, including for John Williams' musical score. The score won a British Academy Film Award and a Golden Globe Award and garnered Williams a Grammy Award nomination.

Empire of the Sun is set in Shanghai in the wake of the 1941 Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and during the period of Shanghai's International Settlement. The film tells the story of the British schoolboy Jim Graham, played by the young Christian Bale, who gets separated from his wealthy parents in a crowd trying to flee the Japanese occupying forces.

Jim is forced to survive in an internment camp on his own but for a shady American hustler named Basie, played by John Malkovich, who, with an unsettling mixture of concern and manipulation, takes Jim under his wing. Jim's fascination with airplanes gives him a mental escape from the atrocities of war, a place where his childlike wonder and innocence go unchecked amid the horrors of the adult world around him.

Many critics have noted that Empire of the Sun continued Steven Spielberg’s fascination with child protagonists, a fascination seen in his earlier films E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Goonies, among others.

However, in a 1988 story, former New York Times Culture Editor Myra Forsberg marks Empire of the Sun as a turning point for Spielberg, one at which the famed filmmaker, as he put it, "step(ped) up to a different kind of movie" in order to "play with the grown-ups for a while."

Instead of navigating wonderlands of extraterrestrials and ghosts, Empire of the Sun's Jim Graham is forced to survive in the cataclysmic underworld of World War II. The film’s juxtaposition of childlike innocence and the real-world depravities of war is an emotional landscape considerably more vast than that explored by any of Spielberg's earlier child protagonists.

Spielberg also told Forsberg that, in making Empire of the Sun, he was attracted to the idea that the narrative of Jim's life and times in an internment camp was, in Spielberg’s words, "a death of innocence, not an attenuation of childhood … this was a boy who had grown up too quickly, who was becoming a flower long before the bud had ever come out of the topsoil."

But Spielberg's claims to the death of Jim Graham's Innocence in Empire of the Sun run counter to John Williams’ score for the film, which suggests through angelic-sounding choirs from the film's beginning to its end that childlike innocence persists, even if somewhat frayed, in the film’s war-torn world.

There are so many great musical moments in Empire of the Sun, and we’ll explore a few in this episode of SoundReels   One of the score's signature numbers is the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan. A typical lullaby, the text of Suo Gan is in the voice of a mother singing to her child and has particular resonance for Jim, who through most of the film is separated from his mother:

Sleep child upon my bosom
It is cozy and warm
mother's arms are tight around you
A mother's love is in my breast
Nothing shall disturb your slumber
Nobody will do you harm
Sleep in peace, dear child
Sleep quietly on your mother's breast.

Suo Gan sounds early in the film during what the visual show as a rehearsal of a boys'choir. Dressed in a traditional British school uniform, Jim Graham sings a verse as a solo in an angelic boy soprano. The choir of boys joins Jim in the first instance of the choir of high-pitched voices that will sound throughout the film.

One of the film's key moments takes place during a costume party at a wealthy British estate. Jim, dressed like Aladdin of flying carpet fame, launches a toy airplane and follows its soaring path into a nearby field. His amblings take him to a downed fighter plane.

The children’s choir enters the score as the awestruck Jim takes in the machine, then climbs onto its wing and seats himself in the cockpit. Jim play-acts an air battle, aiming imaginary bullets at his toy plane still soaring overhead. He fingers the bullet holes on the side of the airplane and plays with the controls inside, his imagination on fire with the romance of the skies, with the naïve romance of war.

Jim becomes separated from his parents in the mad rush to escape the Japanese forces. Possibly the clearest indication that Jim's innocence has not died comes in one of the film’s most moving scenes. Jim, now 14-years-old, has spent three years in the internment camp without his parents.

From his side of the barbed wire fence, Jim sees three Japanese pilots carrying out the ritual before embarking on kamikaze missions. The Japanese pilots sing the patriotic song Umi Yukaba, which concludes "If I die for the Emperor, It will not be a regret."

This is music firmly rooted in the adult world – the world of war and death – and while saluting to the Japanese pilots, Jim sings over Umi Yukaba the lullaby Suo Gan, music of the world of children, of family, comfort and peace.

Air strikes play out over the internment camp, sending the camp into a panic. Jim, however, is mesmerized by the soaring planes. Oblivious to the danger at hand, he watches the whole thing from a rooftop. The children's choir enters on the soundtrack and the action turns to slow-motion as the shot and Jim's gaze focus on an American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft in midflight.

The pilot waves to Jim, who shrieks in euphoria – calling the plane the "Cadillac of the sky" – and jumps up and down when a nearby building bursts into flames. The choir confirms that, even at this relatively late stage in his journey, Jim is still a child, the fighter planes sailing his imagination fearlessly into the midst of the deadly action around him.

Jim shares living quarters in the internment camp with a British couple, Mr. and Mrs. Victor, who are reluctant parental figures to Jim's childlike wonderings. The Japanese camp guards move the camp residents upcountry, where they say there will be food. Having walked miles on foot, the camp refugees arrive at a football stadium near Nantao where expensive furnishings raided from wealthy homes have been stored.

The nighttime scene is surreal – with ornate gilded furniture, chandeliers and silver tableware, harps and grand pianos and luxury cares strewn about. Jim urges the malnourished and ailing Mrs. Victor to "pretend she is dead," and the following morning he sees that she has died.

As Jim watches her, a brilliant light washes over her and pulses across the sky. The children's choir enters as the underscore to shots of an awe-struck Jim watches what his youthful imagination tells him is Mrs. Victor’s soul making its way to heaven.

Only later does Jim learn that the otherworldly light effects he saw were waves of light and radiation from the August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.

In so many instances throughout the film, Jim's fascination with airplanes gives his childlike imagination a refuge from the dire realities around him. By its very nature, an airplane is a mode of escape – a flying machine that takes people to worlds unseen.

This function serves as a powerful metaphor for Jim’s childlike imagination, which earlier in the film ignited when Jim stumbled upon the downed fighter plane in a field.

Jim endures some traumatic moments while away from the internment camp – no spoilers here, so we won’t get into the details. Once the war in the pacific has concluded, he returns to the internment camp, finding a bicycle somewhere along the way.

In a scene mirroring one earlier in the film, Jim rides the bicycle around inside the abandoned buildings that had been his haunts. It's a childlike thing to do, and it is underscored by the film's most joyous music, Williams’ Exultate justi, for a choir of high voices and orchestra. Air drops of canned food, confetti and streamers leave Jim laughing and riding his bicycle all around the camp as American servicemen look on.

Steven Spielberg made Empire of the Sun right as he was turning 40. He told The New York Times' Myra Forsberg that that event prompted him to come to terms with the celebration of a certain naïveté that Spielberg had associated with the 1940s, and to which he had been clinging.

If Empire of the Sun tells us anything, it might be that clinging to the child inside, who sees devastation all around but still has hope, can get us through a lot, and might even save our lives.

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Listen to more great film music during the Summer Festival of American Film Music on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Tuesdays on Classical 101.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.