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Spielberg's World War II trilogy begins with underrated "Empire of the Sun"

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Empire of the Sun

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On December 25, 1987, Warner Bros. released director Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," a powerful and moving coming-of-age movie set in China during World War II.

Playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard had originally adapted J.G. Ballard's semi-biographical 1984 novel for director David Lean ("A Passage to India"). However, Spielberg, drawn to Ballard's account of a young boy's experiences in a Japanese internment camp near Shanghai, bought the rights and began production early in 1987.

"Empire of the Sun" depicts the three-year odyssey of British schoolboy Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a bright 12-year-old who lives in Shanghai's International Settlement with his parents (Emily Richard, Rupert Frazer). This sector of Shanghai was protected by diplomatic immunity even as the Japanese bombed the rest of the city during their war with China. As long as the Japanese Empire is not at war with the U.S. and Britain, its soldiers leave the Settlement and its population unmolested.

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, of course, changes that. On December 8, 1941, a few hours after war breaks out with the Anglo-American powers, Japanese forces cross into the International Settlement, wrecking young Jamie's structured life of private school and a comfortable life with Mum and Dad.

Separated from his parents during a frantic attempt to get away from the invasion, Jamie undergoes a three-year-long odyssey that forces him to abandon his childhood and enter a harsh, sometimes brutal adult world beset by war.

Stoppard adapts Ballard's novel faithfully, and Spielberg's directorial talents carry us along Jamie's journey from the streets of Shanghai to the confines of a Japanese internment camp for civilian prisoners.

Although "Empire of the Sun" is not a combat film, there are a few battle scenes that give us glimpses of the wider war.

The December 1941 sequence that depicts Japan's incursion into the Settlement is terrifying, especially as seen through a young boy's point of view. The scene where Jamie is separated from his mother after he drops his treasured toy plane is heartbreaking but reflects just how childlike he is at age 12.

The Kamikaze Dawn scene, set in the summer of 1945, is the emotional bookend to the invasion sequence. In this amazingly beautiful scene, Jamie watches a pre-takeoff ceremony for a trio of kamikaze (suicide) pilots. In a solemn gesture of respect, this young British boy sings the Welsh lullaby "Suo Gan" across the barbed wire that separates the internment camp from the Japanese airfield.

At first surprised, the Japanese commander listens to this unlikely show of admiration, then watches his three planes take off into the morning sun...where they are immediately jumped by a squadron of American P-51 Mustangs.

This underrated Spielberg classic kicked off the director's World War II trilogy, which was rounded out by "Schindler's List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). Based loosely on J.G. Ballard's boyhood experiences in the Soochow Creek internment camp, "Empire of the Sun" reminds viewers that although war movies often focus on the warriors who fought during World War II, civilians were the ones who suffered its effects the most.

The film's impressive cast includes John Malkovich, Joe (JP) Pantoliano, Ben Stiller, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers. It's also Christian Bale's first feature film; Spielberg chose him out of 4,000 child actors after his then-wife, Amy Irving, recommended Bale after seeing him in a TV production of "Anastasia."

In addition to the cast, Allen Daviau's cinematography, Michael Kahn's flawless editing, and John Williams' moving score contribute to the quality of this film, which was the first American production to be filmed in the People's Republic of China in 40 years.

Warner Home Video has released "Empire of the Sun" on DVD and Blu-ray in several editions since 2001.

The original 2001 one-disc version comes in the now-discontinued cardboard-and-plastic snap case packaging. It contains Spielberg's 152-minute-long epic in widescreen format on side A of a double-sided DVD. Side B contains the behind-the scenes documentary "A China Odyssey." Narrated by Martin Sheen, this documentary delves into how Spielberg and his crew were allowed to film in Shanghai and the challenges of directing such a complex movie.

In 2009, Warner Home Video reissued "Empire of the Sun" on DVD, this time in a two-disc all-plastic keepcase package. Disc 1 contains the feature film, while Disc 2 presents "A China Odyssey."

Three years later, Warner Bros. released "Empire of the Sun" in a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD set. The Blu-ray disc (BD) contains the feature film, "A China Odyssey," and the theatrical trailer.The DVD contains the 2008 documentary "Warner at War," a 47-minute-long documentary about Warner Bros. role in the war effort during World War II. Narrated by Steven Spielberg, "Warner at War" not only discusses such wartime films as "Casablanca" and "Pride of the Marines," but it also shows how the Warner brothers, especially Jack, had to fight against censorship by isolationist politicians like Republican Sen. Gerald Nye. Nye, who feared that the Jewish Warners were trying to drag America into World War II, tried to force the studio into admitting it was making anti-Nazi "propaganda."

Of all of Hollywood's major studios, Warner Bros. was the only one that tried to wake Americans to the dangers of Nazi aggression in Europe. It dared to release "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" in the summer of 1939, almost one month before Hitler launched the invasion of Poland. Hitler was furious when the movie premiered, and Warner Bros. was the first U.S. studio to be banned from distributing movies in Germany.

Technical Specifications (2009 DVD Edition)

Format: Color, NTSC
Language: English
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: November 3, 2009
Run Time: 152 minutes

2012 Blu-ray Edition

Format: Blu-ray, NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English
Subtitles: Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: November 13, 2012
Run Time: 152 minutes

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