Based on the best-selling semi-autobiography of the same name by James Graham Ballard (he wrote under J. G. Ballard), as James “Jamie” Graham, thirteen-year-old actor, Christian Bale appears on the screen of EMPIRE OF THE SUN in his knickers and designated schoolboy blazer and cap, his hectic British cheeks a clue to the grit that smoldered within the factual character he is playing, a true grit the equal of John Wayne on his best day. But to realize it, he has to be tested, and tested he is to the utmost in this remarkable action-packed, and at the same time, sensitively drawn, epic, an epic film and an epic book, both of them among my favorites.
For four years having been engaged in a brutal, but undeclared, defensive action against Japan’s invasion of its borders, by 1941, the towns and cities of China are falling like tandem dominoes at the hands of the oppressors. As members of the long-established, upper-class, British citizens of Shanghai, Jamie and his parents are protected under the Diplomatic Security of the International Settlement, but as the incursion by the Japanese mounts, nobody is safe, not even the Westerners behind their gated checkpoints. On the same day as Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, among throngs of the like-minded of every station of life in the city and surrounding countryside, the little Graham family tries to escape Shanghai, and during the stampede, Jamie becomes separated from his parents.
The streets erupt into a war-zone. While dodging the bullets of the fighters and defending himself against a bullying Shanghai street urchin, Jamie is rescued by a wily American merchant-seaman named Basie, brilliantly portrayed by John Malkovich in the film. Basie declares “Jamie” to be “Jim” thereafter, and in those short hours of that afternoon, young Jim crosses into another world, not only physically, but also intellectually and spiritually, as Basie and his devotees, Jim among them, end up prisoners of war in Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, and later in Suzhou Creek, two Japanese internment camps. It is in the camps that we witness the transformation of “Jamie” into “Jim” in this outstanding coming-of-age story. Thirteen-year-old, Christian Bale as “Jim” is pictured here in the film version of the story.
In many guises appear coming-of-age stories and of this genre, there is another one that is nearer and dearer to me still. It is a simpler, yet as dramatic a story, and even though it took place in the same timeframe as James Graham Ballard’s adventure, it wasn’t carried in the newspapers of its time, nor to date, on a DVD. But the story is in a book now—it is in my latest novel, GUARDIANS AND OTHER ANGELS (http://amzn.to/PUOXl9). Bussy Gaffin is the name of the young hero in my book. He is pictured here with his dog, Track on what is believed to have been June 16, 1942, his seventeen birthday.
In the most noteworthy of coming-of-age stories, a relentless monster, not of his/her own making, is pursuing the protagonist. In Jim’s case, with the loss of parents and home, and the dangers, the brutality of war, the monster is hunger, disease, death, the demise of hope, of compassion, of tenderness and concurrent humanitarian impulses. Debilitating illness, worsened by the difficulties and privations of the Great Depression and the consequences of World War II in the USA, is Bussy’s cross to bear. But in his own loss of childhood, his monster is similar to Jim’s, as is his transformation, a conversion portrayed in his quiet courage and determination to carve a place for himself among his robust siblings and peers, and in his stoic efforts to embrace the things that give him purpose and hope. If you are like me, you will fall in love with both of these inspiring, young heroes.
Take a moment to think about the young heroes in your life and endorse them in some way by reading their books, or watching their films, or writing a book about them, or by giving them a hug or a call, or devoting a few moments of quiet contemplation to their memories. No matter where they are, they will get the message.
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