The Great Scenes: “Liberation of the internment camp” from EMPIRE OF THE SUN

The Movie: Empire of the Sun

Spoiler Level: Moderate

The Setup: Many would agree that, along with Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg is one of the most famous filmmakers of all time. He’s made movies like “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List” that quickly cemented their places in the pop culture lexicon. However, upon closer examination of Spielberg’s storied career, there exist a few entries on his filmography that, for some, might have slipped under the radar.

The most unfortunate example of this might be his 1987 drama “Empire of the Sun,” which only grossed $22 million at the domestic box office. The only Spielberg film preventing it from being the director’s all-time worst box-office performer is “The Sugarland Express,” which grossed only $7.5 million in 1974. You might call “Empire of the Sun” (along with “1941”) Spielberg’s only true box office flop. Despite it’s disappointing commercial performance, many Spielberg fans – myself included – consider “Empire” to be one of his finest works.

A very young Christian Bale stars as Jamie Graham, or “Jim,” an English boy separated from his parents in Shanghai, China at the outbreak of World War II. Jim, along with many more prisoners from the Allied nations, is sent to a Japanese internment camp where, in order to survive, he is forced to endure a sped-up transition from childhood to adulthood. One day, the prisoners finally regain their freedom when a group of Allied fighter planes – specifically P-51 Mustangs – swoop in and liberate the camp.

Why It’s Great: Ever since I first saw this film when I was 15, this scene has resonated with me so much that I consider it to be my favorite movie-scene of all time. Lots of people would categorize Spielberg as a cinematic master, and this sequence supports that notion. He masterfully combines acting, production design, sound, cinematography and music to produce a result that makes you forget that any of those artificial elements are even involved in the first place.

There’s a moment (at 1:30 in the provided clip) where Spielberg cuts to a slo-mo shot of a P-51 flying towards Jim. He applies a haunting music cue by John Williams that, for a moment, removes you from the dangerous chaos of the action surrounding Jim and places you inside his mind, allowing you to appreciate the beauty of what’s happening. Thanks to Spielberg’s handling of this scene, the viewer truly empathizes with how Jim feels. Jim’s subsequent burst of emotion always impacts me powerfully, even after repeated viewings. The scene reaches its peak when,at 2:27 in this clip, Jim yells “horsepower!” followed by a almost-primal scream.

Jim is then accosted by an adult who runs up to rescue him from danger, simultaneously removing him from this living-dream and bringing him back to reality. When Jim does indeed “come down” from this high, he says “I can’t remember what my parents look like,” thus emphasizing the immense toll this whole experience has had on him.

Every time I watch this scene, it’s nothing short of absolutely breathtaking. It makes an even stronger impact when viewed in the context of the entire movie, which is highly recommended – not just to Spielberg fans, but to fans of film in general.