Sometimes, in the movies, differentiating between "good guys" and "bad guys" is easy;
101 Dalmatians' Cruella De Vil,
Harry Potter's Voldemort and
Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent fall unquestionably into the "bad" category. No moral gray area
exists regarding these characters, only black-and-white (literally, in Cruella's case), good and bad. Often, however, the
distinction is not as clear, as I was reminded while watching Steven Spielberg's remarkable,
gorgeous, complex, PG-rated film,
Empire of the Sun, with my family the other night.
Empire of the Sun is the story of Jim Graham (the young and enormously talented
Christian Bale), a privileged, wealthy English boy born and raised in
Shanghai who becomes separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of that city in 1941. He survives life in a World War II Japanese
internment camp due to his instinct, prodigious intellect, innate entrepreneurial spirit, and the kindness of strangers.
While watching the film, our almost-7-year-old son, Boy Wonder, frequently repeated the question, "So, wait, is that a good guy or a bad guy?" The easy answer would have been to tell him that all of the Japanese characters were bad and all of the English, American, and Chinese characters were good -- except that that would not have been entirely true, a fact he obviously intuited since he had to keep asking.
The differences between the English and Japanese are not really that great; both are imperialist powers determined to take and hold
China's land and resources; both possess a strong sense of honor and destiny coupled with ferociousness which renders each a formidable
opponent in battle, and both are, our eldest daughter pointed out, really small island countries. In fact, at the beginning of the
film, young Jim informs his father that he's considering joining up with the Japanese because he so admires their strength, skill,
honor, and tenacity. So it was difficult for me to assure our son that the English, who had invaded China a hundred years before and exploited
the Chinese people and resources since then, are the good guys, and the Japanese, the film's current invaders, are the bad guys.
It would also have been really convenient and nice to assure our boy that the Americans in Empire of the Sun are good guys, but
it wasn't that easy -- and I made a deal with myself long ago never to lie to my children. Jim's primary contact with Americans comes in the
form of the piratical, immoral survivalist Basie (the perfectly cast John Malkovich)
and his sidekick, Frank
(Joe Pantoliano). While it is true that Basie teaches Jim various
skills and lessons instrumental in his survival, it is also true that following their initial encounter Basie attempts to sell Jim into
slavery. When that fails (Jim is too weak and close to illness to be valuable to the Chinese slavers), he keeps Jim around only because
the boy might be useful in tracking down booty from abandoned English homes. Thereafter, Basie repeatedly ingratiates and uses Jim only
to unceremoniously abandon him again. In the end, when questioned about all the American has taught him, Jim replies, "You taught me that people will do anything for a potato."
American benevolence does show itself at the end of the film in the form of food canisters falling from the sky, but only after America
delivers the two devastating, if war-ending, atom bombs in the same manner. Ironically, Jim mistakes the light waves from the first of these
bombs for the departing soul of a fellow English prisoner of war, Mrs. Victor
(Miranda Richardson). The sight is beautiful to him until he
later realizes the horror it has wrought.
Ultimately, I told Boy Wonder that the Japanese were the "aggressors" of the film, a response not entirely satisfactory to either of us.
While a more resolute reply, a black-and-white, good guy/bad guy answer would have been neater and simpler, it also would have been the easy
way out and not entirely true, and Empire of the Sun, like real life, is richer and more complicated than that.