SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: AMORAL FRIENDSHIP - THE VICISSITUDES OF WAR
Amoral friendship — the vicissitudes of war
A true Special Friendship film requires an intensity of feeling beyond simple companionship, but it need not necessarily be benign in motivation, so let us take for illustration another title from the impressive Spielberg portfolio, one which rests even more heavily on the shoulders of its boy protagonist than “E.T.” did on Elliot. “EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (87) was his epic entry in a spate of WWII boyhood tales that included “HOPE AND GLORY” (87), “LE CRÉPUSCULE DES LOUPS” (France 89) and “ZAMRI — OUMI — VOSKRESNI!” (USSR 89). Bomb-bay-loads of studio money were rained on the film, but this was one instance where more was less, where production values swamped the human story, and excess distracted the eye from excellence.
True, it has moments of graceful economy - as when Jamie reads the fate of his mother in the spilt talcum powder of her bedroom, or when he finds himself dwarfed by a gigantic, pristine street poster for “GONE WITH THE WIND” amid the chaos of Japanese-occupied Shanghai — but these nuggets are far outnumbered by showy puffed-up sequences which suggest a very obsequious editor: the British residents driving to a costume ball through streets choked with starving refugees is a telling image, but one well-judged shot would have sufficed to convey the idea. Spielberg gives it two whole minutes. When Jamie is separated from his parents in a fast-flowing river of jostling bodies, when he is pursued relentlessly by a street arab for his shoes (“No mama, no papa, no whiskey soda!”) these sequences are quite needlessly stretched out. And worst of all, approaching the end of the film, when Jamie attempts to revive his shot Japanese friend by heart massage, he repeats the mantra “I can bring everyone back” so often, to a drowning crescendo of angel-song, that one prays for a falling food canister to catch him on the back of the head.
One of the key themes of “EMPIRE OF THE SUN” is duality. Jamie is torn between admiration for the Japanese, with their rigid, hair-trigger sense of honour, and admiration for the sublimely unprincipled Basie, his American King Rat, who teaches him the squalid laws of self-preservation at any cost. His docile, complacent life in Shanghai is replaced in turn by his hyperactive, uncertain life in Suchow prison camp, but the boy becomes equally well-adapted to both, and behaves identically when these two states of being are snatched unceremoniously away from him. Where he surrenders insistently to the Japanese at the beginning, he finishes by surrendering to the Americans. Basie’s pragmatic attitude to war points out these dualities to him — first one side is feeding you while the other tries to kill you, and then at some point the roles are reversed. The time in between is a cinch. We watch Jamie avidly model himself on Basie, the arch-survivor, but his coded applications to become the man’s “kid sidekick”, the Robin to his Batman, are met with cold indifference. Jamie is no better than a commodity to Basie, something to be traded when the prevailing market forces are right, and if it had occurred to him a profit might be made out of prostituting the boy, there’s little doubt the man would have turned pimp at the snap of a finger.
Though wily John Malkovitch steals the film, it is Christian Bale who is on screen from first to last, and must carry the entire weight of its two and a half hour running time on his young shoulders. The emotional landscape he has to traverse in that time would be a challenge for any seasoned actor — it’s a quite amazing debut performance from so young a boy, and nothing short of a disgrace that Bale did not win any major award for his effort. If Jamie has his overwrought moments, as in the climactic “Cadillac of the skies” air raid scene, the fault is not Bale’s, but the director’s for pumping him up to that pitch. The silent, harrowing face of grief which follows it packs a far greater emotional wallop, and Christian Bale deserves the credit for that.
If Jamie’s situation was a precarious one, he had it cushy compared with Sasha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), the young Stalingrad boy in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “ENEMY AT THE GATES” (2001). Sasha worships the exploits of comrade sniper Jude Law, but he also ingratiates himself with a friendly German officer (Ed Harris) sent to eliminate the morale boosting Law. This particularly lethal man/boy/ man triangle is resolved by Harris executing Sasha when his suspicions that the boy’s a double agent are borne out. Harris scolds the whimpering boy very remorsefully as he leads him away to his death, but war is after all war. Jude Law’s front line girlfriend had confided in him about the boy “I think he loves you even more than I do!”, and this is passed off without remark, although it does seem an odd observation from a woman who adores the sniper herself. It’s another unrequited love of boyhood then, except this time the boy gets strung from a lamp-post for it. Understated as that plot element may be, “ENEMY AT THE GATES” does belong on our list whereas “CROSS OF IRON” (captured Soviet boy soldier is sheltered from execution by German soldier James Coburn, only to be shot dead by his own side the moment he’s set free) does not. Good enough Eastern front WW2 picture, although I can’t help but notice the film spends way more time criticising Stalin’s USSR (our “gallant allies” at the time, I seem to recall) than it does the Nazis. Even today it seems, the only good commie is a non-commie commie. Still, Peckinpah’s film (one of his best) does have many memorable moments, not least the clever montage of archive footage which accompanies the opening titles.
Another, more obscure, film with a relationship at its heart which did the boy no favours was “THREE CARD MONTE” (1978), so obscure that I can find no trace of it in my 250 film books or the world wide web). It followed a runaway boy of 12 or so who falls into company with an indolent small-time card sharp and con man. They meander the Canadian cities together, from seedy motel room to motel room, and one looks in vain to find some benefit to the boy in their partnership. He is clearly — like Billy Mumy in “Lost in Space” — the more mature of the two, so that film presents us with the most baffling of teamings, between streetwise emotionally self-sufficient boy and uncongenial four-time adult loser. Any relationship, it seems, is better than none at all.