issue 181 - March 1988
Empire of the Sun
directed by Steven Spielberg
Hollywood whiz kid Steven Spielberg has the golden touch. With mega hits like ET The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future and The Colour Purple he has become the world's best-known film-maker. Empire of the Sun is Spielberg's newest and most accomplished work to date. It is a sprawling, lavish old-fashioned epic that combines technical brilliance with dazzling visual scenes and some wonderful inspired acting.
Newcomer Christian Bale plays Jim Graham, an 11-year-old schoolboy who lives with his family in Secluded opulence in the British sector of pre-war Shanghai's International Settlement: a 470-acre white enclave in China's busiest and richest port city. The Europeans live in colonial splendor with legions of servants, oblivious to the Japanese occupation of the Chinese seaboard. Says Jim's father: 'a million Chinese are trying to get into Shanghai to live on our garbage'.
When the Japanese (the 'empire of the sun' of the film's title) finally invade the city, Jim and his parents are swept into the maelstrom. They are separated in the chaos (in one of the movie's most terrifying scenes) and young Jim falls in with a couple of Stranded American sailors who survive by selling whatever they can steal. Eventually they're interned in the Soochow Creek prison camp where most of the film takes place.
That is a bare-bones plot summary. But plot is secondary here. The magic of Empire of the Sun is in its images. The film is driven relentlessly by its lush, symphonic cinematography. This is a movie meant to be seen - and heard. The street scenes were shot with 10,000 Chinese extras in Shanghai, a city whose startlingly European skyline has scarcely changed since 1941. And the stunning crowd scenes may be among the best ever filmed.
John William's soundtrack is sometimes overwhelming but there are moments when the meeting of sound and image work perfectly. At dawn by the barbed wire of the prison camp's perimeter Jim sings the Japanese anthem in his chorister's alto voice as kamikaze pilots prepare for their suicide missions.
With the help of Basie, his American mentor, Jim learns to survive in the camp. Basie is a fixer and a survivor too, a shrewd deal-maker: 'You keep your balance and keep the right friends', he tells Jim. But in so doing the war becomes young Jim's entire world, survival is the only game in town.
According to Spielberg this is 'an anti-war story, not just of a single war but all wars and their effect on young impressionable kids who are becoming adult' That may have been director Spielberg's intent but it doesn't quite work.
As the personal story of Jim Graham, the movie packs a huge emotional whallop. But it is an anti-war film only in the broadest sense. You'll have to read J G Ballard's novel of the same name to get the specifics.
Spielberg is the world's most successful contemporary movie-maker because he has an almost intuitive understanding of the limits of the medium. He uses film to do what it does best: manipulate images. Empire of the Sun is a movie of the senses. You feel what you see; the film does not-make you think. You will leave the cinema emotionally drained, but a few hours later the impact is gone, the movie's anti-war message muted and confused.
Disabled village children
by David Werner
Perhaps the best thing about this book is its approach. More than just a practical manual for helping families meet the needs of their disabled children, it's an extended exercise in countering the patronizing discrimination those children face. This is what makes it relevant to everyone whether in rich or poor countries, with or without experience of caring for a disabled person - though with one in ten people in the world disabled in some way, the vast majority of us will be intimately involved with disability at some time in our lives.
Werner, disabled himself, brings a kind of tough homespun humility to all his books, combining ingenious practical ideas (such as making a padded hat for the protection of a child liable to epileptic fits) with socio-political insights (an anecdote about how the father of a disabled boy knew better than the health worker what kind of local wood was most Suitable for making crutches). Author of the acclaimed Where there is no doctor Werner is absolutely passionate about demystifying the power of the so-called expert and in encouraging ordinary people to have faith in their own competence and creativity.
Available from the Hesperian Foundation, PO box 1692, Palo Alto, CA 94302, USA
Life and Labour in a Bombay Slum
by Jeremy Seabrook
Homes and work are created from a myriad of tiny components in the slums of Bombay, India's wealthiest city. Jeremy Seabrook's meticulous descriptions of the shanty towns and pavement dwellers convey his immense respect for the people who live there.
His central point is a simple one. The slum dwellers are essential to the economies of the city and the rich world. With their immense resources of imagination and energy, they recycle and create both subsistence for themselves and wealth for others.
Seabrook asks us to suspend our conventional horror at dirt and dilapidation, to see the order that the poor create in their homes and in their lives. He sees little of the defeatism and passivity of the rich world's slum dwellers and believes that these ordinary Indians' achievements are intensely relevant to Western societies which hoard their wealth and yet seem nostalgic for a less 'featherbedded', more market-driven past. Ws he says, it is becoming clearer that 'the need for liberation - from both poverty and excess - is a common project of rich and poor'.
Mick and Caroline
by Latin Quarter
The most right-on band around - but not by any means the most successful. Latin Quarter's single Radio Africa took an explanation of neo-colonialism into the UK Top Ten but later releases have been less popular. There is a reason for this which has nothing to do with their subject-matter they touch here on the Sandinistas ('Because the USA's got the need today to be born again . Must Nicaragua burn again') and on Winnie Mandela ('Nomzamo, you say it's part of your soul... one day you'll paint it red, black, green and gold'). Mike Jones' lyrics are literate, refreshingly wide-ranging and only occasionally too earnest, as when he compares the problems of a pop star with those of a miner.
The problem is really a musical one: their melodies and structures are rarely distinctive enough and their vocals often drab. There's nothing here to match the last album's South Africa song No Rope As Long As Time, and that's disappointing.
...being the book that was the testimony of an African slave
Until it was unearthed in 1967, Equiano's Travels had remained out of print for 130 years. In its day this autobiography of a black ex-slave, sailor and anti-slavery campaigner was a best-seller in both Britain and North America - that is, as long as the campaign against the slave trade lasted. Once the trade was stopped, in 1833, sales dropped. Yet slavery itself went on for many more years, and with it the brutal and degrading treatment of blacks which Equiano describes in vivid detail from his own experience. And as we know, the legacy of this historical obscenity lingers on even now, all over the world from the US to Southern Africa.
Olaudah Equiano was born around 1745 in Ibo country, in what is now Eastern Nigeria. At 10 years of age, he was kidnapped into slavery and taken to the West Indies, and then to North America. There he was rescued from the plantation by an apparently fair-minded naval captain who was nevertheless later to sell him back into slavery. Thus began a new life of sailor, scholar and petty trader.
On board ship and in London, Equiano made friends with various people who taught him to read and count, and he soon began to build up savings by buying and selling on his voyages in Europe and the West Indies. A Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, for whom Equiano worked as clerk and quartermaster, eventually agreed to sell him his freedom for £40. And so at 21, Equiano was again a free man, though freedom for a black was then a precarious thing.
By any standards, Equiano is a good writer. His descriptions of the people he encounters are perceptive and objective, and his accounts of the injustices done to himself and his compatriots are all the more powerful for being amazingly free of bitterness. He is a confident and authoritative commentator on the abuses of his time.
Even as a simple adventure story, Equiano's Travels beats most classics hands down. After his enforced travels in Africa and across the Atlantic, he sailed all round the West Indies and along the North American seaboard. He farmed on the Miskito Coast of what is now Nicaragua. He was involved in fighting with the French near Gibraltar, and shipwrecked in the Bahamas. Twice he sailed to Turkey from England, and even joined one of the unsuccessful Arctic expeditions to look for a North-East passage to India.
His clear impressions of the places he has visited are informed by his special perspective on racial prejudice. For example, he hated Savannah, Georgia, because there he was repeatedly harassed and assaulted; Philadelphia's Quakers were fair people to work for, in Turkey he was warmly received, but noted: 'I was surprised to see how the Greeks are... kept under by the Turks, as the negroes are in the West Indies by the white people'. And then: 'The less refined Greeks... dance here in the same manner as we do in my nation'. The grandeur of Genoa 'was in my eyes disgraced by the galley slaves, whose condition both there and in other parts of Italy is truly piteous and wretched'.
As for white brutality against blacks, the British West Indies seems to have been the worst of all. Equiano quotes an Act of the Assembly of Barbados which states 'that if any negro . under punishment by his master . for running away, or any other crime . towards his said master, unfortunately shall suffer in life or member, no person whatsoever shall be liable to a fine, but if any man shall out of wantonness, or only of bloody-mindedness, or cruel intention, willfully kill a negro... of his own, he shall pay into the public treasury fifteen pounds sterling'.
With nice irony, he comments: . do not the assembly which enacted (this) deserve the appellation of savages and brutes rather than of Christians and men (sic)? It is an Act... which for cruelty would disgrace an assembly of those who are called barbarians, and for its injustice and insanity would shock the morality and common sense of a Samoyed or a Hottentot'.
But what impressed me most of all was Equiano's analysis of the full extent of slavery's evil effects: 'Are slaves more useful by being thus humbled to the condition of brutes than they would be if suffered to enjoy the privileges of men (sic)? The freedom which diffuses health and prosperity throughout Britain answers you - No ... You stupefy them with stripes and think it necessary to keep them in a state of ignorance, and yet you assert that they are incapable of learning.'.
Doris Lessing made exactly the same point in 1957, in her account of a trip back to Rhodesia, Going Home. And you can hear the racist account of black ignorance and incompetence any day you choose, in many a private car speeding along a Southern African or US highway. It is frightening how relevant this book, published in the year of the French Revolution, still appears 200 years later.
Equiano's Travels by Olaudah Equiano. First published in 1789. A new edition is published in Britain this spring in the Longmans African Classics series.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7