If you say the words “Steven Spielberg” in any conversation and then ask what his best film is then you’ll likely get responses such as “Schindler’s List”, “Amistad” or even “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Has anyone ever wondered what the great director himself considers to be his masterpiece, or Magnum Opus if I may throw a fancy phrase into the mix? Well if you haven’t guessed it by now then I suggest you throw your eyes back up to the title. Spielberg’s Magnum Opus is partially based on a true story of a child during World War II and features an impressive cast, as well as being one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. Without any further ado...
It’s time to meet James “Jamie/Jim” Graham (played by a very young Christian Bale) who is a young British upper class child living in Shanghai during the early 1940s. When war breaks out he ends up separated from his parents and falls in with two Americans Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano). Along with them he is taken to an assembly centre before being relocated to an internment camp. The first half of the film ends here and the second half flashes forward about four years and follows Jim as he is living in the camp. He has grown up a bit but still retains his thirst for knowledge and keeps his love of planes as he watches the Japanese pilots training on the other side of the camp’s fence. He strikes up a non-verbal friendship with a Japanese teenager who lives on the other side while also having lessons with Dr Rawlins (Nigel Havers) who acts as a sort of father figure to the boy.
The above description does seem a bit of a mess and a bit run-on but the film is pretty long, clocking in about two and a half hours. I had to watch the thing in two parts at first and it was a while before I got to see all of the film completely. And then there’s hearing that there was a whole lot of other footage that was severely cut down, specifically from the scenes in the camp. While I don’t think the film needed to be longer, the second half did feel a bit rushed in places but somehow it fitted with the tone. The film is pretty hard to get through on a first watch because it’s so long but then again it wouldn’t really work if it had been cut down to 90 minutes, something which a lot of directors still don’t seem to have grasped yet (*cough* M Night Shyamalan). Films that are this long are only really justified when they have a big story to tell, which this one does. The long running time is necessary as we follow Jim’s story and connect with him, which I don’t think we would have done if it was only 90 minutes.
I said above that our lead was a young Christian Bale and indeed this was only his second film. You would not believe it though because Mr Bale, at the young age of twelve, leads everyone else through the story and carries every scene like a pro. It is a little strange to think that the little kid jumping up and down as he watches planes would eventually go on to become Batman or Patrick Bateman, or even the guy who had an on-set rant at some poor sound guy and kept switching accents. But then again it is easy to see how this kid became a big star when he just has that natural on-screen charisma and gels so well with the other veteran actors. I can’t believe he didn’t get an Oscar nod but then again this was the 80s so that’s another reason to hate the decade – bad hair and bad Oscar snubs. You might not know it from my cyber ass-kissing of Christian Bale so far but there were other actors in this film. I actually found a John Malkovich character that I liked even if he was a bit of a bastard. If I’m being honest he reminds me of what my brother would probably be like in that situation (my brother won’t take offence since he does the Buddhist vigils for Malkovich that I do for Sir Ian). The charming Miranda Richardson has a role as Mrs Viktor, something of a surrogate mother for Jim in the camp. Her role was cut down significantly and she does seem a bit wasted, but she does have a fair bit of screen time. Believe it or not a young Ben Stiller has a few scenes in the camp as well, doing quite well as always.
I just want to draw attention to the amount of work that went into this film. You wonder why Spielberg considers this to be his Magnum Opus? This was the first American film to be shot in Shanghai in over 40 years at the time, with city blocks closed off and signs changed around to have traditional Chinese characters added in. This was all done in the name of authenticity and he even had period-correct cars and planes replicated for the shoot. Of course the visual effects for the bombing scenes kick ass as they always do in a Spielberg film especially that one scene at the camp. It was originally meant to be one long take but Christian Bale had a hard time acting excited for that so they improvised with a few close ups to get the desired effect. Believe me it works.
Speaking of the scene in the camp, I just want to go back to the one that comes before it. Three Japanese pilots are having their induction ceremony or something, and they are singing a Japanese song while Jim watches from behind the fence. Overcome with emotion he sings the Welsh song Suo Gan. That is truly one of the most powerfully epic moments in film I’ve ever seen. I know I use that expression a lot (the dog ate my Thesaurus) but there really is no other way to describe that scene (though the dog could probably say otherwise). It’s not Christian Bale singing of course but it is him acting and he brings that scene to life, just coupled with that brilliant montage of the other people in the camp being so moved by it, even the Japanese officer there. Then the following bombing on the camp is nothing short of an awesome display of special effects. I’m curious as to what the scene would have looked like as one long take but it’s still more than awesome enough with the close ups added in. The exchange between Jim and Dr Rawlins on top of the tower is just the icing on the cake.
And if you don’t want the ending to be spoiled then don’t read this little bit, but you can’t talk about this film without mentioning the ending. It is truly one of the most heart-wrenching scenes you’ll ever watch in a film. Jim has been taken to an orphanage with other children who have lost their parents, and is waiting in a big hall while British adults look for their children. Jim’s mother finds him and he does not recognise her at first. There are lot of typical Hollywood ways that this particular scene could have gone but Spielberg went for subtlety and that made it so much more powerful. I’m a 19 year old guy and I genuinely cried at that scene. I dare you to watch the whole film and not even get a little watery eyed when Jim gets reunited with his parents.
So it seems despite my dislike for the majority of 80s films (The Shining anyone?) I do seem to have included a few on my list without actually knowing it. Spielberg truly is one of the most versatile directors there is, with an impressive resume as it is, but I do nod to this as one of his finest. It’s a fantastic coming-of-age story about the loss of innocence with some pretty deep symbolism. Spielberg has actually described it as a sort of reverse Peter Pan story where a boy has to grow up too quickly. I would of course rank it as one of the top War movies of all time though as you’ll have guessed from my list, I haven’t seen that many or enjoyed that many so a top war movies list for me would probably only have about six films on it. Take care, guys and don’t forget to follow me, the Cadillac of the internet, on Twitter.