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A John Williams Score for every Year of my Life: 1987 – Empire of the Sun

Oh no! What do I do? In 1987, the year I turned 17, John Williams released two fantastic soundtrack albums, and I truly don’t know which one I love more. That year was the year of “The Witches of Eastwick” and “The Empire of the Sun”. Both are phenomenal scores. I fell in love with the Witches score many years before I actually saw the film. The film itself was a bit “Meh” but the music is just utterly joyous. Although it was criminal to cut the wonderful Ballroom piece from the film, even though I love Nessun Dorma, which the director used in its place.

But the score to The Empire of the Sun, so utterly different, affected me in deep and lasting ways. The film itself lived long in my memory. So I’m going to major on that one – maybe I’ll return to looking at the Witches of Eastwick in more depth at a future date. I will, for now, leave you with a link to the soundtrack album so you can discover this wonderful, zany score for yourself if you’ve never heard it. But then again, if you’ve never heard it, where have you been? Mars?

So on to the Empire of the Sun. Thematically it perhaps doesn’t have the richness of leitmotifs of some of Williams’ work, but it’s a very different film from his more famous inspirations such as Star Wars or ET. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some utterly wonderful motifs woven throughout its duration, but it’s a different sort of score. In many ways it’s more classical on one hand, and one the other some of the action pieces are more rhythm and timbre based than his earlier work, and prefigures some of his work in later films such as JFK or Minority Report.

The soundtrack album opens, as the film does, with a wonderful performance of the Welsh traditional lullaby, Suo Gan. It introduces us to Jamie, the film’s young protagonist, played by a very young Christian Bale. He was a revelation in this film. He traces the narrative of a child’s loss of innocence during the second World War, time which included an incarceration in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, with devastating skill. And the music for me is absolutely bound up in this searing account. The music is at times innocent and playful, at other times, almost hymn-like in it’s purity, and elsewhere it is heart-wrenchingly powerful – John Williams commanding the orchestral and choral forces at his disposal with the mastery of a magician.

Here is Suo Gan. It’s fitting that it is a lullaby. It soothes us into a false sense of security, painting a picture of decadent Western opulence. It’s as if a chunk of middle England has been lifted into the air and plonked in the middle of Shanghai. And we will soon see that it is completely false.

The original soundtrack album mixes the chronology of the film up, as well as mixing some tracks from different parts of the film into single tracks, which can make it difficult to discuss it in the context of the film itself, but I will so when I can. And with that in mind, the next piece I want to share is “Imaginary Air Battle”. It’s an opportunity for Williams to compose music once again to suggest flight. This piece has something about which suggests paper airplanes, which again is fitting, as Jamie is sitting in the cockpit of a plane which has been shot down, and so the entire battle is taking place in his imagination. It’s a wonderful example of interplay between the different orchestral sections, with the thrilling addition of a boys chorus. It’s a wonderful sound, capturing the innocence of the young lad, but hinting at events to come.

I’m jumping ahead now to a piece called “Cadillac of the Skies”, which in some ways is the grown up expression of “Imaginary Air Battle”. It features many of the same timbres – boys choir, soaring strings, but it brings a much more mature and devastating sensibility to them. It has always been one of my favourite pieces, not just of this film, but in John William’s entire ouvre. Listen to the way it builds up, and then fades away into something which is detached, atonal, cold. The section towards the end, with two groups of boys singing in counterpart is spine-tingling. It’s deceptively simple, and points to some of the ideas which Williams would explore some 14 years later in “AI Artifical Intelligence”.

There is plenty of other music in the score to enrapture and enrich, but I want to zoom in on just three. The first is the recurring theme which Williams uses as a motif for Jamie, or Jim, as he is known later on in the film. It’s a theme which stands both for his innocence, and his journey into early teens, symbolising in some way the ability of the human spirit to withstand great horrors. Interestingly, it shares an opening melodic sequence with both the ballroom sequence from Witches of Eastwick, as well as the “Over the Moon” Music from E.T. It’s again, a deceptively simple melody which Williams puts to good use throughout the film, using his mastery of variation. It can be heard throughout the score, but most prominently in “Toy Planes, Home and Hearth”. In this Title choice, Williams makes it very clear that this is a piece which represents Jim’s innocence, and comes to represent his lost innocence. As such, it is extremely poignant, though as we hear it in the film we may not always understand why. Every time we hear it, it reminds us of innocence lost, and that can be very powerful to us as we remember our own lost innocence.

Another piece of note is “Jim’s New Life”, which is a wonderful energetic scherzo, in which the trumpets play a lead role. It shares some DNA with some of the tourist pieces from Williams’ two Jaws scores, but is it’s own piece entirely. My favourite part is at 1:12 when the strings burst into an utterly joyful melody which captures childhood and it’s lack of cares and woes beautifully. What is interesting about this piece is that it is played once Jim has been taken, with many other Westerners, to the prison camp. It shows that he has still retained his childlike acceptance of life, and with the resilience of a child, is learning to embrace his new life with joy. This in stark contrast to some of the adults who surround him. Listen, and I bet you’ll be smiling at the end.

And the final piece I want to bring to you is the Latin song “Exultate Justi” which Williams uses in a short version when the camp is liberated by the American soldiers, and then again in fuller form as an End Theme for the film. It’s a very classically written piece, reminding me in some ways of some of Malcolm Arnold’s writing – such as the theme for “Lord of the Flies”

Lord of the Flies – music by Malcolm Arnold

Exultate Justi is quite a complex piece, incorporating some neo-classical elements within it’s classical DNA. It’s a fitting end to a film which has shown us the depths of human depravity, yet has also shown us the resilience of the human spirit. It’s wonderful stuff.

But I can’t leave this review without highlighting one last masterful touch in the music choices of this film. At the end of the film, the children are being reunited with their parents. Jim, looking haunted and ill, is seemingly unaware of the happy reunions happening all around him. His parents at first walk right past him, not recognising him as their son. The war has changed him utterly. He touches his mother’s face, her hair, as if he can scarcely believe she is real. And then he embraces her in what seems a very adult, equal way. He has grown up, and he is no longer the boy they knew. And the music that plays? Suo Gan, from the beginning. This is the scene which for me lives in the memory. I can not watch it without weeping. And the use of Suo Gan, to remind us of everything that has been lost, is so so moving.

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