Au revoir les enfants (1987) | Directed by Louis Malle | War, Drama | PG | With Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö | MK2 Diffusion | Runtime: 104 minutes | Box Office: $4.5 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 97%
Empire of the Sun (1987) | Directed by Steven Spielberg | War, Drama, Coming of age | PG | With Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson | Warner Bros. | Runtime: 154 minutes | Box Office: $66.7 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 70%
While gruesome images of soldiers lying on sandy beaches with blood covering their faces and dirt cemented into their hair is effective in showing the cruel and gory realities that soldiers face on the battlefields, the horrors of war are best displayed through the eyes of children. Both Au revoir les enfants (1987) and Empire of the Sun (1987) use young teenage boys to show different perspectives on world events during World War II in France and China, respectively. Despite that both movies have little to no violence, they are both highly effective in capturing the terrible effects war has on humans.
Centered around the quickly-formed friendship between two boys at a French boarding school in 1943, the autobiographical film Au revoir les enfants (1987), written and directed by Louis Malle, slowly and strategically reveals references to one of its main characters’ Jewish faith and the motives of the Nazis in order to show the viewer the negative consequences of war. It’s only because of the historical lense the viewer has that we can infer that the film is headed for a sad ending, otherwise it appears to be a movie simply about friendship. The film is truly tragic, not only because the Nazis end up catching up to one of the Jewish protagonists in the end, but because the majority of the conversations are centered around lighter topics such as the boys’ complaints about schoolwork, teasing of their professors, and sharing about their families, in order to show that if it weren’t for the war, the boys most likely would have remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) uses the story of Jim Graham in an internment camp after being separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 to show how war changes the definition of day-to-day life. In a world where people fight to get enough moldy soup and soldiers burn down prisoner’s houses when they lose a battle, Jim is still able to maintain some aspects of his privileged life, just in a different way. For example, toward the end of the movie when Jim is dehydrated, starved, and exhausted, he sees a glowing ball of light in the distance sky and assumes it’s a supernatural occurrence, when in reality, it’s the atomic bomb that killed tens of thousands of people and changed the course of history. Likewise, while his camp is being bombed and most people are rushing to find shelter, Jim’s first thought is to run to the top of the hospital to admire the planes which he calls “the Cadillac of the skies.” After a few minutes of running around and yelling with enthusiasm, it’s only when a doctor grabs a hold of Jim and reminds him of his situation that Jim loses his happiness, telling the doctor, “I can’t remember what my parents look like,” and begins to cry. During one of the film’s most emotional scenes, when he is reunited with his parents, Jim runs his fingers over his mother’s lips and cheeks before allowing her to hug him, meaning that something as simple and familiar as his mother’s face had truly become almost foreign to him.
The Second World War takes away the chance of longlasting friendship for two boys in Au revoir les enfants (1987) and a boy’s idea of a normal life in Empire of the Sun (1987). By using a child’s point of view, the directors are showing the audience that what’s truly terrible about war is not the fighting itself, but what it takes away.