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Empire of the Sun – P51: Cadillac of the Skies

An evening pause: From Stephen Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun.

Hat tip to Phil Berardelli, author of Phil’s Favorite 500: Loves of a Moviegoing Lifetime.

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  • Phil Berardelli

    Thanks Bob. I think this scene, with its exquisitely constructed dynamic compositions, represents the pinnacle of filmmaking, and I mean that literally. These days there are more intricate scenes, but they’ve been constructed frame by frame with the help of CGI. Spielberg did this one — and many other breathtaking moments in that movie — using only the sheer force of his intellect and visual instinct. I think it’s his masterpiece.

  • Cotour

    I love the P-51, fantastic, classic design, balanced with raw horse power and performance, but this whole movie scenario seems a bit too contrived and unrealistic to me. I guess for dramatic purposes the director continually has the planes flying long runs over the target, 20 feet off the ground, dropping bombs and conveniently offering themselves up to the Japanese ground gun fire as a sign of disrespect and humiliation?

    In addition the slow motion fly by where the pilot casually has time to wave to the kid from his open cock pit, I do not believe that that particular plane is a full scale machine. To me it appears to be a 3/4 scale modern replica. Add it all up and this is an example of how Hollywood tends to take license with reality for dramatic purposes. For that particular shot a historically accurate machine should have been used.

    Sorry to throw cold water on your take Phil.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Your reply reminds me of an anecdote about a woman who wrote an angry letter to Walt Disney about his animated classic, “Bambi.” She complained about a scene in which Bambi’s mother, the doe, preceded her mate, the stag, walking through the forest. This would never happen in reality, she declared, because the stag would always precede the doe and any fawns. Disney wrote back to the woman, “And another thing, Madam, deer don’t talk.”

    As far as what would really happen in a strafing and bombing attack by P-51s, I give way to your superior knowledge. I was talking about the film and the breathtaking compositions Spielberg managed to achieve in telling his story. Speaking of which, the author of the source novel, J.G. Ballard, who based it on his own experiences growing up in pre-war Shanghai and spending several years at the Suzhou prison camp, said that Spielberg had discovered elements of his story that even he hadn’t realized before he saw the movie.

  • Jwing

    Beauty and sheer bridled horsepower crafted into a utterly deadly war machine whose sole purpose was battling pure EVIL and it’s worst form, man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man.

    All of that is expressed in hypnotically beautiful lines (to a male’s brain) of this airframe which entranses you further when you watch the above film scenes of the Mustang flying.

    Awesome! It makes me so proud to be a American man and an engineer.

    Excellent post, Bob.


  • Cotour

    The planes are original full scale machines.

    I think what they did was prop the pilot up for that shot and it looked un natural, and that “Tugboat”
    logo does not seem to fit the era to me.

    Sorry about Walts talking deer.

  • Pzatchok

    The strafing runs were a bit off also.

    Planes need to make an aggressive downward angle of attack in order to aim the guns at the ground.
    Not just make a high speed 50 foot run over head.

    As for the planes being shot at. They have two options. Either stay out of small arms range, several thousand feet up, or get low and stay fast so that the gunners have little opportunity to accurately target them.

  • Cotour

    So its not just me.

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