History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)

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To view The Last Emperor click here.

In 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor, a movie about the life of Puyi, sometimes spelled as Pu Yi, who was the last emperor of China before it became a republic in 1911. The film was notable for having obtained permission from the Chinese government to film inside the Forbidden City, the storied site of the Imperial Palace. And possibly starting there, the movie began its clash with history, not so much by altering historical outcomes in the life of Puyi, but by leaving out information that might make the viewer less empathetic to those outcomes. Was this because Bertolucci was trying to placate the Chinese government and make sure he retained their permission to film? Possibly. Judging by how much of the real history is left in, though, it’s more likely that Bertolucci was trying to make a film about a child put into an impossible situation and leaving out disturbing facts that might make the audience a little less inclined to feel sorry for the small boy. For instance…

As a child ruler, Puyi developed some sadistic habits, most of them concerned with torturing the eunichs, the slaves who essentially ran the Forbidden City and tended to the emperor’s every beck and call. One of his favorite activities, that he himself admitted to in his own biography, was having eunichs beaten and whipped, and not occasionally but daily. That’s right, daily. When he was older, and living in the Japanese state of Manchukuo, he did the beating and whipping himself, and even managed to whip one servant until he died. And then there are his actions after he learned of his wife’s affair with one of his aides. He learned of it because she was pregnant and since he hadn’t had sex with her in years (possibly ever, according to some accounts) he was confident he wasn’t the father. As a result, after she gave birth to a baby girl, he had the newborn thrown into a boiler. These events, needless to say, are not in the movie. The first was left out, the second hadn’t come to light yet. Either way, watching The Last Emperor today, one is likely to walk away from the viewing with a skewed look at Puyi but a fairly interesting and visually captivating look at China’s cultural history during the 20th century.

The movie is told in flashback as we follow Puyi’s (played as an adult by John Lone) captivity in a reeducation camp under the new communist regime in China circa 1950. He has been declared an enemy of the state and, for once in a totalitarian state that pretty much accuses anyone it disagrees with of being an enemy of the state, they are partly right. After all, Puyi became a puppet of Japan at possibly the worst time in history given the events occurring in both countries. A large part of his reeducation and rehabilitation being deemed successful resulted from his denunciation of the Japanese and their brutal slaughter during the Rape of Nanking.

In the camp, Puyi proves absolutely useless. He has been waited on so completely that even the simplest tasks are beyond him. (The real life Puyi literally had never brushed his own teeth before his time in the camp.) He has to be told to urinate against the top rim of a bucket, instead of directly into it, so it will not make as much noise while others are sleeping. And he must confess to all he has done by recounting his life story. During this process, he becomes a fully rehabilitated citizen of the new Communist China and lives out his life as a simple gardener.

When we peak into his past, we see how he came to this point. We see the boy made emperor, the young man engaged to a girl he’s never met and finally the playboy living off the finances of the Japanese. We see his tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), teaching him the ways of the modern world. And we see his gradual and complete disconnect from Chinese culture. What we don’t see is anything particularly challenging, either from a historical point of view or cinematically, and that surprised me watching it again recently for this piece.

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I first viewed The Last Emperor in 1987 upon its release. I was living in Washington, D.C. and saw it at the Uptown Cinema, one of the last remaining movie palaces in the country with a massive curved wide screen. I remember being dutifully impressed and when it won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, I wasn’t surprised. And then I moved on and never saw it again until a couple of weeks ago. What a difference 30 years makes in your perception of things.

The first thing that struck me was that everyone spoke English. At one time, this was commonplace. Any movie made in Britain or America that took place in a foreign land was presented in English. But gradually, this shifted. Even television shows now regularly employ the local language of wherever the scene is taking place. There have been plenty of episodes of The Americans (2013-2017) that have more Russian spoken than English. I’d gotten so used to this that in my memory, The Last Emperor was in Chinese with subtitles until Johnston shows up. But that’s not the case and that’s neither good nor bad. It just made the movie feel old fashioned in a way I hadn’t remembered.

Then there’s the casting of Puyi at different ages. Richard Vuu, Tsou Tijger and Tao Wu, all play the younger versions of the emperor until adulthood when John Lone takes over. They all look and sound quite different from each other and have varying levels of acting skills. Vuu and Lone are the best but on the whole, the character himself isn’t very interesting so there’s not much anyone can do to begin with.

Then there’s the Forbidden City itself. The filmmakers gained access to film there and film multiple scenes in the outer courtyard near the gate. It’s a large, grand space but also an antique one, looking worn and neglected, as well as desolate. This large empty space may have been used well as a commentary on Puyi’s isolated and largely empty existence but seems to have attracted Bertolucci only in its scale. He finds as many ways as he can to get the camera back to it as often as possible, including Puyi and his younger brother making the eunuchs chase them into it. So much time is spent on the youthful but uninteresting life of the young emperor inside the Forbidden City that John Lone has the challenge of reengaging the audience once Puyi becomes an adult. And he does, to a degree.

Finally, there’s the thoroughly unnecessary and awkward final moment of the movie. Prior to this moment, we see the elderly Puyi, now a private citizen, visit the Imperial Palace he once lived in, but this time as a tourist. Inside, he steals away from the tour group to go to the throne. Once there, a young and dutiful Maoist boy tells him he cannot sit on the throne because it is off limits. He tells the boy that he was once the emperor and proves it by pulling out a little container from behind the throne that he kept as a boy. It contained his pet grasshopper. The young boy takes it and when he turns around Puyi is gone. Then the grasshopper emerges. It’s Bertolucci’s attempt at a poetic ending with a dash of magical realism and that’s fine, if in fact the movie ends there. But for reasons unknown, we then get a 30 second shot of a tour guide in 1987 telling her tour group that Puyi died in 1967. The end. I’m absolutely positive we could have done without that. It is clearly and obviously inferred in the previous scene that his encounter with the boy in 1967 was his farewell.

And all of this is to say that The Last Emperor, a movie I thought to be a modern biographical movie when I saw it in 1987, really is as old-fashioned as any classic studio historical picture starring Norma Shearer or Fredric March. With the exception of some language and nudity, you could easily imagine this very same movie being made in the 1930s, only with Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in the leads since actual Chinese actors wouldn’t have been allowed to play the central figures at the time. We can be thankful at least that that had changed by 1987 but little else had.

At the time, it seemed remarkable that a western movie production had gained full access to the Forbidden City and the help of the Chinese government to boot. Watching the movie again, it doesn’t seem all that remarkable anymore. Bernardo Bertolucci made a visually beautiful movie (thanks to the great work of photographer Vittorio Storaro) that was somehow sympathetic to both the Chinese communists and the last emperor himself. The Last Emperor isn’t the movie you watch for a challenging and daring look into another culture or historical figure. It’s the movie you watch to see what an old-fashioned biopic from 1937 would have looked like if it had been made in 1987. And in a strange and curiously wonderful way, that connects the story and its subject to the past better than the story itself.

Greg Ferrara

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18 Responses History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)
Posted By swac44 : September 8, 2017 9:20 am

A fascinating old school epic, but not one I’ve felt compelled to return to since I last saw it on laserdisc, of all things. I believe there’s a longer director’s cut, but I can’t imagine what it might add, part from perhaps more Peter O’Toole, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Posted By Emgee : September 8, 2017 4:33 pm

It confirms what i already suspected at the time, and why i never saw it: pretty pictures but a dull story. But then i’ve never been one of Berolucci’s admirers, exactly for that reason.

Interesting (well, to me) that Peter O’Toole appears in a movie that shuns to show the negative aspects of the protagonist’s character. In Lawrence of Arabia they did show the title character’s cruel side and that made him less saintly and more human. And therefore more interesting.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 8, 2017 5:02 pm

Swac and Emgee: I’ll come clean. I select my subjects a few weeks, sometimes months, in advance of writing them and we have a calendar for the writers where we record our movie titles so we don’t all end up writing up the same movie within days of each other. I spent so many years writing up general topics (Paranoid Thrillers, Movie Titles, Money Shots in Movies, etc) that in the last year as we moved to Filmstruck, I made the conscious decision (hopefully not to the complete boredom of our readers here) to select single movies for my subjects and they had to be movies I either had never seen or hadn’t seen in years. Then I would watch them and put down my thoughts.

Many of the titles I choose, I fully expect to love or admire. Often times though, from The Last Metro to The Last Emperor, I find that my dusty old memory had not served me well but I still want to try and put a good face on it instead of saying, “Re-watched this recently and, ugh, don’t waste your time.”

I was really taken aback at how different The Last Emperor felt from my first and only viewing of it in 1987. Back then I had this cocky attitude akin to “Finally movies are treating historical subjects more realistically.” Now, I see movies from the same time period and find them just as mediocre in the realism department as any old Hollywood epic. But what really struck me, and I guess I was trying to skirt around this in the piece and put a kinder face on it, was how dreadfully dull much of this movie is. This must be the first time I’ve ever written up a movie with Peter O’Toole in it and not spent at least a third of the article talking about how great O’Toole was because he wasn’t because he couldn’t be. His character is so empty of characterization he could have been played by anyone.

One last thing: I didn’t quite get this across well in the piece but the Forbidden City itself, the exteriors at least, looked like they would look in 1987, not 1907. In other words, imagine a movie about Greeks meeting at the Parthenon in 200 BC but instead of building a set or using CGI, they simply filmed it at the Parthenon exactly the way it looks now but wanted us to believe it was really during its heyday. Basically, you can tell just by looking at the Forbidden City that it hasn’t been occupied in decades by the filming of this movie and no one bothered to retro shine it up, so to speak.

Posted By Doug : September 8, 2017 7:08 pm

Yah, I’ll come clean, too. I don’t come to Streamline to be entertained, though the conversations and review posts often are entertaining. I appreciate learning about film, and also the opinions/ideas regarding film from both the Streamline writers and visitors.
If there is a subject which bores me, I don’t contribute my digital .02 cents.
If I see a conversation heading “out of bounds” I’ve learned to keep my trap shut.
With that proviso in place, I’m guessing that Bertolucci may have wanted to do this film as an homage to Communism, as Errol Flynn did at the end of his career with his flag waving for Castro as he was taking control of Cuba. I’ve never seen “Cuban Rebel Girls” but I have heard that it is not good.
Has anyone here seen it?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 8, 2017 8:12 pm

I’ve never seen it and just read about it. Now I want to see it and not because it looks good but because it sounds so utterly misguided.

Doug, Bertolucci does a real balancing act here, let me tell you. The Communists are treated with kid gloves and their enemy, the emperor, is also treated with kid gloves. No matter what side you were on in China, Bertolucci made sure your side came out fine.

And I’ve had to learn to keep my trap shut too. Ten years ago I willingly got into it with people online. Hell, even here, if you go back to around 2011 or 2012. In fact, there are still some commenters I miss seeing. I know they’re still here because I see their comments on other posts, just not mine anymore. My own fault for being too confrontational in the past. You get older, you learn some things.

Posted By Gamera2000 : September 9, 2017 1:03 am

I saw this back in 1987 when it came out, partly because I love historical films and partly I am a Bertolucci fan (no matter how uneven he has been).

I had mixed feelings about this film, loving the visuals and frustrated by the narrative. I can’t help but think that Bertolucci, was to some degree handicapped by both needing the support of the Chinese government to film in the Imperial City and his own pro-communist views. His criticism of the Chinese government re-education prison camp is no worse than the post Gang of Four criticism allowed by the government. The most alive parts of the films are the parts set in 1930′s Japanese occupied Manchuria which has the kind of decadence Bertolucci has always handled so well.

I have not seen the whole film in years and I should revisit it. One other element, besides Storaro’s camera work, that I love is the music by David Byrne and especially, Ryuichi Sakamoto who also acts in the movie. There are scenes when the music provides an emotional richness the film doesn’t always.

Posted By Emgee : September 9, 2017 4:50 am

“the exteriors at least, looked like they would look in 1987, not 1907.”

A sure sign that a movie is boring, once you start to notice, or care about, such things. OK, an effort at hitstorical accuracy should have been made, but when a movie involves you, who cares avout the interiors. Is Lawrence of Arabia historically accurate? Dunno. Do i care? Not really, as long as i’m entertained and moved.
I’ve said it before: beware of epics, they’re nearly Always a bore.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 9, 2017 8:57 am

Gamera2000, quite right. The music is one of its best elements. And you are spot on about the 30s being the most interesting part of the movie. It does seem more in line with Bertolucci’s strengths.

Watching it again, the re-education camp seemed so tepid. There is never a menacing sense that if Puyi doesn’t fall in line he is up the creek. Rather, it’s just a nice device to serve as the jumping board for flashbacks.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 9, 2017 9:17 am

Emgee, my thoughts exactly, expressed here in a post I did a few years back (Thanks for the History Lesson but I’m Just Here for the Movie). I would go further and say that applies to almost everything, not just historical film. Plot holes? Bad movie, they’re distracting. Good movie, who cares? Continuity flubs? Bad movie, totally noticeable. Good movie, too engaged with the story to notice. And so on. It all comes down to how well the movie is keeping my interest.

As for epics, audiences, critics, and awards groups have all always loved them. It doesn’t matter what they’re up against either. Looking at the movies released in 1987 I can come up with a good ten that are far superior to this one, including my personal favorite for the year, Wings of Desire, not even nominated for Best Foreign Language film. Hell, I’d take Matewan, The Dead, Robocop, Hope and Glory, Au Revoir les Enfants, Full Metal Jacket, Moonstruck, Radio Days, Ironweed, Broadcast News, Untouchables, Princess Bride, Empire of the Sun, and probably a handful more, over The Last Emperor for Best Picture any day of the week. And I guarantee you, many of those films I just listed will still be watched years after most people have forgotten The Last Emperor even existed.

Side note: I almost feel a bit of weight lifted off my shoulders in this comment section. I don’t mind being disappointed by a movie but it’s nice to be able to just say it outright. There’s no one at Streamline or Filmstruck saying I can’t do that anyway (we’re all repeatedly assured we can take any angle we want with our pieces, which is nice), I just feel that once I choose a movie to write up that I shouldn’t spend an entire post tearing it down. I feel like the post itself should be a balanced affair intended for someone coming here to read it now or in ten years. But in the comments I feel like I can really engage, at least a lot more than in the post which is done without any input whatsoever.

Posted By swac44 : September 9, 2017 9:41 am

Just double checked, the theatrical version is 163 minutes long, and is the director’s preferred cut, while the longer 218 minute version was prepared to run as a miniseries on Italian TV. I believe the longer cut is included with the Criterion edition of the film, but I’ve never seen it. IMDb often lists differences between versions, but in this case it looks like no one could be bothered to sit through it a second, and longer, time.

Posted By swac44 : September 9, 2017 9:44 am

From Wikipedia:

” The television cut includes more footage from the stifling palace of Manchukuo. An entire character cut from the theatrical release is the drug-addled opium pusher appointed Minister of Defence by the Japanese, who becomes a sort of demon when he surfaces in Pǔyí’s prison camp, whispering the awful truth to Puyi at night. In addition, the extra footage shows more detail about the way in which Pǔyí was unable to take care of his own needs without servants.”

Posted By Doug : September 9, 2017 2:10 pm

I’m going to call an inaudible and point folks towards William Marshall and his “Yellowthread Street” series of police procedurals which take place in Hong Kong but are much, much more than cops and robbers.
Marshall uses the setting to explore the human condition and Chinese culture/history while telling solid stories.
There has been a TV series of Yellowthread Street, which never arrived on these shores. But the books are very good, all written before 1997 when Hong Kong was ‘returned’ to China; the last few books note that coming day.

Posted By Ken Adlam : September 9, 2017 3:02 pm

Thanks for the post and the history lesson. am not sure what would have been served by showing childhood sadism, though I have long felt that the idealized portrait of children as beautiful innocents was far too simplistic…undisciplined or unschooled children can be quite capable of unspeakable cruelty (kind of the point of Lord of the Flies). At any rate I really liked the Bertolucci’s sensitive portrait of a boy, raised to believe he was almost a god, coming to grips with the reality of a world he couldn’t have imagined and finally learning to survive by making himself subservient to all. I found it quite touching. In an OK year for film, this was definitely a standout and, you are right, a good old-fashioned historical epic–interesting that you recalled The Good Earth with the mention of Paul Muni and Luise Ranier, the other great Chinese hist-epic. My other favorite films that year were Matewan, Moonstruck, Maurice, and Untouchables…and maybe your picks will be viewed after Last Emperor has been forgotten; but this one was spectacular and technically gorgeous on all levels. Criterion Does include both editions which at the time was the only way to get the theatrical version…as with so many other films, the theatrical version remains the preferred version, though the longer cuts are often interesting for background and to appreciate the director’s editing ability. In the end, there was no contest in my mind for Best Film of 1987 and Emperor deserved all the awards it got. I was quite moved by the ending actually, with the appearance of the grasshopper, the disappearance of PuYi, and the sudden shock-jump to the present. Really beautiful!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 9, 2017 5:14 pm

The drug pusher scenario sounds pretty interesting actually.

Doug, thanks, I’m not familiar with those. I’ll have to check them out.

Ken, I’m always glad to have a different point of view. You’re right, adding in scenes of childhood sadism probably would have added little. One of my problems with epics in many ways is that, in this one for instance, its near three hour length isn’t long enough and yet too long because it’s too fragmented. This kind of story is best suited to a miniseries where the full life can be explored. Epics often feel like I’m watching a very long highlights reel rather than in depth story.

It is quite beautiful to view though and the final section is very good. I like the final scene very much but the jump to the present day felt unnecessary.

Posted By Ken Adlam : September 9, 2017 9:10 pm

I think part of it is that so many current films deal mainly with visual and sound effects…noise and action…that I am often nostalgic for films which combine technical brilliance with good story-telling. Often torn between 3 and 4+ hour versions of Last Emperor, Dances with Wolves, Gladiator, even King Kong et. al., but in the end the directors often wind up doing just the right amount of editing for the theatrical releases…Though it is nice to have the BluRay specials with both.

Posted By Doug : September 9, 2017 9:30 pm

to Ken-very true about “technical brilliance with good story-telling”-on another post I mentioned recently watching the Blu Ray of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. It’s an extremely well crafted film, and I marveled at how all of the elements harmonized.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 9, 2017 10:06 pm

I saw Vertigo at the AFI theater about five years ago and though I was a fan of the film before seeing it, I truly loved it once seeing it fully restored on the big screen. It is an amazing movie.

Posted By Doug : September 10, 2017 10:31 pm

“Captain Howdy” moments-thanks to technology advancements, we can watch/revisit/dissect scenes and films in ways which film makers could never have foreseen.
Audiences in 1973 might have missed the nearly subliminal images of Captain Howdy in “The Exorcist”. Even if it had registered on their consciousness, the only way to be sure of what they had seen was to buy another ticket.
Now we can freeze frame any image in the comfort of our own homes.
When Kim Novak is introduced in “Vertigo”, we see her in close profile in Ernie’s Restaurant. The very red wall in the background noticeably brightens behind her…but dims back down to normal when she turns back to look at her husband.
That says something without words. I’m sure that it registered with 1958 audiences,if only subliminally.

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