Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor is an epic biopic about Pu Yi, a boy crowned Emperor of China at the age of two in 1908. Through the use of the film flashing backwards and forwards in time, we are shown his whole life and its events against China’s shifts in government and culture through the mid-twentieth century.
For most of the film, the present takes place within a prison for war criminals that Pu Yi (John Lone) was held in for ten years. As he is interrogated and events unfold in the present, we are taken back to see his childhood as the Emperor of China. He is spoiled as a child simply because he is the emperor, and if you tell a child they are powerful enough to do anything, they will test that. As Pu Yi grows and is taught by his Scottish tutor, Reginald ‘R.J.’ Johnson (Peter O’Toole) he learns more about the world outside his Forbidden City that he is not allowed to see, including the civil revolution brewing just outside the Forbidden City’s walls. He takes a wife as empress, Wan Jung (Joan Chen) and a concubine, Wen Hsiu (Vivian Wu) at the same time and continues to live lavishly until 1924 when he is expelled from the Forbidden City. Suddenly the young man is out on his own, and eventually becomes exploited by the Japanese.
The early scenes of the boy emperor are especially beautiful. There are amazing images of the toddler Pu Yi squirming off his throne and teetering out to see thousands of people, clad an traditional robes filling the courtyard to worship the tiny emperor. Between the thousands of extras and all the details put into every scene, this film is something to behold, especially in the age of cut and paste CGI.
The beautiful soundtrack is a great mix of Eastern and Western culture. As the film progresses and Pu Yi starts pulling away from his roots, the music begins to change along with him and his surroundings, but always with slight Eastern influences elegantly slipped in.
Peter o’Toole’s role as R.J. is a wonderful and essential performance. It is R.J. who fuels Pu Yi’s interest in western culture, tries to expand his mind to issues further than the Forbidden City walls. R.J. also shows us that the boy is a lonely prisoner in the Forbidden City. However, O’Toole’s role is at a minimum in this long film. Don’t see it just for him, but still see it.
The Last Emperor is an obvious ruler over the films of 1987. Molding a rich historical story into a personal biography where we can feel a human connection to Pu Yi is no easy task. Turning it into a lush, beautiful epic showcasing the beauty of Chinese culture and its Forbidden City is absolutely amazing. Everything this film attempts is done with such a high level of excellence. The Last Emperor easily won all nine of it’s Oscar nominations, and didn’t leave many left for the other Best Picture nominees. They just cannot compare to this beautiful film.
“-Is it true, Mr. Johnston, that many people out there have had their heads cut off?
–It is true, your majesty. Many heads have been chopped off. It does stop them thinking.”
I rewatched this recently for my own ongoing project and was won over by its scope and insight all over again. I’m amazed that Peter O’Toole didn’t receive an Oscar nomination given the almost cruel frequency with which they’ve honored him over the course of his career. And John Lone’s performance is very underrated.
There were other fine films that year, including the un-nominated MATEWAN, MAURICE, & THE UNTOUCHABLES; but none to compare with this supreme work of art…this cinema masterpiece! Deserved every award it won; and Dan is right about acting nominations for John Lone and Peter O’Toole