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Movie Review: The Last Emperor

The Last Emperor
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe from the autobiography From Emperor to Citizen by Henry Pu-yi
Columbia, 1987

The Last Emperor is somewhat of an anomaly from your usual Best Picture winner.  Sure, it’s an epic, and critically lauded, and was a decent hit (probably more after its Oscar acclaim than before), but it did not get nominated for any of its performances.  Nominated for 9 Oscars, it swept them all, and got three big ones: Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  It’s one of my least favorite Best Pictures.

It tells the life of Pu Yi (played by many actors at various ages, but mostly by John Lone), who was thrust into royal stature as a little boy, to be the ruler of China’s Forbidden City even though outside its walls it was run by a different kind of government.  As he grows up, he is educated by his tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), and he begins to desire reform in China.  But his position gave him little to no power outside the Forbidden City.

He marries two women, the “Number One” being Wan Jung (Joan Chen).  As World War II approaches, Japan begins to attack China and offers Pu Yi asylum, even allowing him to become a puppet emperor for conquered Manchuria.  After the war ends, he is convicted of war crimes against the Republic, even though he had very little to do with any of its strife.  The story is told in flashback from his stay in prison.

The Last Emperor clocks in at three and a half hours, and almost no excitement occurs.  There is hardly any dramatic pull.  Still, I can’t help but think that this is the best movie Bertolucci could have told considering the material.  It is well-researched and authentic, and became the first feature to be allowed to film in the Forbidden City.  Beyond the initial excitement of being able to go behind those doors, be prepared for one long viewing experience.

1987 was probably the first year I ever watched the Oscars, even though I don’t remember much about it.  I just remember The Last Emperor beating Empire of the Sun in all the technical categories.  But in the Best Picture race, it toppled Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, the kind of film I’m sure would never be considered for this category today, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck, which won an Oscar for Cher, and James L. Brooks’ better-than-all-of-those Broadcast News.  News is easily my favorite of 1987. 

There are some other heavy-hitters that could have made it other than some of these other choices: Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Brian De Palma’s excellent The Untouchables (which come on…seriously, how did this not get nominated?), Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam.  Those last two probably suffered some Vietnam backlash after Platoon’s win the previous year. 

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