“The Last Emperor”: Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping Oscar-winning epic about the life of a puppet-emperor

By on February 28, 2017

On December 11, 1987, “Night Flight” aired one of our most popular regular features, “Night Flight Goes To The Movies,” this one highlighting some of the year’s best feature films, some of which were sure to get nominations for Academy Awards, including Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping epic, The Last Emperor. Take a look at this vintage 80s episode, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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The Last Emperor — from a screenplay by Mark Peploe, based on the two volume memoirs of the last ruler of the Ching dynasty, Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, From Emperor to Citizen, the Autobiography of Pu Yi, ghost-written by a Communist propagandist, Li Wenda — is one of only three total Best Picture winners to win every one of the awards for which it was nominated.

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Bernardo Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas (right) on the set of the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor

The film was premiered in New York City (November 18, 1987) and Los Angeles (Nov. 19th), before opening nationwide on December 18th, just a week after our “Night Flight Goes To The Movies“aired on the USA Network.

The lavish biopic tells the incredible story of Aisin-Gioro Puyi (December 2, 1906 – February 12, 1967), the twelfth and final ruler of the Qing dynasty, who for much of his life was more commonly called Henry Pu Yi, or simply Pu Yi.

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The hapless but noble Pu Yi, of the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan, ascended the throne as Emperor Xuantong, but he would be the last emperor of China and would spend most of his early life as a puppet of others.

Pu Yi’s life can certainly be considered emblematic of the historical changes that took place in China, but Bertolucci — who was definitely not making a fact-based documentary — mixes both historical fact and fantasy-based fiction in an audacious combination, using the idea of a “last emperor” as the centerpiece for fantastic widescreen cinema to reveal some of the tumultuous changes that had taken place in China during the 20th Century.

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Pu Yi — the eldest son of Prince Chun, who was a younger half-brother of Emperor Guangxu — took his seat on the Dragon Throne when he just was two years and ten months old, after being chosen to succeed her by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was on her deathbed.

Portrayed in The Last Emperor as an elderly giggling witch, the demented Empress — who was ruling in the place of Emperor Guangxu, whom she had deposed in a military coup following his Hundred Days’ Reform — is seen dying in her golden bed, dressed in dazzling brocade, while white-faced attendants on all sides stand as stiff as figurines.

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The Empress Cixi did not want Guangxu to take over after her death, and when, on November 14, 1908, Guangxu died suddenly, Pu Yi was chosen to be the next emperor.

He was plucked from his mother’s arms when he was still just a toddler, and quickly and officially enthroned as Lord of Ten Thousand Years and master of the most populous nation on earth.

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During his early childhood, Pu Yi had no friends, apart from his wet nurse, and no one to give him love and no parental figures to teach him disciple or responsibility. The young emperor was watched over by his adopted mother, Empress Dowager Longyu (wife of Emperor Guangxu) and his father, who served as his regent.

Four years later, in 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown, following the Xinhai Revolution, and the Republic of China was founded on the first of January, 1912 by the Kuomintang (the KMT or Nationalist Party), who henceforth assumed control of China.

A month later, Empress Dowager Longyu, on behalf of her young adopted six-year old son, signed the “Act of Abdication of the Emperor of the Great Qing,” abdicating all imperial authority to republican forces, and ending, in an instant, 2000 years of Imperial rule.

In return for the peaceful surrender of the monarchy, the Republic of China made eight pledges to Pu Yi, including a promise of maintaining a temporary residence in the Forbidden City and, later, in the Summer Palace.

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The boy-emperor continued to live in the lonely, surreal locked-up splendor in Beijing’s Forbidden City for another decade or so.

He was unable to go beyond the city walls, which Bertolucci shows up was something like being trapped in an opulent, colorful dream.

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He was attended by 1500 eunuchs, as well as various members of his household and various others, who he was at liberty to abuse with impunity. “Flogging eunuchs was part of my daily routine,” Pu Yi writes in his memoirs.

In Bertolucci’s film, Pu Yi, as a grown man, expels the hundreds of thieving eunuchs from the Forbidden City, and we see the men carrying their severed penises in small bowls. They want to be buried, we’re told, as whole men.

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During this time, Pu Yi lives a privileged but isolated existence, banned by the Kuomintang from ever leaving the gilded cage of his expansive palace. He receives private tuition, gets married and dreams of reclaiming his throne.

Toward the end, he was also attended to by a faithful but sometimes acerbic Scottish-born tutor, Reginald Johnston, (played by the great Peter O’Toole) who had a deep admiration for Chinese civilization and nothing but ridicule for salvation-mongering Christian missionaries (he later wrote his own memoirs, Twilight in the Forbidden City).

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On November 29th 1924, Pu Yi, the former emperor Xuantong, was expelled from the Forbidden City, and put under the protection of Japan.

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He spent some time at the Japanese embassy in Beijing, where he celebrated his nineteenth birthday, before being moved to the port city of Tianjin, where he maintained a residence in the Zhang villa for five years before moving to another house, Jing Yuan or Garden of Tranquility, which is now a museum dedicated to Pu Yi’s stay in Tianjin (previously known in English as “Tientsin”).

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Along with his first wife, the beautiful Empress Wanrong, nicknamed Elizabeth (played by the luminous Joan Chen in The Last Emperor) and Wenxiu, his “secondary wife,” (Vivian Wu), they carried on in what was seen as heedless, high-style life of decadence in the foreign enclave.

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Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor shows depictions of what apparently really happened at the home in Tianjin — scenes of wickedness, sexual deviance, perversity, lesbianism, and drug use — and while sexual frankness has always been an element to Bertolucci’s films, this one seems somewhat strangely muted and cautious when it comes to what Bertolucci chooses to show us.

In 1931, the Japanese — who sought to legitimize their hold on Manchuria — returned Pu Yi and his family to their Manchu homeland where, until the end of World War II, he reigned as the Japanese puppet-emperor of the new state of Manchuko.

Pu Yi would sit on the throne in 1933 — giving Manchukuo a semblance of credibility but no freedom — before forfeiting in 1945 at the end of World War II.

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Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last emperor of China (shown at the right).

After the war, labeled a pro-Japanese “war criminal” by the victorious Communists and their Red Army, Pu Yi testified against his former Japanese allies in the Tokyo war crimes trials, and then spent a decade in a grim cinder-block Russian compound, where he underwent “re-education” in some kind of rehabilitation camp.

By the way, the depiction of that re-education in the film by the Communist Chinese — who also re-adjusted the world view of Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks, and believers in true democracy and a free press — is fairly tame when compared, let’s say, to how it’s shown in George Orwell’s 1984 novel, a book that seems as applicable today as when it was first published, in 1949.

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As The Last Emperor tells it, Pu Yi lived the rest of his life in semi-anonymous contentment in the ashen heart of post-revolutionary Peking, the city of his former glory.

At the time of his death, he was working as a gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens, having found a new kind of dignity, in his gray jacket and cap, in playing the part of the happy citizen and voicing his support of Communism.

The movie actually ends the same way it begins, showing a prison governor — who manages to liberate Pu Yi from the past and turn him into a better human being — who is being humiliated and forced to kowtow and worship Chairman Mao (Mao Zedong aka Mao Tse-tung).

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Bertolucci, who seems to have always been interested in failed revolutions and progressive movements whose ideals are sometimes absorbed by the systems they’re criticizing as a way of eliminating their threat to the status quo — he directed The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and 1900, among many other great films — wanted his film to reflect the dramatic changes happening in China in the 20th Century, from feudalism to republicanism to Communism.

The Last Emperor would be his first film after a six year break.

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Bertolucci — who has always been famous for the sensual richness of his productions — was given complete freedom by Chinese authorities to shoot in The Forbidden City, which had never before been opened up for use in a Western film, giving his access to some magnificent locations within its gigantic, interlocking mass of halls, quadrangles, alleys and gardens.

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Bertolucci also used other authentic shooting locations, in China and Manchuria, and used primarily English-speaking actors of Oriental or Eurasian descent in this rare Hollywood picture about the Orient, in what appears to have been a very international big-budget “Hollywood” production about a very un-American 20th Century historical figure.

Four different actors are used to play the emperor at different stages in his life, beginning with three-year old actor Richard Vuu, and ending with John Lone, who takes over Pu Yi’s life from the age of eighteen.

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One of the more remarkable facts about the film was the widescreen scope of its production, and when there were scenes requiring thousands of extras, they weren’t digitally created — there were actually thousands of extras on hand (a reported nineteen thousand extras were needed, and the Chinese army was drafted in to accommodate).

We can also assume that all of the costumes, props and random historical references are also authentic, but Bertolucci was criticized at the time of the films release for some of the film’s accuracy, such as the opening scene, which depicts Pu Yi’s suicide attempt: the scene was factually inaccurate and purely an invention of Bertolucci and/or Peploe’s imagination.

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Bertolucci’s film — production designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti and stunningly, beautifully filmed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro — cuts back and forth in a complicated flashback/ flash-forward style, between the spectacular court life and the dour prison camp, where the fallen ruler is angrily questioned by the Communist functionaries.

Despite its colorful opulence, and all that gold and vermillion unfolding under frequently somber skies, The Last Emperor is actually quite a dark view of China, despite the positive changes in Pu Yi’s life that take place at the end of the film, when Pu Yi becomes a true human being after being released from a Communist prison; it seems that Bertolucci’s film highlighted that regarding everything else in China — especially its political system and the people involved — nothing really has changed.

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Night Flight’s late 1987 episode of “Night Flight Goes To The Movies,” — which highlighted some of the year’s best feature films, including the monumental The Last Emperor, which won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, at the Oscars on April 11, 1988 — is streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.