In the first few moments of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, we get extreme versions of China, done in the film’s rigorous yet electrifying color scheme. We open in the drabbest years of Mao, with an innately gray column of political prisoners. Color hardly features until we see the blood eddying in the hand basin where Pu Yi—the lost emperor, the forlorn candidate—has tried to end his sad life. Then the past floods in, too, and we see armored horsemen, prancing gold statues, galloping into a palace. They could be figures from a Josef von Sternberg epic, or from one of those Hollywood films made in sublime ignorance of the place itself—“China! As vast as its legends!” How can a film about China be other than huge?
And now, here is The Last Emperor on DVD, the classic made for at least twenty-five million dollars. I know it seems paltry as a sum now, but try to restore yourself to that condition of wonder that meant so much to cinema—this is Chinese light (granted an Italian marinade); these are for the most part Beijing locations; this is indeed the inside of the Forbidden City when there was some reason to doubt it would ever be seen again. And this is a coproduction put together by that endlessly ingenious and high-minded English producer Jeremy Thomas, at a moment when it seemed unlikely that any large movie studio could get into China with the same lack of restrictions.
So in 1987—make no mistake about it—this was magnificent, pioneering “tourist” cinema. (And in the way of being kind to tourists, nearly everyone in sight speaks English in the manner established in movies like Shanghai Express and The Good Earth.) The use of this term tourist is not meant to minimize the film but rather to stress its vital historical role to bring us sights never seen. This was an epic of foreign coproduction, filled with the hope that China was ready to be a part of the whole world again. Perhaps this was the last epic, we wondered. (After all, with Bertolucci and his famously final tango in 1972, it was easy to think that he was a director set on having the last word.)
And, yes, this is the film that won nine Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best screenplay, with other statuettes (so banal beside the sculptured figures inside the film) going to Ferdinando Scarfiotti for art direction, Vittorio Storaro for cinematography, James Acheson for the costumes, and Gabriella Cristiani for the editing. Just about everyone won except for John Lone and Peter O’Toole—and they were not even nominated. Their awards went to Michael Douglas for Wall Street and Sean Connery for The Untouchables. And that’s fine, as well as a happy reassertion of American energy and force in a year when The Last Emperor and self-effacement were sweeping.
But twenty years later, don’t be misled by all this pomp and glory. The Last Emperor is better than that—especially if you realize early on that it’s not just an epic but also a small film, one in which, somehow or other, the scope of David Lean has been enriched with the vision of Ozu. For the role of the emperor has fallen to the scale of a Bartleby. I refer to the scrivener in the Herman Melville short story, the office employee who—given any option or opportunity—increasingly retreats into the state of mind that would prefer not to do anything.
This smallness never gets in the way of The Last Emperor being an intensely beautiful film. Beauty can be very modest—it can be the lobe on a courtesan’s left ear, no more. What is extraordinary here is the sweep of world action set beside enchanting, hushed moments of idleness and ordinariness. This was the reunion of a sacred and seminal triumvirate in filmmaking—Bertolucci, designer Scarfiotti, and photographer Storaro—that had made its first great work with The Conformist in 1970. That film stands as the source of nearly every great modern effort on behalf of an integrated look—call it total cinema.
So teach yourself to watch The Last Emperor not just through a tourist’s camera—don’t worry about the famous Forbidden City; it’s still there, though it’s like a football match today—but also as a work of design and light. Look at the colors in the city, feel the enclosures, and admit that the genius of Scarfiotti and Storaro has transformed tourist tableaux into scenes from a fiction. Let this attitude spread. Very early on, as the wretchedly gray Pu Yi is delivered for interrogation, and he slits his wrists, so the “music” for the film lets out a merciful sigh. This is a small brushstroke—you could miss it. But it is the texture through which The Last Emperor works. Grant that and you are ready for the superb, haunted Beijing courtyard where the emperor, wife number one, and wife number two are playing tennis on a court laid down like a carpet on the old cobbles, with R. J. Johnston, the spindly English tutor (O’Toole), calling out the score in a singsong voice. Suddenly we are on a desert island (a fairly accurate description of the Forbidden City), with a version of the admirable Crichton supervising the children’s games. When did an epic ever revel in such small charms?
But then, as if it’s actually the Centre Court after all, files of armed soldiers hurry into the gallery seats, aiming their rifles at the players. It’s the Kuomintang, and it’s time to go to Manchuria. Pu Yi then sighs the great line “I hated this place, but now I’m afraid to go.” And there you have it: the way in which a handsome but empty young man will become an amiable zombie, if everyone leaves him alone.
Of course, it’s possible to approach this film as a Chinese history program. After all, the story is true—which may be why it seems far-fetched. Pu Yi was a boy of three brought before the empress dowager as she was dying (this is Flora Robson from Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking) and declared emperor. He was deposed in the 1911 revolution, at which time Sun Yat-sen was trying to keep control over Chinese warlords. Pu Yi was left with tutor and wives in the Forbidden City; no one else could go in, but of course he couldn’t get out.
So, it’s sweet and wistful in The Last Emperor to note that Pu Yi longs for Ameri¬can innovations—Wrigley’s chewing gum, Bayer aspirin, and the chance to be a playboy after he’s whisked off to Tientsin and becomes an unwitting piece in a Japanese board game. Thus the beautiful cut that goes from Pu Yi giving up tennis to singing “Am I Blue?” in Manchuria. There’s a touch of Rudy Vallee to him.
It’s important that the film doesn’t really regret Pu Yi’s slide into ignominy or “failure.” It’s as if, granted Beijing to play with, Bertolucci elected to see through politics and to realize that all a cricket or an emperor can hope to do in such “interesting” times is survive. A big part of this progress is the way in which, as Pu Yi ages and we move through the four actors who play him, he becomes less compelling, less developed, but more humble and appealing. Lest that be taken as a criticism of John Lone’s performance, I’m sure it was the intention of the writers (Mark Peploe and Bertolucci, brothers-in-law) and a way of seeing the humility and pathos in Lone’s poised shyness. He is mystified by the melodrama in which he finds himself (for royalty takes order for granted), but gradually he works through inertia and fear to a sublime, serene assurance. In fact, Pu Yi became a common gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens—and I would not have objected to an extra sequence in which his wise talking to the plants was overheard and taken as a sign of Chance the gardener (and imperial adviser) from Being There.
Of course, in light of Bertolucci’s career as a whole, this shift in direction is significant—it is the Marxist urgency being given up for a patient view of passing time. The Conformist is as great a film as it is because we care desperately about how far the central character, Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), will surrender himself to Fascist “heroism.” The murder of Anna and her husband in the woods is an agony—one of the ugliest and most befouling in film, because his crushed bearing witness to it is so like ours. But the mishaps that befall life and liberty in The Last Emperor are meant to leave us as impassive as Mr. Johnston manages to be for twenty-three years. Another way of doing the story would have been to show Johnston as a tricky force, a double agent or a spy. But the desert-island charm of the finished film is protected by O’Toole’s persistent banality, the impartiality of the umpire. Calling a ball in or out can be as important as being on the right side. The Bertolucci of 1900—where the liberated peasants of Emilia dance beneath a great red banner, and the director seems to be tracing his own radical progress—has moved on, outliving so much hope and disappointment. As a younger man, he was desperate about the world, and though The Conformist was set in the past, its dilemma spoke to modern times. China, he seems to be saying, is so vast, so strong, such a beast—let it make its own way in the world, and let sane men tend to their gardens as the warriors ride by. Even if they trample on your plants, they may leave manure.
In which case, Pu Yi is not simply a victim, or a man who could have made any difference. He is a mistaken emperor lucky enough to regain anonymity, and someone who learned to recognize and enjoy the Chinese light, the sound of a cricket, or the breast of a wet nurse—we take our gifts as they present themselves. It is a version of The Conformist that starts as that Fascist era ends, with the hero determined to do as little as possible for fear of incriminating or exposing himself. It seems clear, in hindsight, that the whole trip to China was a turning point in which Bertolucci learned the lesson of every painter and craftsman who ever worked in Beijing (or Florence)—make your “red” bright and lasting and do not bother how later ages interpret it ideologically. Red may seem royal, warlike, and Marxist as ages pass, but red is red—it warms the eye. In every sense, therefore, the epic perspective has been drained out of human life. And in the years since The Last Emperor, Bertolucci has made small films about private dreams. In the same way, it’s less persuasive now that different ideologies will save the world—we are at the mercy of things as large as weather. The fate of man has left man’s hands. It’s up in the air.
Bertolucci’s personal journey has been away from Freud and Marx and toward Buddha. And so the “tragedy” of Pu Yi ends up far more encouraging than we anticipate. It therefore may be for us to decide whether one fine flower is enough to make a garden, or must it stretch for miles? As you watch, remember this—not quite dreamed of at the time it was made—that The Last Emperor may be a last great monument not only to emperors and their styles but to light, location, clothes and their shifting shapes (the world of film we knew before digital). The real emperor to whom Bertolucci aspires is not Mao or Pu Yi, but Josef von Sternberg.
David Thomson's most recent book is "Have you Seen?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of The Last Emperor.