The Best Picture Winners: The Last Emperor (1987)

| January 5, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 56 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving

Much like Lawrence of Arabia, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is something of a poisonous element to your average profit-minded studio executive.  It takes place in a foreign country, it has no notable marquee stars, it is three hours long and it tells the story of a historical figure that most Americans have never heard of.

Yet, in 1987 the movie found an audience which comprised greatly of young people (myself among them) and made respectable box office.  That’s a strange circumstance.  Here is a movie that, by all accounts, should have (like other before it) taken it’s critical acclaim, collected  its awards and then disappeared into the dustbins of history.  But the film’s twist of circumstance makes it more than just the standard biography and possibly because of that, the film has maintained its respect for more than 30 years.

That may be because the circumstances of Pu Yi’s life were anything but standard.  At the age of three, he was crowned emperor of China and by the time he was twelve he was a bird in a gilded cage, caught in the middle of the Communist revolution that rendered the trappings of his position virtually meaningless.

What is special about The Last Emperor is the ways in which it reverses the usual bio-pic formula.  Most films are about great men who struggle to formulate a change int he world –  Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Abraham Lincoln – but Pu Yi is different.  He is a man whose circumstances are changed by historical events.  He is a man born into a position of power but whose life is altered by the winds of history.  When we see him at the end, it is a great irony that he is happier as a poor gardener than he ever was as royalty.


I’m at odds with the film only to the degree that it features a central character that always feels at arm’s length.  I love the story construction, I love the themes, I love the film’s breathtaking visual look.  But, when it is over, I never felt that I got close to Pu Yi.  I got caught up in his plight, but what about the person that I’m suppose to get caught up in as well?  I see him, but who is?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.