We publish a review by Oliver Stone of the Last Emperor, originally written in November 1998 for the New York Times, on the occasion of the release of the director’s cut version of the film.

For those wishing to watch The Last Emperor, it is streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO.


An Epic That Gets Better as It Gets Longer

by Oliver Stone


I had serious doubts before seeing a 3 hour 39 minute version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Emperor, thinking perhaps an already indolent film was to become absolutely, luxuriantly, corrupted.

How wrong I was. The director’s cut is surely a richer, rounder film, made to the true rhythm of another time and culture. Certainly many felt that the 2 hour 20 minute version of The Last Emperor was a good film when it was released in 1987; it went on, after all, to win Best Picture, Best Director and six other Oscars. But this bold new version, being released on Dec. 4, is a masterpiece — a fully shaped historical epic that allows us to understand the complex character of Henry Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, from his proud childhood in the early part of our century (when his excrement is sniffed daily by royal connoisseurs), through his loss of power, imprisonment and re-education, and finally to his destiny as a humble gardener during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s.

The literal-minded might argue that the narrative is insufficiently changed now to warrant this extra 80 minutes, and from a story point of view, they would be right. The new scenes expand on Pu Yi’s childhood years spent cloistered in Beijing’s Forbidden City, before Peter O’Toole shows up as a British tutor to change forever the way the Emperor thinks. There is a dance between the Empress (Joan Chen) and Official Consort (Vivian Wu), more on the Emperor’s meetings with the Japanese militarists, and an especially striking scene of peasant women being auditioned for the role of wet-nurse to the young Emperor.

But such cataloguing would be missing the true point of this release, which is to restore in its missing footage the real pace of Chinese Imperial life and by so doing reveal to us a treasure of subtlety and spectacle not seen in a long time in Western cinema. Mr. Bertolucci, it is clear, loves China. He sees it not only with an eye as empathetic as Marco Polo, who first discovered the secrets of the old Empire, but also with the wide eyes of a child gazing into a musty box to find a grasshopper, the Emperor’s pet, which has been living a lifetime in the dark. You find yourself very much floating in this film, there in China. By contrast, the shorter version, although well-edited and thematically sound, lacks the sheer sensuousness of experience in which the longer version enfolds us like a favorite old jacket. Perhaps not since Coppola gave us the restored version of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon have moviegoers had a chance to share in such a visual feast.

Mr. Bertolucci cut his original film without any extraordinary pressure to do so. When asked why in a telephone conversation from Rome, he responded in a world-weary tone: ”Ahhh, I had been through the whole saga of 1900. It was five hours and I had to cut one hour. I didn’t want to go through this nightmare again. The cuts in The Last Emperor did not seem consequential to the story and I was quite happy with the shorter cut.” Has he watched the longer cut again? ”It is too hard to watch. My movies don’t belong to me any more.” Ten years after The Last Emperor and 21 years after 1900, having watched neither of them since, Mr. Bertolucci concludes, ”I have Buddhist distance now.”

Not the usual director’s defense of his cut. But then, nothing about Mr. Bertolucci is usual. To my knowledge, he is the first and last person, without being tarred and feathered, to release a 4 hour and 10 minute film (1900) in the United States. He was also the only director I know of to win a huge Western audience with a Western-financed film about Asia starring Asian actors.

What is so great about The Last Emperor? It is a true epic expressing the fate of the collective — in this case the Chinese empire — intertwined with the destiny of one individual. ”A journey from darkness to light,” as Mr. Bertolucci describes it. ”The dragon becomes man. Emperor becomes citizen.” He quotes Confucius, ”Men are born good, then society makes them bad.”

In that purity, John Lone’s Emperor is the classic confused romantic hero of the Bertolucci canon, an heir to Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Conformist, Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris and the under-appreciated Robert De Niro in 1900 — the boy-man who cannot even tie his own shoelaces. An innocent, he sells Manchuria out to the imperialistic Japanese, convincing himself this is an act of great patriotism. As a result, he is never forgiven by the Chinese and, when captured by the Russians at the end of World War II, he is sent to a re-education camp, where some of the film’s most humanistic scenes take place. There, he is taught to be a person by an interrogator played by the Chinese actor Ruocheng Ying (whom Mr. Bertolucci calls the ”Paul Scofield of Asia”). ”Confess that you are no better than anyone else,” the interrogator says. As with any Bertolucci film, irony comes full circle when the interrogator himself is interrogated and beaten with sticks by the young know-nothings of the Cultural Revolution. In the end, Mr. Bertolucci seems to be saying, all the world comes apart and all meaning is mocked by time.

Supported by his holy trinity of creative genius, Vittorio Storaro (cinematography), Nando Scarfiotti (production design) and James Acheson (costume design), and abetted by a grand international score from Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, Brian Eno and others, Mr. Bertolucci creates a fantastical lost world for the young Emperor. The boy, who has no friends except his mouse and his grasshopper, yearns like the young Buddha to peer over the walls of his private kingdom into the ”city of sound” outside. It is a world he can join only by surrendering the power of his sacred person to become the playboy ruler of Manchuria. Moving from the warm childhood yellows to the coolest blues and stark whites of Manchuria to the final umber grace of old age during the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Bertolucci astounds us with tumbling images of sensuality: Mr. Lone singing Am I Blue as a sleek roue; playing tennis in his garden before being removed by Chang-Kai Chek in 1919; making love to his young Empress, as servants’ hands, faces unseen, undress them. In the cavernous halls of his Manchurian home, surrounded by Japanese and Chinese cronies, the young Emperor wonders aloud, ”Who are you?” A leering face replies, ”Your Minister of Defense, your Majesty.” This Emperor is impotent, and the deceitful murder of his newborn stepchild (sired by his chauffeur) at the Empress’s birthing bed is one of the most horrifying scenes in a movie often infused with tenderness. In all this imagery one feels the sophisticated sensibility of Andre Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate, which Mr. Bertolucci tried to bring to the screen for several years before making The Last Emperor.

Ms. Chen, as a modern, mannish Empress who must pay the price of her husband’s naivete, has never been better. She almost merges in my mind with Mr. Bertolucci’s quintessential heroine, the pristine and elegant Dominique Sanda, who appears in The Conformist and 1900. One of my favorite shots in Emperor comes late in the film, when the composer Mr. Sakamoto, playing a one-armed Japanese militarist and looking as cold as Godard himself, is filming with a 35-millimeter motion picture camera as Ms. Chen rises, ignoring him at her own peril, to walk the perimeter of a sumptuously lighted swingers’ party. Just watch her expression as she moves.

Finally, when Pu Yi comes to understand the price he has been made to pay for his birthright, Mr. Bertolucci’s detached perspective is beautifully served: at the end of the day, Pu Yi no longer seems to care about anything but his garden. A simple man at heart, he returns to innocence in a stunning shot of a crowd of bicyclists waiting for a traffic light to change in 1965 Beijing; as the bicycles shift forward en masse, the camera languidly seeks out the lonely gardener in the crush of humanity.

So what about the issue of length? Some bottles of wine age differently than others. Where would our culture be without Gone With the Wind (222 minutes, not counting the intermission), Spartacus (184 minutes), Ben Hur (212 minutes), Lawrence of Arabia (221 minutes), Titanic (194 minutes), The English Patient (162 minutes), Schindler’s List (195 minutes) and Dr. Zhivago (197 minutes), all of which have been financial and critical successes.

Yet it seems in the world of the multiplex and the media whining over any film over two hours, the ”event movie” of our youth is gone — and with it the marketing flair of the exhibitor. Swamped by huge marketing costs and vast hype, studios and theater owners have perhaps lost faith that movies can and should be something glorious, important and sacred.

I would estimate that four out of every five moviegoers are impatient with long films and will always say if asked, ”It was too slow.” But sometimes, I wonder, was the viewer quick enough to really understand what was being said on the screen? Sometimes being truly conscious while watching a movie takes us outside of literal time and into dreamtime. Al Pacino once told me in reference to the controversial length of The Godfather Part II (200 minutes) that the film had always seemed longer to him after it had been cut, and that when it had been longer it had seemed far shorter — the idea being that you must allow something to breathe in its right proportion in order for it to have the authenticity that allows time to flow through it and not gum it up; when you spike that sense of flow, the consequences may not be understood and may irritate and bore the viewer without his knowing why.

When asked about the length of his movies, Mr. Bertolucci says he has recently finished Besieged, a one-hour film for Italian television, which somehow ended up at feature-length and will be released by Fine Line Features next year (reminding me of Fellini’s Intervista and Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, which also elevated television commitments into features). ”Cinema is going through a dramatic, fantastic mutation now,” he says. ”It is at the end of the first century of its life, it is tres fatigue. It has to be fed with new things: new approaches to character, to psychology, to structure. What makes me feel like going on? Since 1962 — 36 years now — I’d have been bored. The most important thing is the invention of cinema, of still trying to discover its secret.”

The man who has achieved ”Buddhist distance” is the first to know that editing is a fundamental enigma. ”Editing is going into an underground mine where you find incredible precious metals you didn’t know were there while shooting. You see things for the first time. It is magic.” Anyone who tells you that they go into that six-month to one-year maze without some kind of Theseus-like thread is either a fool or insane.

”Ars longa, vita brevis,” ”Art is long, life is short.” The essence, we are told philosophically, is the thing — and the hardest thing in editing is to find that ”thing,” to see ”the thing within the thing.” It takes time and refinement for the eye to understand what it is really seeing. Film is very much a looking-glass world because what works on paper doesn’t necessarily work on film, and vice versa. Film is endlessly supple; it can be cut dozens of different ways to reveal. Like music or painting, film is ultimately outside left-brain logic, closer to Eisenstein’s hyperwarp of the senses, long ago described by Hindus as a dreamscape. Cutting finally is not an issue of length, but of pace; not of time, but of truth. How do you cut a dream? And, who, finally, can judge a dream?


[The New York Times, Nov. 29, 1998]