AFM Flashback: ‘The Last Emperor’ Ruled as a Prestige Groundbreaker

Of all the films that have been hawked in the hallways of the American Film Market, certainly one of the most prestigious and celebrated was Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 feature The Last Emperor. And so when the AFM unveiled a poster in 1990 to celebrate its 10th anniversary, an image from that film earned a prominent position among a montage of movies that had found responsive buyers at the market over its first decade.

From the beginning, The Last Emperor promised to be unique. Bertolucci won the approval of the Chinese government, which allowed him not only to work in China but also permitted the production to film within Beijing’s Forbidden City palace complex — the director described it to The New York Times as “the set that Hollywood never dared to build.”

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The film told the story of Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who went from being crowned emperor at the age of 3 to becoming a political prisoner swept up in the tides of history, until finally ending his days as a lowly gardener. “It’s the story of a metamorphosis,’’ Bertolucci said during its production, “the story of a dragon who is changed into a butterfly. Puyi is an exceptional man, a kind of antihero, a man kidnapped by history and addicted to omnipotence.”

The international cast included John Lone, Joan Chen and Peter O’Toole. British producer Jeremy Thomas put together the $25 million project with backing from John Daly’s Hemdale Film Corp. And the scale of the picture, one of the last before the dawn of the digital age, was truly epic, involving some 19,000 extras, including 1,000 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. As Bertolucci recalled in an interview with THR a few years before his death in 2018: “When I went [to work] the morning of the coronation of the baby emperor, there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of extras and costumes. I was scared. I almost ran away,” he laughed, adding, “There was no CGI, no cellphones and no emails.”

Distributed domestically by Columbia Pictures, The Last Emperor grossed $44 million in North America ($119.2 million today). It was also a big winner at the 60th Academy Awards, where it was nominated for nine trophies and, in a sweep, won all nine Oscars, including best picture and best director.

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