Summary of the Historical Movie "The Last Emperor"

by Erik Arvidson

"The Last Emperor" is a 1987 drama that tells the story of Pu Yi, who as a young boy was emperor of China from 1908 until 1912. Once China was established as a republic, he was forced to abdicate. The film tells the story of Pu Yi's growth as a figurehead with no formal powers. "The Last Emperor" stars John Lone as the adult Pu Yi and Peter O'Toole as his Scottish tutor. It won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bernardo Bertolucci.


The film covers the time period from 1908 to 1967. It was filmed entirely on location in the People's Republic of China. Bertolucci even received permission to film some scenes inside the 250-acre Forbidden City, which was the Chinese imperial palace for about 500 years.


In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that the major theme of the film is the fact that Pu Yi's life mirrored China's transition "from feudalism through revolution to its current state of relatively peaceful transition." Ebert wrote that the film is "a strange epic because it is about an entirely passive character." Because Pu Yi was made emperor at a very young age, he lived in a world where he was essentially powerless and unable to make decisions for himself. He was a pawn, used by others for their own purposes.

Early Life

The film is structured as a flashback, with scenes from Pu Yi's boyhood intertwined with scenes from his adult years. The three-year-old Pu Yi is chosen and installed as emperor -- the last member of the Manchu Qing Dynasty to rule over China -- by Empress Tzu-Hsui (Lisa Lu). Pu Yi reluctantly accepts the imperial responsibilities and the kow-towing of everyone around him, even though he wants to behave like a normal child. When China becomes a republic, the young Pu Yi abdicates and agrees to keep his title, but no powers. The film depicts Pu Yi as a prisoner in the palace. At one point, he attempts to "escape" while riding a bicycle, but he is prevented from doing so by his own guards.


Pu Yi receives his schooling from a Scottish tutor named Reginald Johnston (O'Toole), who teaches Pu Yi about Europe and the modern world. The boy becomes an Anglophile and dreams of escaping to Cambridge. To achieve his escape, Pu Yi marries a Manchu Dynasty descendant, Wan Jung (Joan Cheng). As Pu Yi becomes more "westernized," he is expelled from the Forbidden City and becomes largely irrelevant to China. The film shows Pu Yi during World War II as the head of Manchuria, a puppet state of Japan, and then later living a life of "depravity and drifting," according to Ebert. He is captured by the Soviet Union's Red Army and turned over to the Chinese communists, who begin the "re-education" process of Pu Yi. The film ends with Pu Yi living a life in obscurity, working in Peking as a gardener.