YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

IT'S MAGIC TIME : Calendar goes to the movies--around the world : A FORBIDDEN COLLABORATION

November 02, 1986|DAVID LEWIN

PEKING — Outside the Gate of Divine Prowess of the Forbidden City in Peking, a young militia girl in a white jacket and khaki skirt raised a loud-hailer to her lips.

But instead of addressing the crowd, she depressed a key and a piece of recorded music was played. The song: "Scotland the Brave."

It was not intended as a tribute to Peter O'Toole, an Irishman who's portraying a Scot, Sir Reginald Johnston, one of the leading characters in "The Last Emperor."

It was just another incongruity during the making of this movie, a film about modern China made by Westerners, and the first time a movie crew has been allowed to work in the Forbidden City itself.

"The Last Emperor" is being shot for $23 million in English with an Italian and British crew, British producer Jeremy Thomas (who raised the money privately from one Dutch and two British banks and 50% from the Hemdale Film Corp.), Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (who has an English wife and is one-quarter Irish), and, as extras, 2,000 soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

At lunch, instead of chop suey--which no self-respecting restaurant in China would offer anyway--everyone sits down to a meal of pasta and Parmesan cheese: 2,000 kilos of the stuff all brought together with 22,000 kilos of Italian bottled mineral water.

(Marco Polo introduced noodles to Italy from China in the 13th Century; the compliment was being returned by the Italians in the 20th Century.)

What the Chinese customs officials thought of it all when it arrived in three container ships with film equipment, generators and 23 vintage cars, it is hard to say. The Chinese, being exquisitely polite, were saying little.

O'Toole has his own theory: "They don't have any real curiosity about us--none at all. I don't think they really see us--and if they do we are objects of some amusement. Old China hands say it is a salutary experience--and it is."

The last emperor of China was Pu Yi, who was placed on the Dragon Throne as the Son of Heaven and the Lord of Ten Thousand Years, at the age of 3. But his reign was short: China became a republic and Pu Yi was a star without a part. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria and created a separate state there, he agreed to become their puppet emperor and ruled again until the end of World War II, when the Soviets took him prisoner. They finally handed him over to the Chinese when the communists took power in 1949.

For 10 years he was re-educated in a Chinese prison and then set free and pardoned. He was now citizen Pu Yi; in 1960 he returned to Peking and started to work as a gardener in the botanical gardens, getting around the capital on a bicycle or a bus like everyone else. He died in 1967 at age 62.

His tutor during his early years was Reginald Johnston, a Scot knight who knew as much about Confucius as anyone at the royal court. Johnston wore a top hat and formal morning suit with tails, and on occasion a kilt of green and yellow tartan.

"It is really the reverse of the American dream," said O'Toole. "Pu Yi went from riches to rags. Whether he was really happier when he became a gardener dusting the peonies and for the first time in his life was really a free man, no one knows. I certainly don't. In life, Johnston educated the emperor and the communists de-educated him, although they did teach him when he was in prison how to tie his own shoelaces for the first time in his life."

It was Johnston--known as RJ--who advised the emperor to become a Japanese puppet and a collaborator. "He was, in fact, a junkie for power--he had become addicted to it with thousands bowing in front of him every day of his life," said Bertolucci. "The very omnipotence of his position had always kept him from growing up."

It was this story, which ends in modern Peking today, that Thomas and Bertolucci took to the Chinese authorities two years ago to seek agreement that it could be filmed entirely on location in China.

They went back and forth six times in two years--some visits lasting as long as three months--showing the script and discussing how it would be treated.

"When the government became interested, nothing was imposed on us at all," said Thomas. "They only checked certain details for accuracy: this date was wrong, that gate of the Forbidden City would be used, not another. As the meetings went on, the banquets became more elaborate and the Chinese officials fewer in number but more important.

"Finally it was agreed that we could use non-Chinese Chinese actors like John Lone and Joan Chen and bring in all our equipment including the pasta and the mineral water. They provide the studios, up to 2,000 men of the People's Liberation Army and in return they get the right to show the film in China itself."

Los Angeles Times Articles