When I first saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), it struck me as a remake of Doctor Zhivago. Both narratives begin in glamorous and archaic empires that fall to Communist revolutions.
Still, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Besides, the great fall of empire or civilization as backdrop has been a staple of historical epics. The stable eras of a civilization are rather humdrum and hardly make for grand drama. No wonder America’s greatest pop-historical-romance-epic is set during the Civil War: GONE WITH THE WIND. The momentous parts of any civilization are the rise or the fall OR the rise and the fall. Due to time limitation, the full span of rise-and-fall is usually relegated to books and maybe long TV historical series; movies either deal with the triumphant rise or the tragic fall. To be sure, intrinsic to any rise is a fall and vice versa. For a new order to triumph, the old one must crumble. THE BIG COUNTRY is about the tragic twilight of the rancher barons and the dawning of a more civilized Mild West. (GIANT, on the other hand, has to be the most static historical epic ever, not least because the aptly named Rock Hudson was more monument than man.)Movies can treat both rise and fall on the individual level, the stuff of countless gangster movies where some punk shoots to the top only to crash and burn, like in LITTLE CAESAR or SCARFACE. But, movies usually deal with the front-end or back-end of civilizations. GONE WITH THE WIND, the biggest movie ever, has the fall as backdrop. (So does THE BIRTH OF A NATION.) It is tragic Southern Romanticism. The tragic element lends weight and 'wisdom'(as even the shallow Scarlett O’Hara learns a thing or two from her tribulations), as well as plenty of melodrama. In that regard, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and THE LAST EMPEROR not only resemble one another but many other historical epics with similar backdrops of tragic fall and brutal regeneration. What unites DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and THE LAST EMPEROR is their central characters aren’t the main agents of history. Zhivago keeps his distance from events but trampled just the same. Puyi, in contrast, does try to play a role but never rises above a symbol or puppet. Zhivago as a doctor is too much of a precious commodity in wartime to be left alone, and Puyi as a symbol is irresistible to the contending powers. That said, the illusions of a poet are nobler than the delusions of a puppet.
|The Magnificent Ambersons, directed by Orson Welles|