Of Monarchs and Mutinies
Some people just cannot take a hint. Now I’m a monarchist through and through (mostly when the monarch is Colin Firth) but what is it about these positions of absolute power that blinds people so effectively against glaringly obvious facts? The Bourbons in France were not overthrown in one day, or even during the reign of one monarch. Neither were the Romanovs in Russia. The assassination attempts, the pamphlets and the howling mobs ought to have given them some idea that perhaps, JUST perhaps their subjects were somewhat dissatisfied. And yet, these monarchs did nothing– they carried on with their opulent, decadent parties, their fabulous dresses and commissioning their bejewelled Fabergé eggs as if nothing was wrong. Did they underestimate their enemies? Were they too insulated from the populace? Were these revolutions were fomented by power-hungry rivals? Were they just weak rulers? Call it the relentless march of time or tide or whatever, but these rulers became so completely disconnected with their subjects, that they were rendered obsolete.
The Last Emperor
Confession: This is one of my all-time favourite movies, so this won’t be so much a review as much as gushing, effusive praise for a work of art that captures the spirit of an era so beautifully. I bawl every time I watch it.
The Last Emperor is an accurate-ish biopic of the last Chinese emperor, Aisin Gioro Puyi, who became Emperor at the age of 2, till the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 after which he was forced to abdicate and was eventually tried for war crimes and collusion with the Japanese during WW II, and imprisoned. The film chronicles roughly 3 parts of his life: his childhood and youth in the Forbidden City and his friendship with an Englishman, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), his reinstatement as a puppet emperor by the Japanese and his imprisonment as a war criminal for Japanese atrocities in Manchuria and the last of his days as a gardener.
Told in flashback, Puyi remembers his life before he became just another citizen to be “reformed”. He reminisces of a time when he was the Son of Heaven, when every one of his wishes were a command, when he had a host of servants, soldiers and eunuchs who waited on him hand and foot. What the innocent little boy Emperor didn’t know was that he had ceased to be the emperor of a vast nation, and now ruled only the increasingly isolated island of the Forbidden City.
Perhaps that is how it happened, or perhaps the film-makers had to ensure that the film didn’t offend Chinese government sentiments, but the film was a revelation as to how inevitable the revolution had become in China. When Puyi became emperor, he was part of a decaying monarchy that was in its last throes and he didn’t have the smallest clue as to the boiling sentiments of outrage outside the walls of the Forbidden City. Be it conniving servants, power hungry ministers or simply their own attitude, Puyi and the monarchy were almost completely shielded from the outside. Oh, the Forbidden City was quite the paradise: servants to do every bidding, beautiful toys, priceless works of jade and other trinkets. But it was nothing more than a pretty prison, and the monarchy did not even realize it until it was too late.
The film is pervaded with this air of sadness and the terrible knowledge that all things must come to an end. That’s because the narration of the story is purposely told as a recounting of the follies of youth, and that haunting soundtrack adds so much to the atmosphere. As Puyi narrates his story, you alternately want to wring his neck or pity him and hug him and wish he had not been born as the last emperor of China. In one scene, young Puyi is upset that his wet nurse to whom he had become very attached was sent away, and he solemnly says, “But she is not my wet nurse, she is my butterfly.”
Yes, mostly just hug him.
Post Script: I also wanted to add a review of a really good French Revolution movie to make this post a (somewhat) list, because who better than the Bourbons for a good example of Ruling Dynasty In Need Of Being Taught A Lesson? But I was unable to find one: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was pretty average; I could not get my hands on a copy of Start the Revolution Without Me; I could not find the time to obtain Danton; and my copy of Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise was unwatchable because the subtitles and video were out of sync. At one point, a leader of a regiment barked this command to his troops, “My dear Guemigny, pass me the wine.”
Since my knowledge of French is limited to “Où est l’ambassade?” and other delightful guidebook phrases, I’m just going to admit defeat, say “C’est la vie” and practise my Gallic shrug.