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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Emperor

 

 

EMPEROR (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Peter Webber, 2013

The filn Emperor is — well, let’s be honest and say Emperor  could have been — the blistering behind-the-scenes tale of General Douglas MacArthur (played 0n all cylinders by Tommy Lee Jones) , the brilliant, charismatic and corncob-pipe-smoking World War 2 American General — the man who said “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away…” It’s about how he was saddled with the responsibility of governing Japan after the war, and what he did with it.  With Jones‘ incredible performance at the center, it’s a movie that tries to make history come alive, and maybe could have, but unfortunately doesn’t quite.

Let’s be honest: This movie is largely a crock. Here’s what really happened, according to at least some of the eye-witnesses and historians. (It’s not necessarily what happens in the movie.) MacArthur decided to keep  Japan, which was a country still worshipful of their shy emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka),  from boiling over during the American occupation by engineering the exoneration of  the emperor. Hirohito indeed, might well have been executed as a war criminal, like Tojo and the rest, but for MacArthur’s “Operation Blacklist.”

Operation Blacklist had nothing to so with Dalton Trumbo and company, but was a clandestine  scheme in which MacArthur’s war attaché General Bonner Fellers  (Matthew Fox), a man sympathetic to the Japanese, interviewed Hirohito’s statesmen and palace people, and got them to co-ordinate their stories, so Hirohito could be saved.  That’s a fascinating yarn. It might have made made a great movie. But it’s not the story that writers David Klass (Kiss the Girls) and Vera Blasi (Woman on Top) and  director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) tell us here.  What we get in this movie, at least according to some histories,  is the cover story, invented to disguise what was really happening.

Jones does dominate the movie, but his role is  a supporting one, and Operation Blacklist is never mentioned, never even hinted at. General Fellers, instead, takes center stage — even though we really don’t want him to, because he’s kind of a bore  —  and he conducts what we’re told is a legitimate investigation. Meanwhile, in a storybook knockoff of James Michener’s Sayonara (or Josh Logan’s), we see a flashback, apparently almost wholly concocted, in which Fellers falls in love with lovely  and oh-so-civilized Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a beautiful Japanese student in American college, and then pursues her to Japan, withstands the rising tide of Japanese anti-Americanism that makes Aya now flee from him, and winds up diverting bombers from her neighborhood  during the war to save her (fiction) and serving as MacArthur‘s clean-up guy for Hirohito (fictionalized fact).

The movie is a deadly bore, even though the filmmakers have decided to design and film it in a languorous, visually stunning manner that sometimes recalls actual postwar Japanese films, especially of the ’50s and ’60s. It didn’t work, I kept wanting to go home and watch an actual film by Kurosawa or Ozu or Mizoguchi on the DVD player. I wish I had.

I liked Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I didn’t have the feeling that its subject, painter Johannes Vermeer, was being travestied — even though that story played the romance card too. But why have Webber and the other moviemakers concocted a historical film that is so stupefying dull — and then tease us every once in a while, with some more of Jones’ MacArthur, and the shot of adrenaline he brings. Do they think that this absurd cross-cultural romance, which makes Sayonara look like Romeo and Juliet, is a reasonable substitute for what many believe actually happened? As Bonner keeps mooning after Aya, who keeps wandering off through picturesque trees, looking grief-stricken, and as we all sadly contemplate the ruins of a love that dare not be (and never was, in the first place), the movie gets duller and duller and duller. For God’s sake, you think, and even Hirohito’s and Gen. Fellers, bring on Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. Bring on Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff. Bring on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Or Bring on Mr. Jones, to goose things up again.

I’m in favor of making films like this one, but I’m not in favor of making them like this —  floating along in a sea of romantic clichés, interrupted by pastiches of history. In real life, or so I read on The Internet, Gen. Fellers was briefly demoted to Colonel, made a serious enemy of General Dwight Eisenhower, and wound up a stalwart member of the ultra-right John Birch Society, whose founder-leader, Robert Welch, once accused Eisenhower of being  a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. Frankly, at the end, General Fellers sounds like a dedicated conscious agent of a conspiracy of idiots. If Aya had been running away from that guy, she probably would have been smart.

The Chicago Tribune’s Mike Phillips suggests that instead of Emperor, you try to watch Russian art film master Akeksandr Sokurov’s 2005 post-war-set Hirohito-meets-MacArthur  drama, The Sun. I admire that film too, though most audiences bred on Hollywood history may find it a little pokey. (The Sun is slow, but it has substance and artistry as compensations.) Meanwhile, thank God for Tommy Lee Jones, an old actor who never dies, and never fades away either. Playing MacArthur, he wins the war that the others lose. And, as Godzilla might have said to the Emperor and his court, before a little green tea over rice: Sayonara, suckers.

 

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas