The Last Samurai
Director : Edward Zwick
Screenplay : John Logan and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto), Billy Connolly (Sgt. Zebulah Grant), Tony Goldwyn (Col. Benjamin Bagly), Koyuki (Taka), Shin Koyamada (Nobutada), Aoi Minata (Magojiro), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Scichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor)
Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai is about two warriors from extremely different cultures who start out as enemies, find that they share much in common ideologically, and end up fighting side-by-side in a losing battle in which the only victory they care about is maintaining their honor.
In its own hardened, epic way, The Last Samurai is a deeply nostalgic and sentimental film, one that holds fast to the notion that there can be honorable warfare and that there is such a thing as a “good death,” no matter how gruesome it might be. If the notion of a “good death” sounds familiar, it should since it was a central and repeated tenet of Zwick’s Legends of the Fall (1994), another film that cherished a set of ancient principles that seem all but forgotten in today’s jaded modern culture. The mushy romanticism of Legends of the Fall, essentially a western soap opera, felt right there, but in The Last Samurai it sometimes impinges on the film’s edgier content, making it a little too soft when it should be sharp.
Tom Cruise, in an Oscar-baiting performance of undeniable range, stars as Nathan Algren, a captain in the U.S. Army and a veteran of both the Civil War and the government’s attempts to eradicate the Native Americans in the decade that followed. When the film opens, it is 1876 and Algren is a shell of his former self; alcoholic, bitter, and making ends meet by shilling for the Winchester Rifle Co., he has seen too much needless bloodshed and seems to have given up on life. When his former commander, the slimy opportunist Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), comes to him with an offer to join him in Japan, where the Emperor (Scichinosuke Nakamura) is intent on modernizing his army, Algren goes along.
Once The Last Samurai moves to Japan, its central theme—the struggle between the ancient and the modern and the moral superiority of the former—comes fully alive, as Algren learns that his purpose is to train the Japanese peasant army to fight the last of the samurai, loyal warriors and protectors of the Emperor for 900 years who have gone renegade in their revolt against what they see as the undue intrusion of Western cultural ways. The samurai are led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who, despite being a rebel outlaw, believes that his revolt is in the Emperor’s best interests. As he puts it, he would gladly take his own life at any moment if only the Emperor would ask.
However, the Emperor does not ask, but rather sends his army out to eradicate the samurai, much as the U.S. government did with the Native Americans (the film’s none-too-subtle subtext linking the Japanese treatment of the samurai with the U.S. treatment of the Indians is sounded again and again, as is the corrupting power of capitalism). Algren and his Japanese troops are handily defeated by the samurai in their first battle, and Algren is captured and taken back to the mountain village of Katsumoto’s son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada). Katsumoto claims that he spared Algren’s life because he wants to learn about his enemy, but we suspect that he admires the American soldier’s refusal to submit even in defeat.
The middle chunk of the film takes place in the small village, where the ancient ways of life still dominate, which is in stark contrast to the film’s earlier scenes in the bustling city of Tokyo, which in the late 19th century was a bizarre hybrid of the old and the new. Not surprisingly, Algren is taken by the simple ways of life led by the Japanese villagers, which is precisely what Katsumoto is trying to protect. Soon, Algren is taking part in villagers’ customs, learning the ways of the samurai, adopting the Japanese language, and exploring his cultural similarities and differences with Katsumoto in a series of “conversations” that clearly bond the two men together. Later, when Algren has a chance to return to his life in the West, he refuses and goes back with Katsumoto, eventually fighting side-by-side with Katsumoto and the other samurai against his former commander.
If The Last Samurai has a kindred film, it is Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), which also tells the story of a disillusioned American soldier at the end of the Old West finding solace and meaning in the “savage” ways of an ancient and nearly extinct culture. The screenplay, credited to John Logan (Gladiator), Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, takes its time integrating Algren into the ways of the Japanese, giving his transition a natural, organic feel. Had the film been any shorter, it would have felt forced. As is, it works quite well, even if some of the ideas are romanticized too much.
Zwick keeps the film’s pacing upbeat by mixing the lengthy dramatic scenes with moments of action spectacle. Chief among these is a bravura sequence in which a group of ninja assassins descent on the village in an attempt to take out Katsumoto. Dramatically speaking, this is the moment in which Algren fully invests himself with his new culture, which says much about the film’s viewpoint considering that it is when he shares violence with Katsumoto that they become true brethren. By fighting side-by-side against the ninjas, Algren proves to Katsumoto that he is worthy of respect and inclusion.
Because Zwick first gained recognition as the director of Glory (1989), one of the best war films in recent memory, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the epic battle scene that brings The Last Samurai to its climax is breathtaking both aesthetically and dramatically. Zwick knows how to choreograph battles on a large scale, but this final scene works so well largely because we have become so invested in the characters. Again, the film’s romanticizing tendency drags it down a bit here as Algren and Katsumoto ride Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid style into a hail of newfangled howitzer machine-gun bullets, which is then followed by a prolonged death scene.
Unfortunately, the film then virtually collapses itself with a denouement that has “focus-group-inspired Hollywod ending” written all over it. Up until that point, the film had maintained a crucial sense of tragedy in its depiction of the samurai’s noble, but losing battle against the onset of modernity. But, for some inexplicable reason, the film turns tail at the last minute and goes against the inevitable. This allows for what appears to be a feel-good conclusion of sorts, even though we know it is simply papering over a deeper and sadder truth that informed the film’s best moments.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick