The Last Samurai

Bearded and long-haired, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai is a movie star’s egocentric dream of noble machismo — the white man who enters a foreign culture, an ancient warrior class, and proves himself worthy. It’s typical of Hollywood that Cruise has been chosen to play the lead in a heavily fictionalized account of the samurai rebellion led by Japanese hero Takamori Saigo in 1877. In real life, very needless to say, there was no disgruntled Civil War captain named Nathan Algren (Cruise), who, captured by samurai forces, learned to love the nobility and elegance of their ways. A significant piece of Japanese history takes a back seat to the spiritual reawakening of Tom Cruise.

I suppose Dances with Wolves (to which this movie owes more than to, dare I say it, The Seven Samurai) was similarly dishonest; but that was a guilty white dream of atonement for the atrocities perpetrated on Native Americans, and Kevin Costner was helping to defend an entire people, not a class of once-elite warriors who’d been part of an oppressive hierarchy. Some of us went along with Costner’s daydream, self-aggrandizing as it sometimes was, because it reflected a genuine curiosity about an extinguished way of life. Here, though, the bitter Algren has flashbacks to his own genocidal rampages under Custer; he drinks a lot and has an air of self-disgust over what he did and saw, and he’s Tom Cruise, so we’re supposed to forgive him.

Hired by the Japanese to train an army to destroy the rebellious samurai — who resist the modernization of the military and the nation — Algren, leading a bunch of shaky recruits, goes down, but not without a fight. The leader of the samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), sees how fiercely Algren defends himself (to point up Algren’s superhuman ferocity, director Edward Zwick — never one for subtlety — zeroes in on a flagpole Algren uses to hold off his attackers, the flag emblazoned with a growling tiger) and orders him taken alive. Back at samurai headquarters, Algren is nursed back to health by the widow (played by the model Koyuki) of one of the samurai he killed.

Guilt over battle prowess rubs elbows confusingly with pride in it. According to the Dances with Wolves template, Algren should be content to live among the wise and noble people in the sanctity of nature, and absent himself from the violence of his past. But these are samurai; making war is what they do. Since they won’t adopt modern tactics like guns or cannons, Algren is of little help to them other than being one more guy with a sword. He becomes proficient at swordsmanship, until even the more disdainful of the samurai grudgingly allow that this one has potential.

What is the theme — to say nothing of the point — of this lumbering if strikingly photographed (by John Toll) mini-epic? Edward Zwick seems smitten with the paradoxes and confusions of war or military action, as in Legends of the Fall, The Siege, Courage Under Fire, and his best film, Glory (which Zwick cribs from here when Cruise forces a jittery recruit to load and fire to prove that his army isn’t ready, just like Matthew Broderick firing his pistol right next to a black soldier as he tries to load and fire). I can’t really work out how Zwick feels about war from film to film, though in this movie it’s certainly useful as a violent panorama against which manhood is tested and proven. The real point of the film seems to be the poster image of a battle-ready Tom Cruise waving a sword and all decked out in gleaming red-and-black samurai armor.

Finally, forgive me, but why are we supposed to care about the extinction of the samurai way? The dying tradition here is that of men born into a warrior class that killed according to the wishes of their masters. (Japanese peasants, who were sometimes beheaded for having offended a samurai, probably had a far less romantic view of the class.) Whose idea was it to deliver a holiday blockbuster whose message is that it’s okay to kill as long as you kill with dignity? The Last Samurai glorifies war as a necessary way of life. It’s not a way of life I’m interested in putting on a pedestal, thanks.

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Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, biopic, drama

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