Director Edward Zwick has made a romantic war movie about a last-ditch effort by a feudal class to assert its relevance in a rapidly modernizing world. It's a muddled liberal's war epic, one that sees Japan's quite conservative 19th-century samurai, by confounding turns, as Native Americans, Vietcong and the rebels of the Confederacy.
Zwick's entertaining if adolescent The Last Samurai is history a la carte, and his maitre d' is Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a former Union soldier emotionally scarred by the Civil War and the Indian campaigns. Now a bitter drunk who pimps Winchester rifles at carnival sideshows, he's lured by wads of cash to sail to Japan. It's 1876, and the government -- under an emperor recently restored after some 250 years of military rule -- needs help training its army. An America hot for trade opportunities is eager to oblige.
The titular last samurai is Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a warrior chief who sees that Japan's weak-willed young emperor is cowed by corrupt advisers ready to sell out to the West, and who thus maintains a rather bloodily loyal opposition, despite sticking to traditional blades, bows and arrows against the army's mounting firepower.
Though Algren is fictional, Katsumoto is loosely based on a real person: Saig? Takamori, who powerfully threatened the fledgling government as the head of a samurai uprising that ended in 1877. The Last Samurai lets a box-office-friendly American character in on the action by having Katsumoto abduct Algren after his men best him in battle. The warriors spirit Algren to the idyllic mountain village where the gaijin quits boozing, absorbs a new way of life, and joins the noble holdouts in their heroic last stand.
The Last Samurai is handsomely made, with great costumes and John Toll's pretty cinematography. The acting is nicely understated; even Cruise, who's often more impressive as a photographable object than as an actor, evolves from cynic to samurai initiate convincingly enough. And the battle scenes are brilliantly staged, ferocious exclamation points for the film's frequent stillnesses.
The troubles lie more in the contradictory notions about war embraced by the film's baby-boomer brain trust, including Zwick and his co-writers, John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz, the latter of whom joined Zwick in creating TV's thirtysomething: Apparently, war is bad if it's prosecuted against poorly armed indigenes, but OK if mounted by members of a hereditary warrior class whom a couple centuries of peace have deprived of their principal occupation.
Algren is tormented by the slaughter of the Indians in which he was forced to partake; in Japan, he's called to suppress another rebellion by people his superiors call "savages with bows and arrows." Yet, like Kevin Costner's Lt. Dunbar in the similarly romantic Dances With Wolves, Algren ultimately finds them superior to his own people. In the samurai village, it's Algren who's the smelly barbarian, marveling at the kindness, rectitude and discipline of his uniformly attractive and intelligent hosts. No matter that the samurai thrived in a society that was rigidly hierarchical and caste-based -- or that one of their complaints during this era was the elimination of the feudal taxes from which they derived their income.
Meanwhile, getting a jump on history, Zwick makes the Yankee Algren a military adviser guiding "superior firepower and a larger force" against a resourceful Asian enemy with a mountain stronghold. (Even though, in reality, the Japanese took their military instruction from the British, French and Germans.) Shifting Algren to the side that's battling U.S.-backed forces is a sneakily feel-good post-Vietnam trick. Yet even this revisionism seems at odds with the film's indifference to how the samurai slice and perforate the peasant conscripts of the imperial army -- themselves surely no more to blame for Japan's Westernization than any samurai blue-blood.
Still, it's with echoes of America's own Civil War that The Last Samurai sings its deepest, and oddest, harmony. When Algren trades the blue-coated, urbanized and technologically superior forces of the national government for the gentlemanly, agricultural, honor-bound rebel warriors, the film suggests (perhaps unintentionally) that its hero is atoning for having backed the wrong team at Gettysburg.
Zwick, whose credits include the Civil War epic Glory, also stacks the deck: In real life, samurai rebel Saig? Takamori's forces were aggressors who met their end while marching on Tokyo, rather than lying low, as in the movie. And rather than eschewing rifles on principle, as in the film, the historical rebels just didn't have very many.
The Last Samurai will doubtless invite comparison with Japan's own samurai films, perhaps even the late Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai. That's the film, incidentally, that Zwick claims inspired his career.
But that comparison's a crock: Kurosawa's films weren't romantic fairy tales like this one. A premise of Seven Samurai is the superfluity of the warrior class, who -- skills notwithstanding -- are recruited for the menial mercenary work of protecting a village from bandits who in turn are themselves masterless samurai. The story deeply explores mistrust between the samurai and the peasants they're protecting, and despite the heroism depicted therein, it ends on a note of deep ambiguity. It is a film, in other words, with no time to celebrate the glory of dying in combat, or to trump up the historical significance of such deaths -- tasks more than sufficient for The Last Samurai.