Rated: MA 15+
In 1876, Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a soldier in an America on hiatus from war. A veteran of the American Civil War and the Indian Wars in the West, Algren finds himself hawking rifles for Winchester, nostalgic for battle and living from drink to drink. Apparently, the alcoholism is the result of a deep remorse for the later stages of his military career, a stage when he killed (Indians, mostly) without mercy or honor.
Destiny, however, has no intention of letting Captain Algren drink himself into oblivion, so he is hired to train a Japanese army. This army of conscripted peasants is to be given modern weaponry and then pointed at a decidedly anti-modern samurai.
Led by a warlord, Katsumoto (Watanabe), these samurai are heirs to a millennium-long tradition of martial arts, discipline and sword skill. They were once devoted warriors in the service of Japan's feudal lords, but are now (in 1876) rebelling against the decadence, sloth and greed that is coming with the other trappings of progress. Algren leads his not-yet-trained and ineffective platoon into battle against these noble warriors and becomes a prisoner.
In a remote samurai village, he learns the customs and the martial arts of his capturers. He gains the respect of Katsumoto and earns the love (very chaste, this love) of his beautiful sister Taka (Koyuki).
The film is so predictable, I would ruin nothing if I told you how this all turns out in the end. But that wouldn't be nice, so I'll keep the rest to myself. Because The Last Samurai is a big, beautiful epic film, and worth seeing, especially, if you are a fan of big, beautiful epics.
The period costumes, the massive (and bloody and graphic and violent) battles scenes, the flawless matte paintings and the computer generated history are fantastic. Tom Cruise performs well in a film where the job requires significantly more effort than being cute and glib between car chases and explosions. And, in truth, predictability is probably hard to avoid in a saga that sweeps so broadly through Japanese history and culture, and so cannot be a damning offense. The Last Samurai is a good film and good story, but one whose formula we know even before the first reel of film starts to turn.
And still, there's something that's not quite right about The Last Samurai. American reviewers have likened it to another sweeping epic (which starred Kevin Costner) and called it Dances with Samurai which I am assuming implies the film is sanctimonious in its embrace of the heroic qualities of a defeated other (or perhaps just too long and overly plodding?) But I don't think that's it.
I think the problem lies with the fact that The Last Samurai asks us to cheer for the wrong team. In Kurasawa's samurai films, the real heroes were always the peasants who struggled under the oppressive forces of their feudal societies. But in director Edward Zwick's Japan, these same peasants are backwater dupes to the greed and corruption of a new militant capitalism imported to her shores. It feels akin to cheering for Louis XVI and the army of the ancien regime during the French Revolution.
I have never been a proponent of progress for the sake of progress, but I am decidedly hostile to nostalgia. It is a reactionary force, and should be resisted.
Harden Grace is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.