So, it’s 2003 and I’m sitting in my local multi cinema complex wading through the trailers, I don’t even remember the film now. Then comes on this grand trailer, no dialogue, just stunning visuals and a wonderful drumming score; but as good as I thought the trailer was, I was not turned on to the film. I can remember thinking at the time “that’s Dances with Wolves that is, only it’s bound to be more schmaltzy, look Tom Cruise is in it". Of course the film was The Last Samurai, and I had absolutely no inclination to see it. Fast forward a couple of years and I am looking through my DVD mountain of unwatched discs and I come across one that I swear I didn’t buy. The two-disc standard edition of this film. Throwing all caution to the wind I decided to spin the disc to see what the film was like with no real intention of watching it. And from those few opening scenes suddenly I was sitting riveted to the screen. I was there living and breathing the action and after the credits had rolled I sat back and thought about how wrong I was those few years ago, and what a shame I missed it on the big screen. Since that time I have viewed the film several times, and now on Blu-ray, I still gain much enjoyment even though it shamelessly uses every Hollywood trick to emote itself.
Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a burnt-out shell of a man. Being forced to commit all kinds of atrocities during his tenure as a soldier he prefers to drown his regrets and try to forget his past. However, his skill on the battlefield, as well as his innate understanding of native culture come back to haunt him when he is hired by some Japanese councillors to train their army in the art of western warfare. Money being the principle factor he agrees and sails to Japan, a country in an identity crisis; the Samurai having ruled the country for a thousand yeas are now being viewed as relics of the past as the new Emperor wishes to open trade negotiations with the West and as such is creating civil unrest. One particular Samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) has taken it upon himself to stand up for the past and refuses to disarm, it is Algren’s position to stop this ‘rebel’. The first confrontation goes very badly for the new army, simply because the troops were not trained enough (in a scene clearly from Zwick’s own Glory (1989)) and Katsumoto decimates them taking Algren captive. Whilst there and deprived of alcohol, Algren’s ability to understand cultures comes to the forefront, he learns to speak Japanese and through understanding his captors better understands himself. To such a point that after being returned to ‘civilisation’ and learning of a plot to assassinate Katsumoto, Algren joins forces against his own country men in what he now believes is subjugation.
The Last Samurai is not a true story, although a lot of what happens did take place. This ‘based in fact’ aspect lends an air of authenticity to the film, even if there are inherent exaggerations from the Hollywood machine. I find the character of Algren one of the most fascinating elements about the film. He has a believable journey from burnt out shell to reinvigorated soldier. His way of coming to terms with his past is to embrace his ‘captors’ standing shoulder to shoulder and willing to die with them. Like all films his transformation was mainly achieved by montage, as he grows to understand the Samurai so they learn to understand and accept him. Although there are a couple of peeves I have about him, the first is how he never dies, no matter what the fight, of course Cruise could never die, but his invulnerability did irk a little. Though, by addressing this in the script "I should have died so many times", and by his willingness to die on the battlefield, they did manage to paper of the cracks somewhat. The other, and perhaps the biggest flaw of the film, is the acceptance and near love interest that he shares with Taka (the wife of a samurai he killed at the beginning of the film). This was a dimension that I found to be impossible to believe within the time constraints that the film itself sets. And to end the film on that very note was pure Hollywood fantasy.
Undoubtedly, Cruise is the star of the show, being producer he made sure of that, but he has stiff competition in the guise of Ken Watanabe playing Katsumoto in his first English speaking role (another inconsistency – why would a Samurai Lord that refuses to dishonour himself by using firearms be able to speak English?). He, in my opinion, out-acts Cruise in every scene that they share. He has the presence and believability of character that inspire the leadership needed of a Samurai Lord. You really would follow him against Gatling Guns and Howitzers when on horse back. And his death scene is one of the most moving of the film.
Edward Zwick directs the film with a firm hand but is not adverse to a few Hollywood tricks to lead the emotion. The aforementioned death scene of Katsumoto is case and point; by removing all sound except Zimmerman’s sweeping score and focusing on the devastation reeked by the Gatling guns he is forcing the audience into an emotional corner; of course we side with the underdog; and then to cut the score leaving us with nothing but the thump of the guns is a slap to draw us into the horror we have just witnessed. Finally to bring the score back in and have the Japanese bow as a token of submission to the ‘last samurai’, in effect saluting their past, is just icing on the cake. It’s not heavy handed schmaltz, though of course that is in there, but it is handled with a grace that one cannot help but be swept along. He is aided in his task by John Toll, himself not a stranger to the war epic (see Braveheart 1995), and through his eyes we have some beautiful frames. Wide-open spaces down to tight close-ups; there is always something interesting going on.
Despite is few flaws The Last Samurai remains a terrific ride. The two characters of Algren and Katsumoto becoming symbiotic in their views of the battlefield and life; although separated by race the two are really one and the same. And whilst the film has an air of inevitability in that history has spoken and the Samurai were/are all but extinct, the film manages to maintain an even pace and end with a closure that feels satisfying, even if it is pure Hollywood.
All-round entertainment; this film gets a hearty recommendation from me.
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