Big, rousing, and stunning to the eye, while being sensitive, touching, and sincere are obviously what the filmmakers were attempting in 2003's dramatic action-adventure "The Last Samurai." Yet these are descriptions hardly applicable to most Hollywood epics. In fact, only a few films come to mind that combine pageantry with poignancy, spectacle with human interest.
David Lean was a master at such things, of course: "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago." But that was a long time ago, and there hasn't been much since. Nevertheless, I'd put "The Last Samurai" at least in the same category if not in the same league as these illustrious antecedents. "Samurai" has the look and feel of a thoughtful, epic fable, even if Hollywood tends to put its own stamp on history as it goes along.
But before I talk about the film itself, there is a little something that needs to be put away first. That is the matter of the lead, Tom Cruise. He is one of the film's greatest assets and, potentially, one of its biggest liabilities. Cruise is the quintessential contemporary movie star. We know him as the iconic modern hero, the jet fighter pilot extraordinaire, the spy of impossible missions, the troubled husband or sports agent or criminal investigator of the late twentieth-century and beyond. But in a historical costume drama? Well, we saw him as the vampire Lestat, and that worked out OK. I mean, this is not John Wayne playing Genghis Khan ("The Conqueror"). Besides, Cruise is a good enough actor that two minutes into the picture we pretty much forget him as a movie star and see him only as Civil War Captain Nathan Algren. It's a compliment to the actor's ability that he is able to transcend his own persona and make an audience willingly suspend its disbelief. Indeed, it is what good acting is all about.
Now, on with the show.
I liked "The Last Samurai" a lot, although it's not hard to see a number of flaws in its construction. But they are no harder for the viewer to overcome than the business of the film's star mentioned above. Issues of historical bias, for instance, fact vs. romanticism, excessive length, and sometimes uneasy fusions of beauty and brutality detract only slightly from the film's overall effectiveness.
The story involves a decorated hero of the Civil War, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a decade later fallen into drunkenness and performing in side shows selling Winchester rifles. He feels severe guilt from his killing of innocent Native-American women and children after the War while serving in the Seventh Cavalry under Custer. He seeks some sort of redemption but cannot find it. What he does find, however, is money. The Japanese government is looking for a military leader to train their new Imperial Army. Japan was finally making a move toward modernization and Westernization, and they needed an army to quell an uprising of samurai who were dedicated to preserving the country's old ways. Algren accepts the job because it pays well. The country's militarization, I might add, continued until Japan was the dominant power in the Eastern world and was only stopped by World War II.
Ken Watanobe plays Katsumoto, the leader of the rebellious samurai. It is Katsumoto whom Algren is expected to meet on the field of battle and defeat. To Algren, Katsumoto represents simply another tribal leader, much like the ones he had to fight many times on the American Plains. But in Algren's first encounter with the samurai, his superior numbers are outfought and easily overrun, and Algren is taken prisoner. It is here that the real story begins.
Algren, respected by Katsumoto for his courage, is kept alive and resides among the samurai for almost a year, from 1876 to 1877, learning their customs and their codes of honor, even learning their language. He is cared for by Katsumoto's sister, whose husband, ironically, Algren killed in battle. Needless to say, Algren comes to admire the samurai and their cause. The samurai, you see, believe they are serving the young and impressionable Emperor by rising up against his wicked advisors, who are counseling him to give up the centuries-old traditions of their country and accept Western ways. Algren agrees with the samurai and in time even joins forces with them.
Still, this is a motion picture, after all. While the film makes the Emperor's longing to Westernize his country a corrupt desire, makes the Emperor's troops the evil enemy of all right-thinking people everywhere, and makes the samurai the noble protectors of Japan's heritage, history suggests otherwise. In truth, the samurai had enjoyed great prominence in Japan for nearly a thousand years and resented their high station being taken away from them. The rebellions that took place at the time of the story were primarily to preserve the old social order, with the samurai on top.
In other words, according to the "Encyclopedia Britannica," the samurai at the time the film is set were not always as honorable as the filmmakers would have us believe. "In the mid-19th century many impoverished samurai were attracted to the movement to expel Western foreigners from the country and restore the old Imperial family to their rightful place as the actual rulers of Japan. Large numbers of these samurai left their lords and became ronin. These ronin heightened the revolutionary mood of the country in the years prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 by assassinating moderate officials, pro-Western scholars, and foreigners residing in Japan." Don't believe everything you see in the movies.
Anyway, the facts of the story may be skewed to favor the samurai and Capt. Algren, but it shouldn't interfere with one's enjoyment of the picture as a whole. The director, Edward Zwick ("Legends of the Fall," "Courage Under Fire," "Glory"), makes an admirable effort to combine a quiet, spiritual serenity with a harsh, worldly reality, and he almost succeeds. We see the samurai prepare for war amid the tranquility of a mountain village. And at end of almost every fight sequence, we see things like placid gardens and cherry blossoms in bloom. This makes portions of the film contemplative and relaxing and utterly gorgeous to look at, while making other sections exciting and exhilarating. The device may be overused, but it's still reasonably effective in communicating an important contradiction about the Japanese culture of the day.
Much of "The Last Samurai" is moving, much of it beautiful, much of it stirring, and much of it boring. I'm sorry about that last part, but it's true. The film goes on at least a half an hour too long, with a middle section that could easily have been edited down. We get the point without having to belabor it. In Kevin Costner's similarly themed movie, "Dances With Wolves," where a Civil War hero goes West and identifies with and assimilates the culture of Native Americans, the pace was such that even at an hour longer than this film, it seemed shorter. I had to stop after the first hour and a half of "Samurai" and finish the last hour the next day.
There are also some inconsistencies in the film I was never able to resolve. For instance, when Algren first encounters the samurai in battle, he kills what looks like about 200 of them in hand-to-hand combat. Yet when he is captured and begins working out with the samurai, he can't beat anybody in the village at anything. So, how'd he perform so extraordinarily before? Pure adrenaline? Go figure.
The film's philosophy is also suspect. There is the matter of the samurai code mentioned above, for example, and there are phrases like the following from Capt. Algren: "I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed." It's this kind of stuff that slows down the film considerably. Not that David Lean didn't have many thoughtful, leisurely moments in his films, too, but he filled every frame with something of substance. In "Samurai" every frame is merely filled.
"The Last Samurai" attempts a very personal story of very grand size, always a difficult proposition to bring off but here made doubly hard by dividing the viewer's attention between Algren and Katsumoto. Fortunately, both Cruise and Watanabe are good enough performers to accomplish the feat, with Watanabe earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting actor. And the rest of the cast do their share as well: Billy Connolly as Sgt. Zebulon Gant, Algren's old army buddy; Tony Goldwyn as Col. Bagley, Algren's old army superior and hated enemy; the wonderful Timothy Spall as Simon Graham, a British interpreter, advisor on protocol, writer, and photographer; Masato Harada as Omura, the Emperor's chief advisor; Shin Koyamada as Nobutada, Katsumoto's son; and Koyuki as Taka, the enigmatic woman who takes care of Algren and in whose house he stays.
The battles in "The Last Samurai" are graphic and bloody and the violence is intense, warranting the film's R rating. Oddly, though, there are very few shots of the entire panorama of conflict, the director preferring to stay in close on individual sections of the battle field. Again, this would be, I suppose, an attempt to make something more intimate of actions set on a very large scale.
The movie ends in guts and glory, the conclusion playing out like "The Charge of the Light Brigade," with Captain Algren passing into legend. Nevertheless, I think we can forgive the film its Hollywood trappings; melodrama and hyperbole always make for good theater. As I say, in the last analysis we remember the film largely for its polished blend of beauty and barbarity.
On the positive side, the picture is presented in some commendably wide anamorphic dimensions, measuring the movie's announced 2.40:1 theatrical-release ratio. The colors are bright, vivid, and solid, with blacks especially stable. Much of the color palette appears to emulate an exquisite Japanese painting or mural, and the video transfer captures the feeling nicely. Much of the imagery is a joy to look at. Grain and moiré effects, jittery, wavy lines, are a nonissue.
On the negative side, the definition is only so-so, and screen objects seem overly lit, particularly faces. This makes for a fairly glassy appearance, with minor haloing and faces literally radiating light, perhaps or perhaps not the intent of the cinematography.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction can hardly be faulted. There is a strong dynamic impact throughout the film; a firm, deep bass, never overused even during combat sequences; and a realistic tonal balance. In addition, the surround channels are used to good effect from the very beginning of the film with the sound of streetcar bells and noises behind and to the sides of the listening area. Then, the expected sounds of gunshots, rain, and thunder later envelope the room. I found the sound slightly hard at times, but I have no serious complaints.
The two-disc set offers a lot to digest, but one can't help feeling when watching disc two that a good deal of it is repetition and hype. Nevertheless, most of it is worth watching, if only once. Disc one contains the widescreen feature film; a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack; an audio commentary with director Edward Zwick; an abundant forty-one scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains the supplemental material. It starts with a twenty-one minute History Channel Documentary, "History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai," which attempts to separate fact from fiction in the movie. Unfortunately, it plays mostly like another promo for the film, about the only meaningful conclusion being that Hollywood has romanticized the samurai by turning them into "good" guys fighting the "bad" Imperial Army of Japan. It really doesn't take long into the film for the viewer to figure that one out for himself. The next major items are a twenty-six minute segment called "Edward Zwick: A Director's Video Journal," a behind-the-scenes production record narrated by Zwick and Cruise; a twelve-minute discussion of the film and the star's role in it, "Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey"; and seventeen minutes of "Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick," self explanatory.
The rest of disc two is given over to a series of short, five-to-seven minute featurettes, which I liked best of all. "A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert" shows us how the sets were built; "Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson" tells us about the costuming; and "Imperial Army Basic Training: From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons" explains how the film's many extras were drilled in combat and tactical maneuvers. Finally, there are two deleted scenes lasting about five minutes, with optional director commentary; film of the Japan premieres in Tokyo and Kyoto; and a widescreen theatrical trailer.
No doubt there will be those who find "The Last Samurai" boring and pretentious, while others will find it exceptionally violent and bloody. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms as a piece of Hollywood entertainment rather than as a history or philosophy lesson, the film works quite well. It may come off as typically glamorizing war and heroism, but there is no questioning its passion and craftsmanship. I enjoyed it.
"The Last Samurai" was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound. To the dismay of its many fans, the movie won none