The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai

When it’s on: Friday, 1 February (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Jules Brunet was a French artillery officer in the nineteenth century. He was dispatched to Japan by Napoleon III as part of a military attache charged with the task of modernising the Shogun’s army. When the Shogunate was overthrown and the French expelled, Brunet evidently turned native, helping the rebel forces in their efforts to return to power. This culminated in a climactic battle at Hokkaido, in which the army Brunet was involved with was outnumbered and ultimately defeated.

Brunet returned to France after his action in Japan, but the story wasn’t forgotten, and years later New Zealand based Executive Producer Vincent Ward resolved to turn it into a feature film. The production powerhouse team of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner got involved, seeing in Brunet’s adventures the potential for the actor’s latest star vehicle. All that remained was to turn the hero into an American and attach a director of epic cinema; step forward Edward Zwick, who brought his bravura work on Glory to bear on the proceedings.

The Last Samurai centres on Nathan Algren (Cruise), a decorated veteran of the Civil War who’s haunted by memories of the atrocities his cavalry division committed against Native Americans. His nightmares have turned him into a Bourbon-soaked cynic, willing to work for anyone and, at the film’s start, providing boozy demonstrations of the potency of the Winchester 73 rifle. The appearance of his friend, Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) offers the opportunity for a further pay cheque, a trip to Japan to help supervise the training of a modern, technical army that will help transform the land of the Rising Sun into an energetic and emerging power. Algren takes the money, boards the ship for Japan and even stomachs the accompaniment of Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), a fellow officer who clearly has less scruples about the Indian blood on his hands.

Algren quickly learns that the political situation in Japan is more complicated than he thought originally. Though the young Emperor is surrounded by a self-interested cabal of modern thinkers, alternative counsel comes from Samurai chieftain Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), and a schism has developed in government between the progressives and the more traditionally minded Samurai. Clearly, the country’s soul remains with its ancient caste of warriors, whilst the ‘Saville Row’ clad politicians try to arrange profitable trade agreements with the great powers of the age. Long before he thinks they’re ready for action, Algren’s new model army is pressed into action against the Samurai rebels. One school of thought has it that the engagement should be a turkey shoot. The Samurai fight with medieval bows and swords, and ought to be no match for rifles. But once battle is joined, the modern, Western style regiments are swiftly routed by the warriors’ cavalry charges. Gant takes a sword through his chest and Algren is wounded and captured, transported deep into the Samurai mountain stronghold after putting on a brave last stand. Here he’ll spend winter, recuperating and talking with Katsumoto, who’s keen to learn all there is to know about his enemy.

There’s a strong argument for stating The Last Samurai is a Western that just happens to take place in Japan; the Samurai are the Native Americans whilst the modernists take on the role of the villains. The Western it most resembles is Dances with Wolves. Its release, coinciding with awards season, suggests the production aimed to emulate Kevin Costner’s Oscar winner with its tale of Algren’s self-discovery once he’s in the Samurai village, first as a hostage but growing to love the people as he learns about them and ultimately bonding with their cause. The middle section of the film focuses on this long period of realignment, Algren discovering he’s being nursed by the woman whose husband he killed during battle, watching village life and coming to admire the simple nobility of the populace. Mostly, he develops strong feelings of respect for Katsumoto, and the steady growth of friendship between the pair is a real highlight. But this is mainly down to Watanabe, who commands the screen with such little effort that it’s virtually impossible not to fall for his heroism in an uncertain time that’s stuffed with unscrupulous individuals.

If the film has a weak link, then unfortunately it’s Cruise himself. This isn’t an attempt to knock the easy target he represents. I’ve always thought Cruise was a perfectly fine actor, but it’s no surprise that Jerry Maguire remains his signature performance, playing as it does specifically to Cruise’s boyish charm and strength in forming personal relationships. In The Last Samurai, he’s very good in the scenes alongside Watanabe and earlier, as the disillusioned veteran who’s climbed inside a bottle for solace. It’s even a rather unselfish turn, Cruise constantly drawing in and deferring to his fellow players, for example in the rather lovely moment when he’s dining with the family he lives amongst and the guilt-ridden Algren is unable to respond to a child gurning at him. But the film builds up to an epic climax; the script calls for Algren to be someone who eventually takes a commanding role over 500 highly trained Samurai warriors, reflecting the respect he’s earned over the course of his time among the clan, and Cruise just gets swallowed up in the action. It’s a vacuum the film never manages to fill and it completely undermines the climactic engagement that gives The Last Samurai its poignancy and meaning. The Academy recognised Watanabe with a Supporting Actor nomination, but Cruise got nothing, a consequence of his fatal miscasting and an indictment of the hunt for Oscar glory going to his head.

Even the most ardent Cruise knocker would surely admit that, otherwise, The Last Samurai is top order film making. The battle scenes are brilliantly put together; if the fighting that introduces the Gatling Gun to Japan at the end doesn’t satisfy, with its rolling green hills and relatively small scale, then the tussle earlier most certainly does. The night time battle, which takes place in a ghostly forest, all blood and breath on the air, is an awesome construction, perfectly illustrating the strength of the Samurai against a modernised but under-trained army and ending in Algren’s desperate stand. The choreography is stunning throughout, taking full advantage of New Zealand’s big countryside to show a country that is nothing like as modern as its rulers would like to believe. The Last Samurai’s Director of Photography was John Toll, no stranger to the kind of work with the likes of Legends of the Fall (another Zwick direction, for which Toll won an Oscar) and Braveheart on his curriculum vitae.

The Last Samurai: ***