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: ***

War of the Worlds (2005)

When it’s on: Sunday, 12 August (8.10 pm)
Channel: BBC3
IMDb Link

Is Steven Spielberg a ‘tarnished brand?’ An old thread on the Digital Fix forums offered a discussion of the films he directed and the possibility he has never quite hit the heights of E.T., which this year celebrates its 30th birthday. Surely some heresy, one might argue, especially as the man responsible for some of the highest grossing pictures in history went on to be a critical darling also. And yet there’s a nagging sense that once you pick apart the work bookended by the second and fourth Indiana Jones entries, you’re left with a handful of classics, some ‘worthies’ and a body that largely trades on the brilliance of his earlier efforts. This isn’t the place for me to dissect each and every film, but as far as I’m concerned there are several real stinkers – The Terminal, Always, Crystal Skull, Hook – and a number of productions that have been critically lauded because of the subject matter they cover, rather than their articistic merits. I’ve always struggled with Saving Private Ryan once it moves off the beaches, and the less said about Schindler’s List the better. Suffice it to say a film that blew me away in the cinema has left me feeling cold and ever so slightly manipulated with repeat viewings.

On the other hand, the ones I actually like – Catch Me If You Can, A.I., Empire of the Sun, Minority Report – are a mixed bag in terms of their far from universal appeal. I’d watch any of these films again, though the entry that really strikes me as a hark back to the glory days is War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s update of HG Wells’s groundbreaking science fiction novel. It isn’t an especially easy film to defend, given the half-hearted reception it received upon its release, its far from universal appeal and the presence of a star who was beginning to do incredible levels of damage to his own reputation in 2005. But I love it. Much that happens in War of the Worlds works – the masterfully flowing tension levels, the invasion story combining with a classic ‘Berg yarn about the bad Dad learning to be a good one through sheer adversity, the choice of shots, the absence of forced humour, the invaders’ sheer relentlessness, the speed with which humans are reduced to rats, and so on. Visually and narratively, it all hangs together so well that, in my book, the naysayers are made to nitpick in order to find their problems with it.

If there is a fundamental problem with War of the Worlds, it’s in the ending, which is retained from the novel. On paper, the conclusion of the tale works wonderfully, not least because it has some plausible scientific basis (Wells had a degree in zoology), yet it has the potential to cut deep into mounting suspense levels and feel tacked on, which is arguably what happens in the film. After spending the vast portion of the film running away, hiding and suffering, watching bullets do nothing to the alien tripods and ultimately waiting to be exterminated with the rest of the population, our heroes simply find that the unwelcome visitors have died, their immune systems open to bacteria and contagions, thereby giving humanity a dramatically unsatisfying let-off. How one improves upon this climax is a question few have tried to answer. In Independence Day, we learned that the bad guys from outer space were as vulnerable to computer viruses as any technically under-evolved Windows user. Is this any better? Or might a blast of Indian Love Call do instead?

The problem for screenwriter David Koepp seemed so unresolveable that he didn’t try to find one. Instead, we’re left to deal with an ending that approximates that of the novel, while all the effort goes into the survival story experienced by Tom Cruise and his family. It’s as though he threw in the towel at the close of play, decided that everyone watching the film knows how the story ends and grafted on something vaguely appropriate. Its conclusion includes a Spielberg-esque family reunion that jars horribly with the gritty realism of what’s happened before, but by then one gets the impression everybody has stopped bothering.

All of which is a shame because until then, WotW is about as good as it gets. It certainly deserves better than to be wrapped up so unsatisfyingly. After all, Spielberg’s real classics – Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters, E.T. – build towards finales that carry all the dramatic weight and logic one would expect. Even A.I., another film criticised for its syrupy ending, makes narrative sense; after two hours of steadily escalating horrors, David’s reunion with his mother is all he has coming to him. In War of the Worlds, Koepp and Spielberg expunge many of the global events that punctuated both the text and 1953 George Pal film, focusing instead on the experiences of one New Jersey man and his family. It’s a decision that works. Viewers can identify with the blue collar crane operator who’s the film’s main character – his curiousity in the early minutes, his blind panic when the aliens emerge and the things he does afterward. The project was always envisaged as a vehicle for Tom Cruise. After the director and actor enjoyed collaborating on Minority Report, Spielberg started reeling off movie concepts to Cruise before they agreed on the third one, a fresh adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Cruise plays Ray, a working class anti-hero who has long since let his marriage collapse and now only sees his children at the convenience of his ex-wife (Miranda Otto). The kids are Robbie (Justin Chatwin), a disaffected teenager, and ten year old Rachel (Dakota Fanning), both of whom see the prospect of a weekend with dad as a chore rather than a pleasure. Ray’s just as bad. He’s late to meet them and his house is a mess of oil and engine parts – one pitying look from Otto is enough to reveal how the relationship died, through apathy and a life of rolling nothingness. Just finishing a shift at the dock, Ray leaves his kids to their own devices while he sleeps. Robbie makes off in his car. Rachel orders a takeaway and Ray is disgusted to find she’s gone for health food. The lack of any sense of ease between the three of them is palpable. Ray might not like to hear his teenage son calling him an asshole, always using ‘Ray’ rather than ‘dad’ because he clearly hasn’t earned the title, but neither does he do anything to arrest the situation. The dysfunctional trio is trapped in an entropy of going through the familial motions. What can possibly break them out of it?

Any seasoned viewer of Spielberg knows exactly what the outcome will be. The son of divorced parents who returns to the theme of families uniting through adversity again and again in his films, the director presents his War of the Worlds characters with the challenge of escaping from enemy aliens that are armed with vastly superior technology, a bloodlust for human flesh and licence to kill. Obviously, they’ll bond through their experiences, yet they’re put through the sort of emotional wringer that would test anybody. The first appearance of an alien tripod is marvellous cinema. Lightning has been hitting the same spot in Ray’s Jersey town, so he goes to investigate the hole it’s left in an intersection, along with half the community. At first, they’re curious, ignoring the policeman who asserts there’s something down there. But then the fear hits, as the road starts to subside, pulse, ripping nearby buildings in half before the alien machine emerges, shattering any sense of normality as much from its ear-splitting horn as the very sight of it. Almost instantly, the entity sets about laying waste to all life surrounding it, emitting a blast that terrifyingly destroys anything organic whilst clothes remain unharmed. Ray flees with the rest, enjoying several near misses, though it’s made clear this is due to nothing more than random good luck.

The rest of the film is a road movie, Ray and his kids heading for Boston, ostensibly because he wants to reunite the children with Otto whilst really giving their panicky escape a sense of purpose. Everything that happens is told from their perspective, the things they learn about the outside world and their own encounters with aliens and fellow victims. This delivers some glorious use of special effects – the collapsing bridge – though it’s to the film’s credit that CGI is deployed as necessary rather than gratuitously. Spielberg senses that computer effects, whilst photo-realistic, are clearly just bits of digital wizardry and everyone watching the film knows they aren’t really there, so the most emotionally affecting bits in the film focus instead on the intimate dynamics within the family. Instead of shooting scene after scene of people being vapourised, the loss of lives is contained in a small moment where Rachel sees piles of clothes carried by a river’s current. She knows what that means, and so do we.

The dysfunctional human reaction is covered many times, but is best exhibited near the end, when Ray and Rachel hide in the cellar of a demented survivalist named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Combining two characters from the book (the curate and the artilleryman) whilst taking the name of Wells’s doomed astronomer, Ogilvy seems to offer sanctuary but is clearly nuts and someone Ray has to deal with. This bit also includes the film’s tensest moments, the aliens’ entry into the cellar during which the humans have little option but to hide and hope.

There’s much about the film that doesn’t make sense when you think about it, such as the scientific denouement and the unlikely possibility that aliens set on dominating Earth wouldn’t first do their homework concerning its biology. Spielberg does his best to mask these fundamental faults, enveloping the story in a series of tense scenes and showing everything from Ray’s jaded point of view. A shame he achieves this so well that after two hours of escalating suspense, the film just finishes.

War of the Worlds: ****

Legend (1985)

When it’s on: Monday, 30 July (7.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As is customary with Ridley Scott films, various edits of Legend are floating about – I watched it on a Lovefilm rental DVD, which was the standard issue 2002 Region 2 release. It clocks in at a brisk 89 minutes and includes the score by Jerry Goldsmith rather than Tangerine Dream. I have never heard the latter but confess to a liking for the Dream, though the orchestral Goldsmithery is quite lovely.

The film, a big budget affair that was filmed in Pinewood’s vast 007 studio and heavily financed by British backers, is a real mixed bag. It sealed Scott’s reputation as a director with an almost incomparable visual flair that crashes into confused plotting and inconsistent acting, something he’d be stuck with until he struck gold many years later after taking on Gladiator. Make no mistake – Legend is a beautiful film. The forest that doubles as Jack’s (Tom Cruise) home is possibly the most gorgeously shot flora committed to celluloid, the sort of greenery Beethoven might have had in mind when composing his Pastoral Symphony. It suits the mood of the movie perfectly as the archetypal fairy tale woodland. The opposing force in the film is also ravishingly designed. Darkness’s lair has all the inky malevolence required, whilst the main villain cuts a superb concoction of Satanic imagery, cloven hooved, red skinned and sporting two enormous black horns. Tim Curry is almost unrecognisable beneath all the make-up and prosthetics.

Darkness surely deserves his place as an iconic baddie, certainly in terms of his appearance. Whilst he doesn’t appear fully in the film until nearly an hour’s passed, he features heavily on the publicity, which knew a good bit of imagery when it saw one. I’ve chosen the poster above because it’s reminiscent of the demon Chernabog from the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia and beautifully sums up Darkness’s evil intentions.

The downside to all this good stuff is a muddled plot and a black hole at the centre that should be filled with Tom Cruise’s hero. A rising star in the mid-eighties, with Risky Business announcing him to the world but Top Gun in the future, Cruise’s on-screen personality was still malleable at this stage and casting directors clearly didn’t know quite what to make of him. In hindsight, it’s obvious he was miscast as Jack, a forest dweller who possesses the gift of speaking to animals. There’s just no spark to his performance, making it very difficult to care what happens to him. Worse still is his complete lack of chemistry with the mythical characters who help him when Darkness arranges the cutting of a unicorn’s horn, thus plunging the world in semi-darkness.

Mia Sara, making her film debut as Princess Lili, fares better because she has more of an obvious arc. Believing she’s responsible for the unicorn’s mutilation, she goes after the goblins who’ve stolen its horn, only to find herself captured and brought before Darkness. Here, in one of the film’s more dazzling sequences, she’s made to perform a dance with a black masked figure, which clearly represents her own darker side, transforming her from a white clad innocent and into the heavily made up bride of Darkness, wearing her beguilingly plunging black dress and trading barbs with the lovestruck villain.

In terms of narrative, Scott trimmed back William Hjortsberg’s initial script, which would have led to a rambling production stuffed with subplots and tangents. Aiming to keep the already soaring costs down by focusing on a tight, linear narrative, he threw out any degree of investment in the film’s various characters whilst building up to a climax that is resolved with almost ridiculous ease. For all his pontificating and presence, Darkness turns out to be a rubbish Boss, defeated by a light beam and Lili’s duplicity. I was bored for much of the film and that should really have been impossible.

Legend has a small army of fans and apologists. For me, it’s a textbook example of style over substance, a film that works incredibly hard to look great and generate atmosphere, only to ruin it with the plot and acting. Comparisons with Gladiator, both fantasies of a sort, should focus on Russell Crowe’s presence and his ability to fill the screen as the main reason for Scott’s Oscar winner not going the same way. It’s also possible, indeed advisable, to compare Legend with Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings, which showed how to do this sort of thing correctly. It isn’t the money invested, the exhaustive pre-production and technical work, the superb effects work created in WETA’s workshops. It’s having characters in whom we believe, caring for the successful resolution of their quest. The absence of this element undermines Legend fatally.

Legend: **