2003-12-26 / Columnists

MovieScope By Robert Snyder ‘The Last Samurai’ – Top Sword

MovieScope By Robert Snyder ‘The Last Samurai’ – Top Sword

MovieScope By Robert Snyder
‘The Last Samurai’ – Top Sword

Although it’s been decades since he starred in "Top Gun," actor Tom Cruise is still searching for the perfect heroic coming-of-age role. He may have found it in "The Last Samurai."

No rookie finding his manhood as a fighter pilot, Cruise in "Samurai" plays his warrior-awakening part from a male mid-life-crisis perspective. But what he has going for him here is an epic production mounted by Edward Zwick ("Glory"), which harkens back to the historic sweep and grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s "Spartacus" as well as the gritty power and intensity of the Akira Kurosawa classics.

The story opens in post-Civil War 19th century with burned-out, alcoholic military officer Nathan Algren (Cruise) bracing himself with a flask of whisky for a sideshow performance in San Francisco. Having a reputation as an Indian fighter under General Custer (whom he hates), Algren is now earning $25 a week to promote the sale of the newest Winchester repeating rifle. After he slips off the company’s script and launches  into a tirade about the horrors of slaughtering  innocent Indians, the despondent "hero" is fried. Before long, his former commander, Colonel Bagley (the ever-sleazy Tony Goldwyn of "Ghost"), ropes him into a trip to Tokyo to train the young Emperor’s first-ever draftees in the use of firearms. It seems that naïve Emperor has been bowing to Western commercialism and needs to squash a revolt against modernism. Leading the revolution of remaining samurai warriors is the formidable Katsumoto (Ken Wantanabe).

Algren does his best to quickly  prepare the inexperienced conscripts  for battle with the ultra-disciplined swordsmen. However, it’s a lost cause as the panic-stricken farmers struggle to load and aim their muskets. Attacking on horseback, the samurai slice and dice the Emperor’s motley army, wounding Algren and bringing him bound back to their woodland hideaway.

As the last samurai, Watanabe’s Katsumoto  is powerful and imposing in the most subtle way. A masterful performance, it almost steals the movie away from its star. His mere presence echoes  such legendary  actors as Yul Brynner and Toshiro Mifune.

Algren is given an understated love interest in the beautiful Taka (Koyuki), who is Katsumoto’s sister-in-law. Because she is the wife of the leader’s second in command, whom Algren killed in the recent battle, the relationship makes for some initial awkwardness. But this being a Tom-Cruise movie, his character ultimately has the pretty girl in his pocket.

The important relationship, however, is between Algren and the samurai leader, who possesses the honor and nobility that his captive lacks. The result is a "Karate Kid" series of scenes, with Katsumoto educating Algren in the art of the sword and the samurai. Soon, Algren’s sympathies side with those of his captors. The now-enlightened American joins them in the final magnificently staged battle scene.

It also takes the movie-star American to make the misguided Emperor  see the error of his ways in endorsing Western interests over samurai tradition. Of course, this is major Cruise ego-tripping, but that’s Hollywood.

As he showed in "Glory," Zwick has love-hate relationship with the United States and its past. Are we free-loving creators of modern  civilization  or brutal land-stealing Indian  killers? Zwick depicts Katsumoto  in idyllic terms, a symbol of nobility paralleling the great Native American warriors. Custer represents the opposite…cold-blooded  arrogance. 

As one of Chief Yellow Hair’s officers, Algren is caught in the middle.
  According to "The Last Samurai," a disillusioned  former U.S. soldier could well have prevented Japan from signing an historic agreement with the West. As a result, the ancient Eastern nation re-embraced its roots as personified by the samurai. Is it possible that an American character like Algren was indirectly responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than a century  later? Maybe, such 19th century Westernization of Japan would have stopped the Asian country’s triggering the United States’ entry in to World War II?

Who knows? Big questions for Hollywood to answer. Could it be a Cruise/ Zwick sequel?

Forget the show-biz  historical revisionism and go see "The Last Samurai" for the brilliant battle scenes, if nothing else.

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