by Jack Nilan            EMail :

The Last Samurai (2003)

Director: Edward Zwick

Jack   B+

IMDB    7.7



   Captain Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, is hired to go to Japan and help modernize their army. He is haunted by nightmares from massacres that he took part in against Native Americans. In Japan he is expected to lead the governments troops in putting down a rebellion by samurai, who are being forced to give up their ancient ways.

   The film's plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and was also based on the stories of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War and Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped Westernize the Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army. In this movie European advisors are mostly replaced by Americans.

   This is a beautifully filmed and thoughtful movie, but it falls victim to Hollywood. Tom Cruise has to be the hero. In a country where fighting with a sword is part of the culture, Tom quickly shows that he is able to compete with anyone with a sword or any other weapon. In the first battle scene he takes down four or five samurai with his sword and then holds off four others with a flag stick. He then manages to kill a samurai while lying on his back as the samurai moves in to execute him. The samurai forces are led by Katsumoto, who is the last samurai. As his captive Nathan gets to know him and his loyalties change to the samurai cause. The story focuses on Nathan regaining his life and his honor as he begins to adapt the samurai code.

   Things do get a little ludicrous, as super Tom learns kendo, and in a few months is able to battle samurai warriors who have practicing their whole lives, to a draw. Super Tom also is able to pick up Japanese very quickly to the amazement of everyone. The wife of the samurai he killed also falls for super Tom, she just can't help herself.

   There is a great scene where ninjas attack Katsumoto's mountain village and attempt to assassinate him. Unfortunately, the scene is ruined by super Tom's defeating about ten of these professional killers, with his bare hands, a table, a knife and then with a sword. It couldn't have gotten any more absurd in a Disney cartoon.

   Later in the movie four samurai attempt to assassinate super Tom, who is without a weapon. But super Tom, in a scene more that seems to be inspired by The Matrix, quickly dispenses with all four of them. At this point we know that the story of Katsumoto, the last samurai, has been subjugated to the story of Nathan, the super samurai.

   I think it is interesting that some Japanese historians felt that the movie tended to make the samurais, who they feel were more corrupt and selfish, heroic at the expense of the modernizing forces of the government.

   I still enjoyed this movie even with the Disney like heroics of Nathan. Hopefully a more realistic version will be made in the future.