This is a retrospective of Edward Zwick’s 2003 film The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe and Billy Connolly.
This film follows Nathan Algren’s story following the American Indian Wars. Suffering with alcoholism, nightmares and the trauma from the atrocities committed during the war. He is offered a job training the Imperial Japanese Army for wealthy business man Omura. He is approached by his former commander Colonel Bagley and despite his hatred towards Bagley, he takes the job due to his current problems in life and the massive wage.
Once he reaches Japan, Algren and Billy Connolly’s Sergent Gant find the soldiers are poorly trained and have no knowledge of firearms or war.
Despite Algren’s protests that the army are not ready, Bagley and Omura order them to confront and fight/kill the Samurai and their leader Katsumoto as he has attacked and disrupted his expanding rail network.
The battle is a disaster the new conscripts panic and begin to run away from battle due to the reputation and intimidating sight of the Samurai. During the battle Algren’s friend Gant is killed and Algren despite killing many Samurai is taken prisoner only to be spared by Katsumoto. Katsumoto takes Algren back to his village and is forced to live with his family including the wife of a soldier he killed.
Over the course of his time with Katsumoto, Algren begins to find inner peace and respect for their culture. He begins to learn the language and converse regularly with Katsumoto and is trained in the art of Samurai.
Following attack on Katsumoto’s village Algren and the Samurai return to Tokyo where Algren is released. Upon his return Algren quickly receives a proposition from Omura to lead the army’s into battle again now that they are fully trained. Algren refuses but Omura instructs assassins to follow Algren and if he tries to contact Katsumoto, to kill him.
Algren is able to kill the assailants and free Katsumoto from prison even though his child Nobutada dies a warriors death.
Upon returning to Katsumoto’s village, Algren and the samurai prepare for battle with the Imperial Army. During the initial skirmishes both sides suffer causalities but the Samurai emerge victorious.
With reinforcements and new gatling guns been prepared, Algren and the Samurai choose to make one final stand. During the battle the Samurai are killed and Algren and Katsumoto are severely injured. Katsumoto commits seppuku to keep his honour. Algren during the battle manages to kill Bagley and following the devastation caused by the gatling guns the Imperial Army ignore Omura’s orders and stop firing.
The film ends with the Emperor stripping Omura of his wealth and rejecting opportunity to modernise Japan in favour of respecting the tradition of the Samurai. Algren is then shown returning to Katsumoto’s village to live in peace.
This film is probably one of Tom Cruise’s finest performance in his career. He plays a fantastic role that is so different to many of his roles. Playing a broken and traumatized soldier you get to see the inner turmoil that he suffers that is slowly leading him into depression and praying for death.
Throughout the course of the film he shows a range of emotions. But his character development that many oscar winning actors are unable to deliver really makes this performance stand out. His gradual journey to finding peace following the trauma of war and his appreciation for a new culture that he is willing to sacrifice his life means this film unlike so many modern films. It has a fantastic self-contained journey without the need for sequels or promo videos to explain bits of the film.
Although a relationship with Taka (the wife of the soldier he killed at the start of the film) is hinted at, what is nice about this film is that it shows her journey and inner turmoil about someone who killed the love of her life but is also willing to sacrifice himself for her and her children and their way of life. The film beautifully lets the viewer decide if they had or will have a relationship.
Equally the relationship between the supporting cast and the character development of Katsumoto means that this film is not just about one or two main characters but follows and delves into how war and our judgement of other effects our way of life. The film is also a great look into how despite the modernisation of the world, this is not always a positive step. Modernisation has led to great achievements and understanding of the world but we are now less at peace than ever before. The beliefs of the Samurai and their way of life although difficult and idiosyncratic compared to modern life is refreshingly simple and very attractive. They are not troubled with money concerns, politics and a lack of purpose but instead have a purpose and values that are lacking from the modern world. They are also in tune with nature and maintain a delicate balance respecting the environment.
The music score by Hans Zimmer fits perfectly with this film. It is not overstated and the film is not reliant on music to build tension or convey emotions. It instead allows the actors and the story of the film to shine and when music is used it is delivered at the perfect moment to enhance the scene and story..
There is only one thing I would probably change about this film. For me personally I felt the story of Algren succumbing to his injuries in the final battle would have completed his journey in a more satisfying way to him potentially surviving and returning to Katsumoto’s village.
In the ending I would have preferred, it would have meant that Algren would have died finally at peace with the world. He would have died fighting for people and culture that he truly loved rather than just following orders in a war he did not want to fight in.
I would still rate the Last Samurai 5 stars out of 5. The cinematography, musical score, characters journey and actors performances are as good as any film that I have seen. The areas this film could have been improved on are so small it makes this film extremely hard to criticise. The fact that this film did not win any Oscars and did Tom Cruise did not even get nominated is baffling to me when you look at some of the winners and nominations from the 76th Academy Awards.
If you have not seen this film and have not seen it because you do not like Tom Cruise and his beliefs then you are missing out. A film should be judged on its quality not on the actors personal life. This film has everything you could want from a serious drama and more.