That's not to suggest more than a few, fairly superficial similarities between the Japanese and Islamic warrior cultures, but rather to point out the characteristic way our movies and pop-culture mythology deal with the inevitable losers in the long war between industrial modernization and the older, more traditional cultures it displaces.
We all know the pattern. At first, when the battle is joined, all is shrill, propagandistic antipathy and demonization. Then, a generation or two after victory, the former enemy is resurrected as the beacon of a simpler, more heroic way of life. With the vanquished Confederacy, it took only a couple of decades before the hated precinct of Johnny Reb was transformed into a realm of moonlight and magnolias and a glorious Lost Cause. With Native Americans, the turnabout was just as rapid: The frontier had barely closed when the despised, murderous savage was recast as the noble red man of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
Such reversals no doubt serve as a necessary corrective to the frenzies of vilification they follow, just as they help the victors process the inevitable ambivalence and emotional unease that accompany modernization. In terms of movies, though, the romantic afterthought often becomes more powerful and enduring than the original broadside, for the simple reason that romance, regret and (historical) reverie are so natural to cinema's dreamlike form of storytelling.
In judging particular instances of this type of filmmaking, perhaps the most basic question to ask is whether the movie's artistry balances and, in a crucial way, transmutes the sentimental atavism that is its emotional core. In celebrated cases like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, the answer, for most of the world, is obviously yes: They are great films above and beyond their very debatable views of the contested past.
In the case of The Last Samurai, the verdict must be far more equivocal. But let me approach this in conventional movie terms. Will Zwick's movie do $100-million-plus business? I feel sure it will; unlike the handsome but essentially unromantic Master and Commander, this 19th-century epic has the entertainment goods, including a bravura action role for Tom Cruise. Does it have a shot at the Best Picture Oscar, then? Alas, I suspect not, for the simple reason that it is finally too formulaic and Hollywood-slick to be counted a real artistic contender.
In terms of overall vision, granting the mainstream-movie context, it is a couple of notches below the recent Oscar winner it most resembles, Dances with Wolves. In Kevin Costner's revisionist (cough) western, the hero is an emotionally unhinged Civil War veteran who recovers his wits by "going native" with the Lakota Sioux; far from savages or even noble red men, the movie's Indians are envisioned almost as prototypical Earth Firsters. In The Last Samurai, Cruise's Captain Nathan Algren is similarly damaged by the memory of battlefield horrors (yes, there are flashbacks) but these involve Indians rather than Johnny Rebs. So, rather than heading west (i.e., the scene of the crime), our hero journeys to Japan, and into a movie western that just happens to take place in the Far East.
Let us not skip past the fact that this protagonist is played by Tom Cruise. Every Cruise movie is ultimately about the image projected by a superstar-cum-industry whose reality now spans the poles of gifted actor and cartoon action figure. By any reckoning, he is diligent and dedicated, and the movie's early scenes remind us that his dramatic skills remain potent. Lurching onstage in front of a bunch of bourgeois yahoos hoping to see a real Injun killer, the drunk and disorderly Algren virtually spits bilious contempt. He is palpably traumatized, and Cruise not only gives the man's shattered psyche a visceral force, he also exactingly traces Algren's slow journey back to selfhood after he arrives in Japan and, on being captured by the samurai, casts his lot with them.
Of course, this is a congenial role for an actor who specializes in submerged self-hatred. In recent years Cruise has exercised his most vivid contempt against the perfection of his own face, which has been imaginatively eviscerated in films ranging from the Mission: Impossible series to Minority Report. In The Last Samurai he leaves his visage alone and instead attacks what might be called his white American-ness. "What is it about your own people that you hate so much?" a Japanese character asks Algren late in the movie. The answer of course is that he only hates his own people insofar as they represent himself, the inner Injun killer (or adored movie star) he's trying so hard to obliterate.
Will American audiences go for Cruise as an embodiment of American self-loathing? Especially as a kind of psychic compensation for this year's ugly-American triumphalism (and its nasty aftermath) abroad, why not? With far less topical immediacy, the same strategy worked for Costner in Dances with Wolves--just as, unless I miss my guess, it will work a couple of decades hence when Hollywood gives us the heroic saga of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban.
The Last Samurai personifies its central cultural conflict with an unapologetic lack of moral nuance. On the negative side are a host of Japanese modernizers, hungry to join the modern world and reap its profits. There's also Algren's Injun-killing former commander, Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), who goes to Japan relishing the idea of turning his guns on another bunch of "savages with bows and arrows." "To the filmmakers," the movie's presskit drolly notes, "the Colonel might be less evil than just typical." Typical, that is, of American racism and murderous militarism.
On the other side of the equation we have the noble samurai. Naturally, Algren is anything but sympathetic to their cause after they drag him to their village as a captive. But months pass, the wounds heal, and he slowly warms to their stoic, charismatic leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), and to the wife and kids of the warrior he killed in battle, who become Algren's own surrogate family. Soon enough, the war-shattered American is practicing his own samurai swordsmanship and--a la Lawrence of Arabia--preening narcissistically in unaccustomed robes.
The film, so to speak, does likewise. It is an exceedingly lavish enterprise, with luminous photography by John Toll, and gorgeous production design by Lilly Kilvert that can't miss an Oscar nomination. On the whole, it's more than obvious that what Zwick and company mean to do here is to create their own equivalent of sweeping Akira Kurosawa epics like Seven Samurai, Kagemusha and Ran. Judging simply on scale, enthusiasm and unstinting expense, they succeed grandly.
But by almost any other measure, it must be allowed that Zwick--the director of Glory, Legends of the Fall, the execrable Siege and underrated Courage Under Fire--ain't no Kurosawa. What I'm saying here has nothing to do with any purist notion of cultural "authenticity." Kurosawa's samurai films, after all, always existed in a dynamic relationship of mutual influence with Hollywood; just as Seven Samurai inspired The Magnificent Seven, so was it indebted to the westerns of John Ford. But Kurosawa's films were always visceral, gritty and complex both in their visual surfaces and their dramatic depths.
Zwick's approach, by contrast, is annoyingly homogenous and simplistic. His pristine samurai village (most of the film was shot in New Zealand, incidentally: Japan no longer has such vistas) belongs in a New Age soap ad; every floor is always spotless, every robe perfectly pressed. The people inhabiting this Shangri-La-like retreat--and the rest of the film--are no less picturesque and predictable.
How much of this any viewer will mind depends, of course, on one's tolerance for Hollywood grandiosity. With a great liking for Kurosawa, samurai flicks and Far Eastern spectacles generally, I enjoyed The Last Samurai right up to the onset of its huge climactic battle, wherein the noble bearers of bows and swords go up against Gatling guns and sharpshooters. But the movie's last 20 minutes--a typical Hollywood blend of overkill and self-righteous schmaltz--left me feeling slightly sick, as if I'd devoured too much butter-soaked popcorn.
Still, there was the entertaining thought that I'd seen the season's one movie that perhaps would be enjoyed equally by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden--for very different reasons, of course.