Edward Zwick is a director well renowned for wielding a wide lens and an eye for the epic; a filmmaker whose work has always relied on large-scale composition and sweeping storytelling. His last piece as a director, The Siege (1998), received a mixed response, with many critics saluting the ambition and scope of vision involved but maligning Zwick’s jingoistic slant on international terrorism. Six years on and, after some production work on Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) and I Am Sam (2001) with Sean Penn, Zwick has left modern day American foreign affairs and returned to the period that arguably spawned his best work. 2004’s The Last Samurai, like Glory (1989) before it, deals with a tale of drama and conflict set against America’s military adolescence.
Loosely based upon the real life and times of Saigo Takamori, the film sees Civil War ‘hero’ Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) accepting a lucrative position in Japan training soldiers in the ways of Western warfare. However his first engagement with the rebel Samurai is disastrous, and he is defeated and captured, taken high into feudal country as their prisoner. Now an unwilling guest in the Samurai village, Algren befriends renegade warlord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), and slowly begins to appreciate the clarity and dedication of his tradition, soon realising that his true calling is the defence of the cultures he has been employed to destroy.
The first thing that strikes the viewer about this film, in an event movie of such supposed ambition, is the intimacy of its approach and the humble use of camera. Whether intentional or a subsidiary result of its story The Last Samurai seems dismissive of the usual quotient of ‘vista shots’ and grand hyperbole audiences have come to expect from the historical epic. From the very outset, and the establishing shot of Algren drunk, sitting backstage at one of his demoralising Civil War shows, Zwick’s camera is on the floor with the character, observing. Later when Algren is convalescing at the Samurai village, the camera lies beside him as he demands Sake. There are repeated shots of Algren in this fallen state; diminished and broken, he is constantly framed close to the ground, kneeling in penitence and humility.
Of course this eternal struggle is the cusp of Zwick’s drama. His films deal with internal conflict in the midst of a wider struggle. Nevertheless. the province of ancient Japan and the Samurai milieu is a brave choice for Zwick and producer Cruise. As a setting and a theme, the samurai story was perfected by obvious proponents like Kaneto Shindo and Akira Kurosawa to name but two, which makes The Last Samurai is a bold move to portray a world largely untouched by mainstream Hollywood. It is to Zwick’s credit that he has avoided the contemporary studio approach to military history and eschewed hugely orchestrated battles, smothering digital enhancements and the nauseating jingoism that often plagues such big-budget efforts. These acute choices aside, the crux of the film was always going to reside with the acting, namely Tom Cruise’s portrayal of a sword-wielding warrior caught in the twilight of feudal Japan.
Like his most eminent counterpart, George Clooney, who found his starring role in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2003), The Last Samurai represents a milestone in Cruise’s career as an actor. Granted his role in the film, as an angry, disillusioned soldier who takes up arms against his country, is one he developed earlier in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989). However his return to this sort of character in 2004 demands an older Cruise, a man of sufficient mileage, age and history to imbue the role with the same amount of pathos that Ron Kovic revealed in rage. Cruise excels as the warrior Nathan Algren, evoking not only a commendable physical presence but also the key notes of sorrow, pity, and determination. Cruise, like Clooney, is an actor who is just beginning to become intriguing; with his ‘against-type’ part as a killer in Michael Mann’s Collateral (to be released in 2004), Cruise is entering the later stages of his career with a distinctive edge often missing from the resumé of other actors.