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The Last Samurai

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
The Last Samurai
from Film Forum, 12/11/03

Director Edward Zwick knows his way around a war movie. He directed a longstanding favorite film of the Civil War called Glory. He told a tale of Desert Storm in Courage Under Fire. In 1998's The Siege, he declared a state of martial law in New York. Now, he steps into the territory ruled by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, directing hordes of Samurai warrior—and Tom Cruise—in The Last Samurai.

The story follows the journey of an embittered U.S. cavalryman, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise), whose service in the Union army under General Custer have left him disillusioned about the country he calls home. When a young Japanese emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) hires him to refurbish the Eastern nation's army so it can stand as a state-of-the-art militia, Algren takes his inner demons to another continent. There, a samurai general (Ken Watanabe) teaches him how he can pay for his past sins and learn the true meaning of honor. At least, that's what the film would have us believe.

"Unfortunately," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "despite lofty platitudes about honor, the film's gilded portrayal of the warriors' militaristic lifestyle and hail-of-bullets climax results in an at times overly romantic view of war. While proper respect should be shown to foreign customs and value systems, the notion of death before dishonor taken to such an extreme as to justify suicide rather than 'losing face' is totally inconsistent with Christianity's inviolable prohibition against the taking of one's own life. And though Samurai raises important cultural questions about the cost of modernity and the value of tradition, it subscribes to the fashionable trend of painting people of Western culture as inherently corrupt and morally inferior to their Eastern counterparts."

While Oscar buzz begins for Tom Cruise, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) muses that the actor is "certainly serviceable in the role but doesn't seem to bring that many layers to it. Though it is a physical performance, it isn't all that memorable."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says, "The connection between tranquil meditation and slashing through an enemy's face is not spelled out. The rebels' cause is not explained; the whole plot is a muddle."

The film receives heavy criticism in a Movieguide review credited to a committee. "Although one character tells Algren 'God speed' before the movie's climactic battle, and although the movie uplifts such values as honor, integrity, and sacrifice, [the film] has some serious worldview problems. Regrettably … the movie makes a hero out of a traitor and makes 19th Century America the villain."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) levels an accusation at the film echoed by many mainstream critics: "The Last Samurai could be the first big budget Hollywood movie to express heartfelt sympathy for the bloody, demented and self-destructive values of Muslim fundamentalism."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "The Last Samurai slices and dices history to suit its own story needs. One cannot randomly select a compelling cause, campaign, or religion because it seems exciting or satisfying, and then call the support or pursuit of that thing 'positive' just because one is fervent and sincere. The Last Samurai teaches that that is exactly what one is to do."

In spite of all of these criticisms, Christian press critic Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I am passionate about this movie for many reasons and feel it's the best epic film of 2003. This is an adult epic adventure that will satisfy those who love a story of war, heroes, and men of honor and character."

Director Zwick is drawing quite a few passionately delivered criticisms from mainstream critics as well.

David Poland (The Hot Button) says, "The Last Samurai is not a bad film. But it is an evil one. It pretends to be anti-imperialist while its internal meaning, telling the story of a white man who comes to be as good or better than those in a culture that is completely new to him, could not be more imperialistic."

Stephen Hunter (Washington Post) writes, "Under its beauty … the basic product feels lame and thin, wan and stale. It's wannabe-ism on a multimillion-dollar scale. Movies set in Japanese history should not be about handsome white people. It just feels wrong and, in the end, leaves in your mouth the taste of desecration. It's the first, and I hope last, pro-warlord movie!" Many others, however, find plenty to praise, and some are calling for Oscar.