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The Last Castle

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
The Last Castle
from Film Forum, 10/25/01

Robert Redford returns to the screen with a good-guy/bad-guy tale that capitalizes on the new wave of American patriotism, emphasizing its pro-America sentiments in its commercials. But does The Last Castle have something new to say about America? Or is it merely pushing our buttons, expecting us to cheer?

Many will probably disregard these questions and go to the movie just to see the great Redford act opposite the increasingly popular James Gandolfini of The Sopranos. Redford plays General Eugene Irwin, an imprisoned military hero. The prison warden, a power-happy colonel named Winter, is physically abusive of prisoners and increasingly suspicious of Irwin's good behavior. Before long, the film has us rooting for criminals as they break the rules, and hating the authority figure as he acts out of fear, arrogance, and paranoia.

Rod Lurie, who directed The Contender, loves to show flawed heroes lashing out at self-righteous—and conservative—bad guys. (Right-wingers, in Lurie's world, are all hypocrites and powermongers. The Contender argued that it is invasive and prudish to expect our leaders to act honorably in their personal relationships.) Judging from critical responses to The Last Castle, Lurie may have reined himself in a bit, but the film romanticizes criminals and defends their disobedience.

Tom Neven, editor of Focus on the Family magazine, declares it "yet another one of those movies where you find yourself rooting for the 'bad' guys. Even though we find out the criminal offense of only a few of the prisoners, they all clearly did something to be where they are, but still they are the only sympathetic characters. Sure, Irwin is a selfless, noble man, but still he encourages disobedience."

Movie Parables' Michael Elliott says Lurie "stacks the deck in Irwin's favor from the very beginning. Winter may have the weaponry, the authority, and all the power on his side but it is all too clear that he is terribly outmatched by the intellect and righteousness of Irwin." Still, he doesn't come away from the film empty-handed. "Fortunately, the underlying patriotism and love of country demonstrated by these flawed and fallen men more than cover the film's minor weaknesses."

Preview's Paul Bicking observes some wisdom in the hero's perspective: "Irwin demonstrates that leadership is not based on rank, but earned by action." But he would prefer the villains be portrayed without as much bad language and violence. "Unfortunately, this inspiring story features many obscenities and crude terms. Although much of the violence is not lethal, graphic injuries are shown as men are hit with batons, kicked and shot with rubber bullets." Of these behaviors, it is the language that turns his thumb down on the film: "Without the foul language, The Last Castle could be a positive experience for older teens and adults."

Movieguide's critic claims "a rousing, action-packed ending with a patriotic finish overcomes some predictable plot points. Although … Lurie does not completely get rid of his humanist worldview here, he holds it in check to deliver a powerful prison drama that exalts honor, duty, integrity, and country." The writer seems surprised to find himself recommending a Lurie film. "At least … he avoids the Christian bashing of his last movie."

CultureWatch.net's reviewers offer notes for discussion of the film: "Winter believes in the value of each prisoner and appeals to the better part of their nature, much as Jesus perceived the downtrodden as being in God's image. Contrasting leadership styles are drawn. … Servanthood results in loyalty and respect, while punishment results only in fear. Irwin engages both the hearts and minds of the prisoners, much as Jesus commands us to love God with our full heart and mind. These men understand they deserve imprisonment for their wrongdoing, but they also believe that even a prisoner deserves some basic human respect."

Mainstream critics, even those who championed The Contender, were suspicious of Castle's simplified moral conflicts. The Flick Filosopher says Irwin's rehabilitation of the prisoners is highly implausible. "[The filmmakers] simplistically answer for us all the questions they raise. Instead of letting us come to our own conclusions about whether, for example, prison should be more rehabilitation than retribution, they go the further step of having heroic, all-American Robert Redford rehabilitate the inmates to within an inch of their spiritual lives, turning them, literally, into flag-waving examples of ideal manhood: strong, upright paragons of the American fight for justice. But you'll be cheering on, for the most part, the dregs of humanity cloaked in a temporary glow of nobility."

Roger Ebert also finds fault: "The Last Castle falls short of the film it could have been. It relies too much on a conflict between colorful characters, and a thrilling finish. On those levels it works—I enjoyed watching this movie. It could have been more, could have been a triumph and a classic, instead of simply an effective entertainment."

The New Yorker's David Denby also finds the film guilty of sentimentalism: "The conclusion of the movie—the unfurling of an American flag—couldn't be better timed to raise a lump in the national throat. Lurie could not have predicted that, but, even so, he's a shameless, if skilled, manipulator of easy emotions."