The American Civil War has been a convenient springboard to films not only about "the war between the states," but also about the dilemmas faced by veterans emotionally and physically undone by America's most brutal conflict. Yesterday, this column reviewed "Dances with Wolves," which traced one veteran's ability to come to terms with himself within the context of an Indian tribe. In a very similar example, 2003's "The Last Samurai" depicts the healing of one soldier as it plays out thousands of miles from America, in Imperial Japan.
Set in the late 1800s, "The Last Samurai" tells the story of Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise), a washed-up war veteran with a severe drinking problem. Still a crackerjack marksmen in spite of his affliction, Nathan supports himself by appearing at gun shows. He is asked by his old commanding officer, Bagley (played by Tony Goldwyn), whom he cannot stand, to go to Japan to train their new army in western-style military tactics. This army is fighting a group of samurai who are opposed to new changes being made to Japan. Nathan accepts the job. While in battle, he is captured and brought to a traditional village. Here, he meets Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe), leader of the samurai. As he lives in this village, he begins to love their lifestyle. Nathan shifts allegiances and comes to fight with and for the samurai.
Although "The Last Samurai" does not have the most original story, it is still worth seeing for its great action scenes and beautiful settings. The movie is directed by Edward Zwick, and as he has done with several of his other films, he shows that he is great at staging big battle scenes.
Tom Cruise does very good work as Nathan, showing him at a full range of emotional and physical weaknesses and strength. We see how the Japanese lifestyle enables him to find much needed spiritual peace. Ken Watanabe is excellent as Katsumoto, a powerful leader. His performance earned an Academy Award nominations.
"The Last Samurai" is a solid choice for action fans.