The way of the warrior; a grandiose, deity-like figure whose aim in life is to find and fight for whatever it is they deeply believe in, to the death, in bursts of glory, beneath a mountain of expectations, against all forsaken odds.
Some films deal with this in a campy way, which is to say: not very well. Others deal with it in an effervescent way, which is to say, at best dogmatic, and at worst, cartoonish.
And others allow historical themes to guide the way.
And then there’s The Last Samurai.
A classic east meets west narrative. What happens when Feudal Japan opens its borders to the west? When a society so greatly isolated and ingrained in its own mythologies allows foreign influences to enter, not only to interact but to influence, to modernize.
Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe form a hypnotic partnership as passionate warriors from different worlds who realize they’re one and the same.
Captain Algren (Tom Cruise) is a disgraced hero of American Indian wars fame who lives every day with visions of his past deeds. False feats that are considered fit for a hero, but not for Algren himself. He knows that his reputation is based on the slaughter of innocents, and the extermination of a proud and brave race of warriors.
After severely facetious antics at a gun show, Algren is immediately fired from his job as a Winchester Rifle spokesman, only for him to be discovered by a former colonel under his commands who has come looking for him with the intention of offering him a cushy job.
What is it: head off to Japan and train the new Japanese Army.
What for? To defeat a rebel samurai army led by the feared, enigmatic, and well respected Katsumoto.
Algren, whose daily life has to do with ordering copious amounts of whiskey, breaths in sardonic air at the fact that he once again is qualified for only one job: to defeat tribal leaders. More simply: to engage in warfare.
Fast Forward. After successfully training the new Japanese Army to march, he is ordered to attack the Samurai. The rookie recruits are no match for the Samurai who slice them up without prejudice, howling at them, hissing and swinging their perfected steel blades, causing the army to cower and run. Algren, whose shameful past motivates self-deprecation, does not run, he fights; but he fights not to win, or to self-preserve, but for death. His ways are noticed by Katsumoto who sees the defeated Algren fight till the last breath and cheat death.
Taken prisoner, Algren learns the ways of the Samurai and is endeared by the peaceful, honorable existence that the Samurai expound. His time with them cures him of his ills, and he learns to let go of the past and live with honor again.
All the while, Katsumoto, whose place at the side of the emperor is occupied by opportunistic families with economic prosperity on their minds – and open markets in their sights – realizes that with modernization comes the end of his way of life and his families legacy.
But the warrior culture and its sense of honor and perfection will live on.
Some of the greatest battle scenes can be seen in this film.
Legions of Samurai charging through foggy woods through a hail of musket fire; Ninjas stealthily sneaking past sentries into a small village that is in the midst of enjoying a local theater play only to be thwarted in their assassination attempt by the swiftness of a shocked samurai defense; Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe charging on horseback up a hill adorned with howitzers awaiting an impending and glorious death.
Is this worth watching…