For better and worse, this is what Hollywood knows how to do — a grand and eminently watchable epic with no expense spared, ambitious in scope, thoughtful in execution. If it is not particularly original or meaningful, and if it is a bit too careful, at least it avoids some of the usual pitfalls. It includes some outstanding action scenes and some memorable performances. But it never makes us care enough about the conflicts it portrays — those between the warring factions or those within the leading character.
Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran reduced to whiskey-soaked exhibitions for a gun manufacturer. He feels irredeemably corrupted by atrocities in fighting the Indians and has lost any sense of honor. When he is offered a job to train Japanese soldiers in modern fighting techniques, he does not car whose side he will be on. “For 500 bucks a month, I’ll kill whoever you want,” he tells his former commanding officer (Tony Goldwyn). “But keep one thing in mind. I’d happily kill you for free.” He is still haunted by a raid that killed civilian Indians and admits to himself, “I have been hired to suppress the rebellion of yet another tribal leader.” But it is the only job for which he is suited. The sustaining force of honor, dignity, and meaning are gone and all that is left is skill for which he no longer has any respect. “I am beset by the ironies of my life.”
Algren is lost in the gulf between his ideals and the world he sees around him.
In Japan, he meets Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), an expatriate Englishman who serves as his translator and our exposition-provider (“I have a tendency to tell the truth in a country where no one ever says what they mean. So now I translate other people’s lies.”) Graham helpfully lets us know that “The ancient and the modern are at war for the soul of Japan.”
Algren goes to work training soldiers in modern tactics so that they can defeat a samurai rebellion led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Against his best judgment, the troops are sent in against the samurai too soon. They are defeated, and Algren is captured.
Rebellion is in the eye of the beholder. Algren learns that the samurai believe that they, not the troops Algren who has been training, who are doing what the emperor needs. He is impressed and ultimately moved by them. “From the moment they wake, they devote themselves to perfection of whatever they do.” Algren — or at least the man he once was — has more in common with the samurai, who live a life of “service, discipline, and compassion,” than he has with any of his peers. That includes a Miniver Cheevy-ian sense of being born in the wrong time. But it also includes all the honor and self-respect that Algren left behind when he followed orders he despised. Instead of training troops to fight the rebellion, Algren is trained by the samurai in the ancient arts, which include not just fighting but living.
The movie’s greatest strength is its scope. Just as Algren admires the idea of spending a life searching for a perfect blossom, director/co-author Edward Zwick imbues every part of the screen with respect, even majesty. The epic reach of the movie is grounded in committed and thoughtful performances, especially Wantanabe and Koyuki as Taka, his sister. Cruise delivers his usual performance, sincere and loaded with movie star charisma. His mastery of the samurai fighting techniques is impressive but his acting shows us nothing we have not seen from him before.
The movie’s greatest weakness is that not every part of the screen is due that level of respect. It may be more fair to give both sides of the story, but it interferes with our commitment to the outcome. We know that Algren’s commanding officer is not a good guy and that the emperor is a weak guy advised by a greedy guy, and that Katsumoto is a good guy. But we never understand the substance of the conflict well enough to take sides. One side may be corrupt, but it is grappling with the inevitable in engaging with modernity. The other side may have honor and dignity, but in embracing its own extenction it seems to have forgotten how to do anything but fight, no matter what the consequences to its community. And the last 20 minutes or so are disappointingly formulaic, undercutting the power of everything that went before and teetering into the “movie that is ostensibly about the non-whites but turns out to be about the white guy who gets paid the big bucks” category.
Parents should know that this movie has extreme and graphic violence with many grisy wounds and a lot of blood. Many charactrs are killed, including some we have come to care about. Parents should especially be aware of the way that this movie portrays the traditional samurai notion of suicide as an honorable choice in the event of a defeat. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol abuse, smoking, and sexual references. One of the movie’s strengths is its respect for the Japanese culture and its portrayal of strong and respectful relationships between people of different races and cultures.
Families who see this movie should talk about what it means to say that “A man does what he can until his destiny is revealed.” Why was Algren able to find redemption in Japan and not in the United States? How did he know which side he was on? Who won that last battle? Why? What is important to know about your enemy? Given the inevitability of changing times and technologies, how do you know what you should change or adapt to and what you must hold on to?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Glory, by the same director, and also Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, Henry V, and The Seven Samurai. They can check here and here for more information on the battle of Thermopylae and here for more information on 19th century samurai warriors.