I didn’t plan on doing two Cruise movies back to back. My plan was to grab a random movie from my collection. I just happened to look at The Last Samurai and realized I had not watched it in years. I remember loving this movie when it came out and being shocked that it wasn’t a major hit and awards contender (except for Watanabe for Supporting Actor and three nominations in minor categories [apologies to any sound mixing, art direction, and costume people out there]). The film actually ended up being pretty profitable, but I feel like it’s been forgotten, for the most part. Actually, it seems to only live on as a punchline about casting white actors in movies they don’t belong in.
The most memorable example of this joke being made was by Paul Mooney on Chappelle’s Show. He scoffs at the idea of Tom Cruise being the star of a movie with such a title, then suggests a future movie: The Last N**** on Earth, starring Tom Hanks. And while searching the awards history for the film on IMDb, I came across an awards show from 2017 called the All Def Movie Awards. The Last Samurai was one of five “winners” of the Most Out of Place White Person in a Movie award (the other winners were Aloha, Gods of Egypt, Doctor Strange, and The Great Wall. I understand why people would react this way to this movie at first sight, but they’re missing the point of the title and focusing too much on the marketing of the film.
Tom Cruise is not the last samurai, and the film never claims that he is.
The title of the film actually uses the plural of samurai, meaning the battle in the film, along with the changing culture of Japan, marked the end of the samurai. Even if you were to look at the title as referencing an individual, that individual would be Katsumoto. The film is actually about him and his battle more than it is about Tom Cruise. The film even begins with a vision that Katsumoto has while meditating, further indicating that this is his film.
In a perfect world, this film would star Ken Watanabe, and Tom Cruise would be a supporting actor. But for an American, big budget epic to be made, a star like Tom Cruise is necessary, especially sixteen years ago when this film was made. Is this unfortunate? Absolutely. Does it mean this movie should be dismissed as offensive without even watching it? No.
To be fair, plenty of people who watched the entire movie still found it offensive. Tom Cruise ends up becoming a member of the samurai community a la Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Any time you have a white actor wearing the traditional garb of a different culture, people will be offended. Personally, it does not bother me. But I’m not Japanese. If I were, perhaps I would have issues with this film. There’s no way for me to know this, of course. I will say that this film treats the culture with respect. Cruise’s character is accepted within the community because he shows respect for them and comes to appreciate their way of life. This is not like John Wayne playing Genghis Khan or something. Still, the very image of Cruise dressed as a samurai is too much. I disagree with someone who can’t get past that, but you can’t change what offends people.
Those that can’t get past the very premise of the movie are missing out, though. The Last Samurai is a surprisingly introspective film about honor, redemption, sacrifice, and living in a changing world, not to mention the treatment of war and the toll it takes on its participants along with an alcoholism subplot. And it’s not like Tom Cruise plays the white hero who shows up to save the day for the ignorant natives. It’s quite the other way around. His character learns from Katsumoto, and while he does help them in battle, Katsumoto is still clearly the leader, and the person everyone respects above all else. The only thing Cruise is able to do is survive to carry Katsumoto’s message to the emperor.
The most unfortunate part of all of this is that there isn’t a solution to it. This movie does not exist without Tom Cruise. I would never have seen this if it didn’t star Tom Cruise. Sure, I watch plenty of foreign and indie films that don’t feature stars now, but back then I didn’t. And even today, movies like that rarely get wide releases. It’s the nature of the business, and the filmmakers overcame it, even if most people didn’t appreciate it.
If Tom Cruise dressed up as a samurai doesn’t piss you off, the historical accuracy will!
Another group of people I’ve noticed upon researching this movie are the historical accuracy folks, and this movie really pisses them off. I’m not going to get into all the inaccuracies with this movie (there are plenty of pages that have already done this [by the way, this claims that Cruises serves “at (I’m guessing he meant “as” but who knows?) the reason for all their honor and rebellion.” I don’t know how you can watch this film and come away thinking Cruise was the source of Katsumoto’s honor or rebellion. Katsumoto had always been considered honorable, and Cruise was brought in because of the rebellion, so how did he cause it?]). I would rather comment on historical accuracy in general, and The Last Samurai’s relationship with history.
To begin, I used to be a nitpicker of his historical-based films. I loved being the guy who said, “Well, what actually happened was…” I’m still that guy a bit, but I don’t let it ruin the movie for me. I can separate history from entertainment, and I understand why some feel that getting the history wrong in a popular film is dangerous. But I still think a movie’s main purpose is to entertain and tell a meaningful story. If you want straight-up history, watch a documentary or, better yet, read about it. (Not that there aren’t problems with accuracy in those mediums as well, but at least the goal there is to provide a history lesson.) But let’s get back to the idea that a film like this could be “dangerous.”
One article I read (I won’t link to it because I found the writer annoying) claimed that the problem with movies like The Last Samurai is that history students (the writer is a professor) will come away with an inaccurate idea about the event, time period, and/or culture in general after seeing the film, and he will have to correct these incorrect reactions. As a former history teacher, I can sympathize a little with that, but this guy just sounds like he’s pissed off that the movie didn’t do his job for him. As a teacher, especially a history teacher, you accept that the bulk of your job is clearing up false assumptions students bring to the material. Discussing this film should be a teachable moment for that professor. It shouldn’t be the impetus for a whiny blog post. I showed movies often when I taught (it was junior high, they needed some visuals to keep them awake from time to time), and I never presented the movies as 100% factual. I would point out what they got right, what they omitted, if they captured the basic idea of the event, etc. I told students that historical movies should only be used as a starting point for whatever event they portray, and if it interests them, to do their own research so they understand what really happened. People who bemoan Hollywood ruining history are joyless movie watchers who should just stick to books.
The Last Samurai actually prided itself on historical accuracy, even including a History Channel mini-doc. It’s mostly fluff that serves more as a commercial for the film than anything else, but they do at least mention that the samurai were not as honorable as the film makes them out to be. But in the behind the scenes material, you can see that a lot of detail went into the look of the film, especially costumes. But they admittedly deviated from history, having the military advisors be American rather than Prussian and creating a fictionalized samurai rebellion rather than telling the true story of the actual samurai rebellion. The article I referenced above does present a decent question: why not tell the actual true story when it’s arguably more interesting? That brings me to my final main topic.
So why not stick with the truth?
First off, Cruise as a Prussian is stupid. I liked Valkyrie, but remember how weird it was that he was supposed to be a German soldier in that movie? It’s simpler to just keep him American. Just like it’s always better when Arnold Schwarzenegger is an Austrian who moved to America rather than a regular old American...with an obvious Austrian accent. Or when Gerard Butler is a Scottish guy who moved to America rather than a Scottish guy doing such a crappy American accent that he ends up sounding like the European characters from Family Guy (“Oh, friend, I got so bombed. I must have had 5 liters of alcohol last night!”) Changing the nationality of a character is one thing, but why not go with actual history? There’s actually a character development reason for that.
The whole point of making the part American is the similarity between the samurai and Native Americans. This makes the job much more personal for Cruise’s character, as he finds a way to redeem himself for his role in the atrocities the United States committed against Native Americans. Although this is also problematic since the two groups aren’t really all that similar. Sure, they both wanted to keep their way of life amid a changing world, but it wasn’t like the emperor and his advisors came from a different country and made these changes. The samurai were playing a smaller and smaller role in the country, and modernization was the final nail in the coffin. But the samurai were considered to be...well...dicks. They had the right to kill any commoner who disrespected them, and they were more worried about money than honor at this point. Their downfall was more about being unwilling to adapt to a changing world than it was about a land-hungry government forcing them off their lands.
That written, The Last Samurai is a movie, and it never claims to be based on a true story. I was able to enjoy it knowing it wasn’t all that factual, and Cruise’s journey as a character was much more meaningful than just a guy collecting a paycheck. When I wanted to know the real story, I spent an hour or two reading about it online. So maybe most of the audience won’t do research after watching a movie. Is that the fault of the filmmakers? And how important is it to know the true history anyway? This might sound blasphemous, especially coming from a former teacher, but it’s not that big a deal if a small percentage of the population watches this movie and thinks it really happened.
It’s not ideal, and I wish everyone was more mindful about the difference between historical movies and actual history. If these people are students, then hopefully a teacher steers them in the right direction. If they’re beyond traditional education, hopefully they do a little research on their own. But if that doesn’t happen, who cares? So maybe someone comes away from The Last Samurai thinking the samurai were aided by a rogue American soldier, who helped them fight against an unjust government in the name of honor. At what point would believing this cause a problem? The worst case scenario I can think of is someone watching this movie, believing it, then speaking to a Japanese person about the events in the film as if they are a real part of Japanese history. In this rare hypothetical scenario, it would probably end with the Japanese person setting the viewer straight.
I know it’s a slippery slope when we stop caring about the truth, especially in this toxic political moment we’re unfortunately living in. But a part of any struggle is knowing which battles should be fought. And I don’t think fictional historical war epics are the battleground where we should make our stand. I don’t care if someone thinks Tom Cruise was the last samurai as long as they have a basic idea of what’s happening in the actual world around them.
Okay, I did not think I was going to end up here when I started writing about this movie. So I think it’s time to finish this up.
Why do I own this?
There was a run of Tom Cruise movies from the late 90s to the mid-2010s that I really liked, and The Last Samurai was right in the middle of that. This may not be the most rewatchable of Cruise’s movies, but I like to have it to revisit every few years, especially since I find it to be one of the last old fashioned war epics ever made.
I'm not sure I ever believe it when Cruise laughs onscreen or off. He has a great laugh, but it's not realistic.
I really like Billy Connolly in this. I wish his character would have survived longer.
A lot of similarities to Glory (the training, especially having a Scottish or Irish drill sergeant) and Dances with Wolves (an American soldier is captured and assimilates their culture), but I still find this to be its own film.
I dig the intensity of Cruise early in the film. The scene in which he describes scalping to Timothy Spall is great.
Cruise looks like Ron Kovic in that flashback.
Great battle sequences in this film. In many ways, this is one of the last true, old-fashioned war epics.
This role requires a lot from Cruise. He had to learn all the fighting and whatnot, his character has PTSD, he has a withdrawal sequence, etc. I know he's Mr. Stunt Performer now, but people forget that he's always dove headfirst into his roles.
My friend and I still yell “Sake!!!” from time to time because of this movie. An odd part to quote, but we're fuckin’ weirdos, so whatever.
There's nothing more awkward than sitting down to dinner with the family of the man you killed in battle.
So what's the widow thinking as she watches Cruise fight? “I hate him for killing my husband and leaving my children fatherless, but God damn, he sure can take a beating, and I respect that.”
Cruise's captivity was essentially a hardcore rehab stint.
Tony Goldwyn is such a prick. Or he's good at playing one. But maybe he really is; I don't know the dude.
The immediate flashback Cruise has of killing the guys in the street would normally make me think, “This is a lazy way to show an action scene twice.” But I liked it here because it made the previous action scene appear more artistic...and you got to really see the blood spraying. Yeah, it's more about the blood spraying for me.
I love that Spall calls Cruise the President to get him past the guards.
I always thought the bow and arrow work (especially in the freeing of Katsumoto) in this film was great. It's rare to see an arrow actually hit a person. Usually you see an arrow fly the there's a quick cut to a person with an arrow already stuck.
Ha ha, I forgot about Cruise's horse kicking that dude in the groin!
The film does a great job of making you care about all of the samurai, even if you don't know their names. Hell, I only know the names of Katsumoto and Bob. And Bob was not his actual name.
How do you like that sword in your chest, Tony Goldwyn? You prick!
Really glad Watanabe was nominated for an Oscar. It's one of those performances that's normally overlooked by the Academy, but this was a rare time they at least got a nomination right. Tim Robbins won, but I think Watanabe was more deserving.
I used to wish that Cruise had died with the rest of them, but now I'm glad he survived. Not only is he able to carry on Katsumoto's wishes, but he is able to return to his new family.