Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring… You’re kidding? You don’t know? Well, everybody else does! …along with Ken Watanabe (See if you can guess who’s he playing), Billy Connolly (See if you can guess who’s he playing), and a bunch of Japanese guys with funny hairdos but whose names you can’t hope to pronounce.
Movies with “Last” in the title: Last Man Standing; Last of the Red Hot Lovers; Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The Last Picture Show (By the bye, what was “the last picture show”?* ); Last of the Mohicans (By the way, who was “the last of the Mohicans”?**); About Last Night; The Last Mile; The Last Tango in Paris; The Last Temptation of Christ; The Last Time I Saw Paris; Save the Last Dance for Me; The Last Train from Gun Hill (By the bye, when was “the last train from Gun Hill”?***); L’année dernière à Marienbad (variously pronounced); Clash of the Titans; Class of ’44 (Forty-Four); Blast from the Past; LA Story.
Dances with Samurai. See if this sounds familiar: scruffy guy, weary of war—the Civil War specifically—and who’s seen too much, stumbles out West (waaaaaaaay the heck out West), meets up with some roughies, whom he takes to heart, and decides upon a last stand in their company amid hopeless odds against ironically… the forces of order! Dances with Wolves? Open Range? Butch and Sundance? Tootsie?
Try reading the paper from back to front sometime. All those American flags on the pages just before that ad for DWM, 5’ 5” 285 lbs., seeking SWF same for long walks, Big Band music, unmasculine European coffee, macramé, and novels about shorebirds? Those are dead guys who served under the colors. Not a day goes by when two, three… more of them don’t check out, dumb farmboys from this (or some other) valley flung ashore on Kwajalein, Peleliu, Saipan, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Buna; shot down over Wake, Truk, Vela la Cava, Rabaul, New Georgia; dumped into the water off Bungo Strait, Ironbottom Sound, the Coral Sea, the Java Sea, Leyte Gulf, and on and on. Those guys’ll rest easy knowing we finally managed to resurrect the venerable bushido (pronounced “bushy-toe,” I think), Code of the Samurai Warrior, and moo beneficently over its passing while we snarfle down popcorn at the Cineplex. In the last real life picture of a samurai sword I can remember a Japanese officer is swinging it to lop off the head of an unarmed Marine on Makin Island.
Now we’re reliably—and lyrically—informed that these guys were actually sensitive agents of virtue, equality, safe sex, clean air, and culture—a culture that seems to involve a lot of yowling, whacking each other with a stick, living in paper houses, wearing dresses (men), and eating with knitting needles, for what I can see, but, hey—and that we should weep for their passing. A couple of them actually tear up on the screen… and I think I saw one or two fingers fuss furtively about eyes among the audience as we cleared the theater after this film. One of the few cogent lines in The Last Samurai, one tossed in scorn at the protagonist, Nathan Algren, Medal of Honor winner and wanna-be Taoist, invites him to consider “Why it is you hate your own people so?” Might ask that out in Californie.
Anyhow. Algren (Tom Cruise, with a mop of oily black hair but a splotchy beard, signal he’s in his ac-toor mode and to take this dreck seriously, okay? Born on the Fourth, Magnolias.) has washed up in a Wild West show (after service with honor in the Late Unpleasantness and service without it in the butchery of the Plains Wars), where former commanding officer Benjamin Bagley (Tony Goldwyn, an irritating Lieutenant Colonel who you just know is gonna take a thumping before it’s over) finds him and “dragoons” him (urf urf: He’s a cavalryman, get it?) and his Irish sergeant into coming to Japan to “modernize” (read: “poison with middlebrow American—ptui!—values,” beyond which Hollywood is light years… uh… beyond which.) In the first scrap, though, Algren’s trainees break and run, he’s captured, and dragged off to the mountain village lair of Quasimodo, Lord of the Samurai, where Algren undergoes a Hollywood indoctrination in the Way of the Warrior, the Way of Zen, the Way of The Sensitive Guy Who Seeks the Perfect Blossom, the Way of the Gringo Who Gets Whacked with a Stick. The soul-weary Algren sops this stuff up, wins over the villagers—mostly through his stoic capacity to take a good stick-whacking—and in the end takes up the samurai’s sacred mission to unfrutz the boy Emperor, endeavor they propose to pull off by tricking the Emperor’s army into killing them all. Well, who dies and who doesn’t, who retrieves his Karma and who doesn’t, who does the comely but demure Taka (played by the comely but demure Koyuki, or maybe the other way around) and who doesn’t, who finds the Perfect Blossom and who doesn’t I leave to you to learn in the dark at Cinema 12.
This is a great flick and one to watch again; a great role for Cruise, who’s getting just about old enough, just about confident enough in his craft to persuade me he is soul-weary. But that’s precisely my beef: the visual sumptuousness of the flick tends to foist off the message on us… that bygone men were grander, bygone ages brighter, bygone values sturdier. Watch this thing. Just don’t fall for it. Your kid in Iraq, the one in the chocolate-chip-cookie suit, the one you thought would never graduate… is brighter, tougher, cooler than ever my buds or I.
* Last Picture Show: Howard Hawks’ Red River, of course.
** Chingachgook (variously spelt but pronounced “Chicago,” according to Mark Twain) after Uncas takes swandive off cliff.
*** 2100h (or 9 o’clock at night, whichever comes first). af
"Your kid in Iraq, the one in the chocolate-chip-cookie suit, the one you thought would never graduate… is brighter, tougher, cooler than ever my buds or I.' Nah. Alan is a schoolteacher who loves his warrior cubs. In fact, your kid is just another grunt. Men like your son were counted among Marius' mules. God bless him, but my boys were better. pl