The Last Samurai

Dir: Edward Zwick
2003
Well, me and “the missus” just came back from this film and boy are we disappointed (bordering on anger) on how they dropped the ball on this one.

Now, I have to discuss the ending of this film, so if you’re still achin’ to see it (because of that “Oscar®©™ Buzz” you heard about), then stop reading. Go click on a link, why dontcha.
Back to the issue at hand.
I understand that maybe there’s a lot of people out that who are only just learning about this crazy island called “Japan” and that maybe some people have never seen a samurai film. I’ll let it go, as I will all the long scenes of Algren (Tom Cruise) learning how to say “hashi” or “samui.” It’s wacky, it’s cute, it’s educational. I’ll also let the audiencese have the orientalism that romanticizes the entire culture as this pure and noble people.
But the fact that the filmmakers blew the ending by having Algren live instead of die in the field of battle was, in a word, bullshit. Yep, bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Unko. Kuso. (There’s some Japanese to learn!).
America hates to have its heroes die, especially these days when the Prez avoids military funerals like pretzels, but even before that (the 80s was the sea change). But I could really sense in the theater that the filmmakers could have gotten away with it. The film wins you over to the samurai code of honor, just as Algren is won over, and it would have made sense to have him fall alongside his former enemy, now blood brother, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who does the role justice while Tom Cruise still seems concerned about his hair). In fact, the scene is filmed like he does. The entire samurai clan has been mowed down by American machine guns–the way of the sword is over, as are the old ways, and around the corner is WWI, then WWII, then Hiroshima. And Algren had faced his past and his mortality and learned something about honor.
Not only that, but earlier in the film, the story begins to parallel contemporary events in Iraq. When asked if the Western-backed forces will defeat the renegades, the commander says, all hubris, “Of course, we have superior firepower.” Add a few more lines about them being savages, and the script looks back to the genocide of the Native Americans, and forward to the invasion of Iraq and our other imperial adventures. Substitute rail lines for oil pipelines and you’re nearly there.
Of course, this is nothing new; “Dances With Wolves” also towed this squishy liberal line.
But like that film, the Western character can never totally assimilate.
No, he has to survive, understand that he has learned a great life lesson, conquered his alcoholism, and now is ready for a full and happy life.
After the battle, he retuns for an audience with the young Meiji emperor (apparently, it’s easy to bluff your way in to see the mortal deity) and returns the dead Katsumoto’s sword. Algren’s gone all samurai’n’stuff! Why he even offers to take his own life, just like Katsumoto offered earlier! And the young emperor, who hasn’t found his own voice–that is, he hasn’t been on the self-improvement course that Algren’s been on–suddenly realises that the old ways weren’t so bad after all! In fact, he casts out the American businessman (sorry, Halliburton!) and his Japanese representative (sorry, Chalabi!) and announces plans to distribute the wealth to the people (huh?)!
Then a further coda where we see Algren and horse companion returning to the village where Katsumoto had originally taken him when he was captured at the beginning of the film. “Some say he finally found his peace,” says the narrator (who I take to be Timothy Spall, who is quite good in a Charles Laughton way).
Okay, now wait.
First of all, you kill off your best, most charismatic supporting character (Katsumoto), but not the lead, and don’t have that as your closing scene (which would have devastated the crowd, but in a good way). Instead, you give the long closing speech to the teenage emperor, whose English is hesitant and bland, and who offers some crap-o platitudes about Western Influence. And maybe Honor.
Then you have Algren returning to the village–THE VILLAGE WHO JUST LOST THEIR ENTIRE MALE POPULATION TO A WESTERN MACHINE GUN! Do you think the women want to see this Western guy, even though he was on their side? They are going to either starve because there are no men to provide the hard labor, or some roving gang is going to either kill or capture them. Is Tom Cruise going to help?
But really, we’re not supposed to care, because IT ALL WORKS OUT FOR THE AMERICAN. Tom’s studied Zen, he’s dry and at peace with himself. Isn’t that enough? And now he can retire to the mountains and live out his days with the widow of the man he killed at the beginning of the film. Won’t that be romantic?
So, kids, honor can only take you so far. First you have to feel good about yourself.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

What really happened in Samarra?

The propaganda wing says 54 fedayeen fighters died. The truth is more wiggly, and not intended to hide with warm, bloody feelings the fact that November was a month of death in Iraq.
Here’s one post from the Soldiers for the Truth web site that supposedly comes from one of the soldiers on the ground. Instead of a “battle,” this was a rolling convoy that just fired on any building where enemy fire might be coming from, sort of like those arcade games where your jet fighter is loaded down with every weapon and you just hit all the buttons at the same time. However did they figure out 54? Roll some dice?

This is a great attitude for a combat commander to have when fighting an armored force on force, but Colonel Rudesheim is not trained in Counter-Insurgency and my soldiers are taking the heat. We drive around in convoys, blast the hell out of the area, break down doors and search buildings; but the guerillas continue to attacks us. It does not take a George Patton to see we are using the wrong tactics against these people. We cannot realistically expect that Stability and Support Operations will defeat this insurgency.
As one would expect from using our overwhelming firepower, much of Samarra is fairly well shot up. The tanks and brads rolled over parked cars and fired up buildings where we believed the enemy was. This must be expected considering the field of vision is limited in an armored vehicle and while the crews are protected, they also will use recon by fire to suppress the enemy. Not all the people in this town were hostile, but we did see many people firing from rooftops or alleys that looked like average civilians, not the Feddayeen reported in the press. I even saw Iraqi people throwing stones at us, I told my soldiers to hold their fire unless they could indentfy a real weapon, but I still can’t understand why somebody would throw a stone at a tank, in the middle of a firefight.
Since we did not stick around to find out, I am very concerned in the coming days we will find we killed many civilians as well as Iraqi irregular fighters. I would feel great if all the people we killed were all enemy guerrillas, but I can’t say that. We are probably turning many Iraqi against us and I am afraid instead of climbing out of the hole, we are digging ourselves in deeper.

Meanwhile, a report in the Scotsman says that locals say that there have only been three bodies seen in the Samarra morgue and maybe only a few people killed. So who the hell knows?
But didn’t it make you feel good while you went Christmas shopping?