‘The Last Samurai’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) is an epic drama film that takes place in a unique period of Japan’s history and highlights the conflict between modernization and tradition, between cultures, and also between different styles of warfare. However, it is not just the conflicts that are highlighted in this film but also the cooperation and the understanding that can happen as well in certain aspects such as between cultures. While this film is not specifically based on a true story, it is based on a number of true events that took place in the latter half of the 19th century for Japan and highlights the role of Western influence in Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration or Reforms.

The main character, Nathan Algren (played brilliantly by Tom Cruise) is a Captain in the United States Army of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Nathan is a veteran of the American – Indian Wars and perhaps the Civil War as well. He is a bitter man who is suffering from trauma related to the atrocities committed against the Indian tribes during these brutal battles. When the film starts, we can see that Nathan is an alcoholic who is regretful over the orders that he had to follow and what happened to innocent Indian women and children whose lives were disregarded by his commanding officers.

However, for lack of purpose or money, or perhaps both, Nathan is recruited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, whom Nathan still resents for his role in the Indian massacres, to help train Japanese soldiers in the Western way of combat to put down the Samurai rebellion, which is ongoing in Japan. Algren is dealt a bad hand as he has to train peasants and not actual soldiers who are firing guns for the first time and would be better suited to the farms than to the battlefield.

In addition to that, he is expected to lead them soon into battle against the Samurai for which they do not have enough time to prepare. One of themes of this film is how good men are often corrupted by following misguided orders by their superiors and often end up harmed, captured, or killed for the negligence or ignorance of those with a higher rank. Nathan is a good soldier, but he cannot train peasants into soldiers in the time that is given to him especially when he is not familiar with the ways of the Samurai and how lethal they can be compared to his peasant conscripts.

In the battle between his soldiers and the Samurai, the Samurai end up killing most of them through surprise attacks and then an ambush in a refusal to fight the way of the ‘modern’ army that Nathan has assembled. One of Nathan’s fellow American army colleagues is killed in the battle while most of his army is decimated. Undeterred and with nothing to live for, Nathan fights the Samurai ferociously and is able to hold his own. Instead of killing him, the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, decides to capture Nathan instead and hold him as their prisoner. Unbeknownst to Nathan, Katsumoto sees something in Nathan and believes that he is a good warrior, who although tries to kill the Samurai, may be one of them due to his capacity to fight to the last breath.

At first, Nathan is not treated kindly by the Samurai given that he is a former enemy and that he also killed the husband of Katsumoto’s sister who resents Ethan’s presence in their village. Nathan also has his preconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Samurai and their culture. Over time though, Nathan starts to acclimate to his new life as a prisoner. He embraces the Japanese language and culture as well as earns the respect of the other Samurai by learning swordsmanship as well as how to train with others.

He also finds he has an affection for Katsumoto’s sister and ends up befriending her son as well. While it is not easy, he gains an appreciation for the Samurai and their way of life. He even begins to resent the modernity and the loss of the tradition that is being imposed on them by the imperial Japanese government. In this way, ‘The Last Samurai’ does an excellent job what it means to ‘go native.’

When you live in another country for long enough, you start to really embrace certain aspects of the culture and also if you take a liking to the language, you may realize you may want to stay there now that you’re acclimated rather than return to a home culture or country whose flaws become so visible to see when you were blind before to them. This movie does a great job of showing ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and how powerful it can be over time especially if you have a romantic interest in a woman or a man after a long enough period of time.

Algren is also no longer haunted by the nightmares of what he experienced during the Indian wars and has also forgone alcohol as he has found other ways to sustain himself while living with the Samurai. Perhaps most importantly, he develops a friendship with the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, who explains to Nathan their worldview and while preserving their 1000-year heritage is so important to them all. Nathan agrees with them and starts to see how important the ways of the Samurai are to Japanese culture and customs themselves.

The biggest turning point in the film is when Nathan begins to fight alongside the Samurai against attacks by both Ninjas, which one of the coolest scenes I have ever watched still. It is an amazing scene when you have Samurai battling with Ninjas and it is a very powerful point in the movie to show Nathan help save Katsumoto’s life. The Samurai are so dedicated to their way of life that they will die or commit ‘seppuku’ (suicide) to preserve their honor.

Without giving away the rest of the film, we can see that the Japanese emperor is being betrayed by big business interests and Western nations in the rapid attempt to modernize. While Japan was right in that it needed to catch up in areas of commerce and warfare, it is also important to remember the ways of the Samurai and to remember their customs as well. It is not right to destroy an important part of their culture and erase it from the history books.

That is what the Samurai leader, Katsumoto, and also Nathan wanted to preserve even if they knew that they were fighting a losing battle. A culture’s customs must be remembered, and its history remembered by all even if the country is to go in a new direction. ‘The Last Samurai’ makes it clear that even if there are no more Samurai, their memory must be retained in the national consciousness and it is important for Japan to not be belittled or bullied around by other powers. Receiving western advice, arms, and goods was a paramount need at that time but not at the sake of destroying a part of Japan that made it a special nation to begin with.

‘The Last Samurai’ is a powerful film because it reminds us all how customs and traditions form the backbone of a country’s culture and its’ history. While nations shift and change, the traditions and customs should never be forgotten by its people. That is the main message of the film and why the Samurai fought and died to preserve their place in Japanese society rather than be changed into something they are not. Becoming ‘Western’ because they had to be was an insult to them and something, they were against in an effort to remain as ‘Samurai’ in whatever capacity they could in order to serve the emperor.

It is a powerful film and also shows the redemption of Nathan Algren who went from a drunken soldier without purpose to a powerful Samurai commander who was able to integrate himself as best as he could into a foreign culture and even earn the love of a woman whose husband’s life he had ended. ‘The Last Samurai’ has many themes to it and each one of them are powerful. Remembering traditions, seeking vengeance, earning one’s redemption are all themes to the film and make it stand out still today as one of the best films of the 2000’s and maybe of this young century still. I hope you will check it out soon and please always remember the Samurai.

‘Munich’ – Film Review and Analysis

Can revenge be worth it and what are the consequences involved in carrying out acts of vengeance? ‘Munich’ (2005), a film directed by Steven Spielberg poses a number of moral quandaries regarding how can there possibly be lasting peace after so much violence and bloodshed has been spilt by both Israelis and Palestinians in a decades-long conflict. In addition to the historical narratives of both groups never seem to align, there is a violent undertone to how both groups see their struggle and what they are willing to do to ensure the success of their cause.

‘Munich’ is a film that is loosely based on the novel, ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas, and takes a number of liberties regarding the historical events of the Black September terrorist attack on the Israeli national team during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. While Spielberg’s adaptation may not be the most historically accurate, it brings the events of that tumultuous time of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to life by attaching the names of the deceased to the tragic events that occurred.

While not commercially successful at the box office, ‘Munich’ was critically acclaimed and was nominated for five Academy Awards including ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’, and ‘Best Score.’ While it didn’t win any of those awards, it was given a lot of praise for its writing, direction, and cast of characters including Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Ciaran Hinds. In addition, the film is not just about the 1972 Olympics attack, but it dives into what the Israeli government’s response was to this act of terrorism and how the response is similar to the ‘eye for an eye’ ethos that reflects how governments react to violent acts of terrorism with an approach to seek vengeance primarily.

The main character of the film is not actually based on a specific person, but he is used as an amalgam of the Mossad agents of the Israeli intelligence service who were responsible for getting revenge on the Black September group of Palestinian terrorists. Avner Kaufman, played by Eric Bana, who after witnessing the tragic act of terror take place on national television alongside his wife, is subsequently thrust into service by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence service, to run a counterterrorism operation and to lead a team of operatives whose main objective is to bring those men who plotted and orchestrated the attacks on the Olympians in Munich to justice, dead or alive.

This isn’t your average intelligence mission because it involves the probable use of deadly force to achieve the aims of the mission. Avner has to technically ‘resign’ from Mossad first and to disavow that he has any connection to the Israeli government in order to carry out this secret mission. Avner’s handler, Ephraim, also informs him that this team is an eclectic mix of Jewish volunteers from around the world who are not really assassins so much as bomb makers, drivers, and document forgers.

Luckily, this unique team of newly recruited Mossad agents has good chemistry and they work well together in tracking down the plotters of the Munich attack. They are able to carry out the first couple of assassinations against the terrorists with precision and without any ‘collateral damage’, meaning that no innocent civilians were not caught up in the crossfire. However, there are a few close calls where they almost end up killing the daughter of Mahmoud Hamshari in Paris which are they able to call off the bomb detonation calling off the attack at just the last moment. Also, the men who are being killed, while they are the masterminds of an older age, there’s a lingering sense in the film that the young militants who carry out these attacks are ready to take up arms given how righteous they feel the mission is of creating a free Palestine even if it means killing Israelis and Jews around the world.

In one scene, Avner, pretending to be a member of the German Red Army Faction (RAF), has a frank conversation with Ali, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), about how ‘home is everything’ to the Palestinian peoples and how much they want the land back that they believe was taken from them in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Believing that the Arab states would have the back of the Palestinian people, Ali believes that “Israel will cease to exist”, which did not change even with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the invasion of Egypt and Syria against Israel. In this critical conversation of the film, Ali believes that it will take a few more generations but a free Palestine is inevitable given how poor the conditions are in the refugee camps and how the Palestinians will win due to demographics and the deep belief in their want for a ‘home’ and a state of their own separate from other Arab identities. “We want to be nations” is a belief that hasn’t changed in the past forty years and is an intractable fact behind how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to this day.

With this chance encounter of Mossad agents and PLO, there seems to be a worry among the Israeli team how they are targets as well and there is a team looking to kill them as well in response for their attacks against the Black September group. While the group is successful in tracking down seven of the eleven men who plotted the 1972 Munich Olympics attack, there is growing frustration as to whether meeting their objectives will have any long-term importance since these terrorist group leaders are just replaced by new people, and the cause of Black September and the Palestinian Liberation Organization continues to recruit new and young members to join the fight against the Israeli government. Avner, the main character, also sees most of his team members die in retaliation attacks along with interference from the CIA with regards to protecting their own Palestinian asset, Ali Hassan Salameh. As Avner’s team loses members and aren’t able to kill Salameh, the violent actions that Avner undertook as well as his inability to protect his men from harm weigh heavily on his conscience.

“Why cut my fingernails? They’ll grow back…” Ephraim, Avner’s handler, makes clear that terrorists replace one another with ease and they must keep the cycle of violence going as long as it takes until ‘peace’ is achieved. Avner is disgusted with this argument and by the end of the film, is a morally conflicted Jew and Israeli, who realizes that this is not the way to have peace through an endless cycle of revenge and vengeance. Rather than continuing on as a Mossad agent in a mission that he no longer believes will change anything, Avner decides to quit. As one of his team members tells Avner during the last mission they take on together, “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing that. If I lose that, that’s everything. That’s my soul.” Avner and the other team members understand implicitly that the violent actions they take have consequences and that while their version of history is different from the Palestinians, they are both using violence and bloodshed to further their own people’s cause, but to what end?

The main theme of ‘Munich’ that Spielberg gets across to the audience quite well is that while the historical narratives may never overlap with each other, there has to be a recognition of the other side’s existence and to see a way to compromise without continuing the endless cycle of violence and revenge. What it comes down to fundamentally is recognizing the dignity, the hope, and desire for a better future of your fellow man and woman while putting aside the religious, cultural, and political differences to make peace now so that in the future young Israelis and Palestinians will not have to fight and die to preserve their nation’s existence.