The epic battle in 1877 between the samurai and the forces of the imperial Japanese army is commemorated in the movie. Tom Cruise an American captain is captured by the samurai chief Katsumoto and is taken prisoner. During his confinement he has the opportunity to observe the ways of life of the samurai. He is struck by their discipline, their reverence of the Buddha and most of all by the hospitality of the family whose head he has killed.
I just checked Wiki and was interested to note that the movie starts in 1876 with Tom (as Nathen Algren) emerging traumatized from the butchering of the Native Americans in the Indian Wars where he has served. He is approached to serve the Japanese imperial army to subdue the samurai. In return for American participation in this effort Japan will grant America exclusive rights to supply arms to the Japanese government.
Tom then is a mercenery but his loyalties change after his stay at the samurai camp. In the final battle he dons the samurai warrior's clothing of the man he has killed and goes out to fight not against the samurai but alongside them. The movie provides for this volte face with great ecomony though at times the narrative lags specially at the camp. Stunning views of the courtryside offer a glimpse of Japan (though the movie is shot in New Zealand).
The movie is a study of Japanese culture and there seems a wisp of Pearl S. Buck's understanding of the Japanese people and their sense of loyalty in her novel Patriot. There is a dialogue right out of its pages as it were. When Tom apologizes to Taka the young woman whose husband he has killed and who is Katsumoto's sisiter, she says, 'He did his duty. You did yours.' In another instance Western and Oriental notions of language collide. When the samurai chief (Ken Watanabe) wants to draw Nathen into a sharing of views, he says, 'I said "Good morning", you said "Good morning". Thank you for the conversastion'!
The sensitivity with which the issue is handled is impressive. It throws into crisis fixed notions of loyalties fixed and fleeting. Tom evolves into a sentient being showing the utmost respect for universal human values. A modern day Asoka he eschews the horror of war and killing and turns to Buddhism to cure him of his alcoholism and past. This is a very different role from a fighter pilot making out with the blonde Kelly McGillis to the mesmeric music of Berlin in Top Gun (1986).
The final hopeless charge of the samurai who fall to the stacatto of the Gatling gun recalls Hamlet and the tragedy at the end when all die.It is Nathan who helps Takamoto to commit harakiri at the end. Today terms such as 'social harakiri' are used to indicate an improper ensemble of clothing.
The Last Samurai. (2003) Dir. Edward Zwick. Starring Tom Cruise, Sam Watanabe, Koyuki; pix courtesy film posters