American Captain Nathan Algren, haunted by his role in the Indian Campaigns, is recruited to train an army fighting the 1877 samurai rebellion in Japan. But when captured by samurai leader Katsumoto, he embarks on a journey of redemption.
Alexander should consult his adjutants, Achilles confer with his war council and Arthur seek conference with Merlin, for Nathan Algren and Katsumoto - the sword-swinging heroes of The Last Samurai - have manoeuvred their tour de force onto the box office battlefield and seized a formidable position. Leading the forthcoming phalanx of arms-and-armour epics drawn from history and legend, Edward Zwick's compelling action-adventure is a masterclass not only in clarity of storytelling, economy of characterisation and dynamism of narrative, but also in the legitimate exposition of the heroic ideal.
Returning to the 19th century, where he conquered hearts with Legends Of The Fall and Glory, Zwick dons the armour of artistic licence and cuts a swathe through Japan's samurai revolt of 1877. While he and his co-writers lop off the odd historical appendage, they succeed in capturing an authentic framework on which to explore a doctrine of honour as both a foundation stone of an ancient culture, and as redemption for a spiritually corrupted denizen of an industrialised society.
The transformation of a world-weary American soldier to an enlightened occidental warrior, along with the samurai rebellion's seemingly futile struggle against Japan's encroaching industrial revolution, could easily have fallen victim to an onslaught of sentimentality and even implausibility, were it not for Zwick's masterful handling of the samurai ethos. The world of the bushi is founded on an ancient creed that demands absolute fealty to the warriors' code, even to the point of unquestioning self-sacrifice, and its delicate philosophies thrive amid an atmosphere of discipline and restraint.
Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the performance of Cruise. For while Hollywood's leading man is to be commended for taking the lead in a film that - while careful to implicate all the Western powers - takes a swipe at American imperialism, his greatest achievement lies in his subordination of himself to the role. Too often the glare of Cruise's mega-star status obscures the character, yet with Captain Nathan Algren - arguably his most expansive part to date - he musters a generous, understated performance, exposing his character's spiritual weakness and mental fragility along with his strength, compassion and sense of humour.
From his feisty friendships with the likable Zebulon Gant and Simon Graham, to his witty, one-sided conversations with his samurai guard, Algren allows the ancillary characters to blossom around him. Among the brightest flowers is his nurse, Taka, the subject of a smouldering love interest, unspoken and unconsummated, that characterises the poignancy of Zwick's epic world.
The most resplendent bloom, however, is the samurai warlord Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe. In a performance that bristles with strength and conviction every bit as steely as the twin blades he wields, Katsumato is the perfect embodiment of the heroic form. As he leads his warriors in the final charge against a Japanese battalion armed with howitzers and Gatling guns, the glory of his deeds is magnified still further by the impossible odds he faces.
With the plot revolving around the American government's zeal to supply the Japanese army with modern weaponry, The Last Samurai is a war movie. And, just as Peter Weir boards the galleon of historical accuracy with the battles in Master And Commander, so too does Zwick, marshalling his armies' movements and translating their tactics with ease but more excitement. Later this year, when Alexander, Achilles and Arthur launch their assaults on the historical action-adventure, they'd better be equipped with similar attributes. They will struggle to find a chink in The Last Samurai's armour.
As brisk as it is rich, The Last Samurai is much more fun than a mere history lesson.