The great fabulist Jorge Luis Borges has a story called "Pierre Menard, Author of 'Don Quixote.' " It's about a French critic who so loves the great Spanish novel that he wants to write it. Not copy it, not rewrite it; no, to make an empathetic connection with Cervantes to such a degree that he is actually writing anew a novel that was written 400 years earlier.
Borges, ever so niftily, is getting at a basic but often unacknowledged circumstance of creation: Younger artists are so taken with a certain established work that they have to, in some fashion, make it their own. This seems to be the mechanism that underlies the Tom Cruise film "The Last Samurai," in which the director Edward Zwick, of "Glory" glory and "Legends of the Fall" legend, desperately aspires to become, by some weird transformative process of yearning and hoping, Akira Kurosawa, and to make a great Kurosawa movie.
And that explains also why, under its beauty, its lush production values and its superficial spell of enchantment, the basic product feels lame and thin, wan and stale. It's wannabe-ism on a multimillion-dollar scale, with an icon of Japanese culture somehow crudely penetrated by an interloper and turned inside out. Movies set in Japanese history should not be about handsome white people. It just feels wrong and, in the end, leaves in your mouth the taste of desecration.
If you're not a fan of the great director Kurosawa and don't care a whisker for Japanese film, you most likely won't give a damn. What's up there is, at least at that immediate level, engrossing. Endless yen have been spent on swords and armor and horses and costumes -- Zwick adores the flag-helmets so beloved by Kurosawa -- and New Zealand, which has made a pretty good Middle Earth, turns out to make a pretty good 1870s Japan, all shire and hill for battleground. Those battles are reasonably well staged, and lots of people die. There's some cool sword-fighting. But still, it's junk.
Basically what Zwick has done is to take Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" and insert it into the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, with a samurai clan in the role of an Indian tribe. Hmmm, I don't think so. Costner evoked all of Native American culture; the survival of a whole people was at peril. It was a culture war, not a class war. But the samurai, after all, were but a small part of Japan; they represented, by the 19th century, obstructivist, regressive values. They really can't, or shouldn't, be sentimentalized.
That doesn't stop Zwick. Nothing stops Zwick. He's like General MacArthur returning. He marches through everything, immune to subtlety, nuance, sense of appropriateness. So he's got Tom Cruise, as earnest and hopeless as the day is long, as both Toshiro Mifune and Kevin Costner. And to make this travesty worse, you can feel the handsome little guy "acting" with every fiber of his being. It's kind of unsettling. He resembles Sean Penn in "I Am Sam," except he seems to be shouting "I am Samurai." His face is a perpetual mask of scorn, his body a knot of anxiety, his eyes cranked down to laser glare. He's a poster boy for the concept of "trying too hard." He's not a hero, he's the guy at the party who's so intense you want him to stay away.
Cruise plays an American cavalry officer named Capt. Nathan Algren, a hero of both the Civil and Indian wars. But we find him sunk in bitterness, soaked in alcoholism. He's shilling for a gun company at some kind of industrial exposition, and haunted by guilt over a Wounded Knee-style massacre in which he was forced to participate. Pay no attention to this anachronistic conceit: No professional military officer of the era could have conceived of war against Native Americans as unjust or genocidal; there wasn't even a vocabulary by which, given mass cultural commitments to manifest destiny, such a thought could be expressed.
After a showy tantrum onstage to dramatize his discontent, Algren gets an offer from a Japanese industrialist to come to that country and use his vaunted skills to train an army for deployment in a campaign against samurai who are violently resisting the industrialization, and by implication the Americanization, of Japan. Algren accepts: It's the only war he's got.
Almost instantly you can see the agenda. First, Zwick insists on stale stereotyping that all but destroys the film. He expresses Algren's moral contamination by associating him with a hated modern institution, a gun company. But at the time, Connecticut's gun valley was something like today's Silicon Valley, part of that holy dream of manifest destiny. The opprobrium that visited the gun business didn't arrive until well into the next century.
Then there's that Japanese industrialist, very much the movie's bad guy. His villainy is expressed in terms of his Americanization: He's a cigar-smoking, derby- and waistcoat-wearing capitalist, and we're supposed to respond to him as representing the morally wrong course for Japan to take, while the old ways are without any rigor sentimentalized as superior.
What happens next is both inevitable and far-fetched, a series of improbabilities out of old Hollywood dumbbell tradition. Cruise's Algren trains his soldiers -- they are, of course, depicted as hopeless rural peasantry, unable to master such implements as the musket -- and leads them in battle. He is overwhelmed by the near-mythical samurai, who ride out of the fog as if from "The Seven Samurai," and only Algren survives the battle. Because he matches exactly a symbolic dream that we've seen in the head of the rebel samurai lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), that warlord decides not only to spare his life, but also to move him in with his own widowed sister. (It was Algren who made the woman a widow, but that, strangely, is not a factor in the drama.) Oh, and Katsumoto happens to be the rare 19th-century Japanese warlord who somehow has picked up English, so Algren doesn't even have to learn the language.
Katsumoto is clearly a movie version of the perplexing Japanese hero Saigo Takamori, who led the Satsuma (clan) rebellion. The major difference here, of course, is his sentimental indulgence of Capt. Algren, who would have, in the real world, symbolized everything the warlord hated and waged war to destroy: industrialization, Westernization, lack of respect for Japanese custom, the democratization of force when common soldiers with muskets could bring down the elegant armored, mounted and skillful samurai. By what twisted theory of human personality would Zwick build a movie based on such a zealous professional warrior's love for that which the record showed indisputably that he hated? It simply makes no sense, but without it -- and Cruise's art-moderne profile -- there's not a bankable movie.
What makes even less sense is Zwick's sentimentalization of Saigo -- through the vessel of the fictional Katsumoto -- and the code of Bushido that animated him. To Zwick, the way of the samurai is akin to the way of purity: It stands for nobility, service, self-sacrifice, denial of ego, tradition. It did, of course, but only for a small member of the elite who enjoyed its fruits; for the general population, it was simply feudalism, in which a small band of hereditary aristocrats controlled society by force and looted its profits to sustain themselves in castles and enjoy blood sports.
It was a simple, brutal system of exploitation, in which the anonymous millions lived and died to provide sustenance for a few. In the West, we call that "the Dark Ages" and we invented something to end it, called a "government"; Zwick calls it paradise and has constructed a movie that asks us to endorse it. It's the first, and I hope last, pro-warlord movie! This is something Kurosawa, by the way, never did: He understood that the warlord's way was the way of chaos and war and endless slaughter; his rogues and scalawags stood against that, not for it.
In any event, after placing his tight little white guy at Katsumoto's right hand, Zwick more or less sticks to chronology, with a few annoying flourishes. One is an attack by ninjas upon Katsumoto's headquarters, in which Cruise figures mightily, his flashing blade (Algren has learned the Japanese sword with stupefying ease) slashing this way and that at buzz saw speed. The ninja thing just seemed cheap and crummy to me, simply a way of letting Cruise show off his newly acquired sword skills in a fanciful sequence that more or less violates the consistency of tone of the rest of the film.
In the end, Katsumoto, with Algren by his side, faces a battle with newly industrialized forces. This is set up to showcase the uniquely Japanese value called "The Nobility of Failure," to quote the title of Ivan Morris's book on the subject, evidently an inspiration to Zwick. In the last battle of "The Last Samurai," Katsumoto, Algren and a few hundred others ride into Gatling guns. We're supposed to feel, I don't know, sorry for them, because their little con game is over, because Japan is achieving a central government and a unification under national leadership, along with other little things included in the bargain like education, medicine, and so forth.
This movie thinks that's terrible; it yearns for a medieval country to remain medieval. What sane person could buy into such absurdity? "The Last Samurai" stands for the Banality of Failure.
The Last Samurai (144 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for intense battle sequences.