I saw “The Last Samurai ” this weekend with son number one. I was prepared to like the plot, and dislike Tom Cruise. There’s just something about him I can’t really warm to, might have something to do with letting Nicole Kidman get away. Or maybe it was more about him being an F-14 pilot in “Top Gun “ (the movie, that is.) FA-18 pilots have issues with anything that casts the “Turkey” in a favorable light. It’s not quite as bad as the cordial hatred between F-16 pilots and their F-15 brothers in blue, but it is of the same virus strain.
Anyway. I was enchanted by the movie. There is (for a member of the warrior class) a compelling clarity and simplicity to the code of bushido, certainly a spartan beauty in the screen images of some idealized, pre-industrial and feudal Japan. It was not considered inappropriate, for example, for a samurai to be both warrior and poet. I like that, personally. And Cruise wasn’t bad, really. Actually quite good.
Oh yes, life must have been very difficult for the 98.95% of the peasantry that didn’t profit from the feudal system in Japan. It must have seemed a rather harsh lot to spend your day in the back-breaking labor of sowing and harvesting rice, in order to pay for the daimyo’s fencing practice. A bad spin of the genetic wheel. But movies of this sort require a sort of willing suspension of disbelief, a buy-in to some vanished (never existed?) age of agrarian perfection. The bad guys look like us of course – the army colonel that led the Cruise character to drink, and finally to train the emperor’s army was a war criminal, from one of the more shameful times in our history. They’re fighting for the equivalent of the robber baron class in Japan. Cruise’s epiphany comes after he has been captured, and eventually assimilates (after a fashion) into the rural culture.
Not that this is really possible. I’ve lived in Japan, and they tolerate foreigners quite well – but I am as familiar with the little children peeking out and pointing at the gaijin in the 20th century as Cruise’s character came to be in the 19th.
So at the end, the virtuous samurai end up renouncing firearms and all innovations of modernity to face the howitzers and Gatling guns. With predictable results.
“whatever happens, we have got
the Gatling gun, and they have not.”
– Hillaire Beloc
So once again, the US farks it up, misunderstanding the local customs. But it’s OK – One Man Gets It, and ends up changing the emperor’s mind about paying attention to their time-honored customs. Who later, is asleep at the wheel I guess, when his army goes raping, killing and burning throughout Asia in World War II. Or maybe that was his son.
Still, a good flick. Sure, there’s violence, but it served to further the plot, unlike the pornographic (in my view) “Kill Bill, Vol 1 .” Put aside for now the need to have a white westerner in the film for self-referential sale-ability (ala: “Shogun “).
Which brings me to war movies in general: there are a lot of good movies out there about dubya-dubya eye-eye. The last good fight, we’re told. The greatest generation. Good and evil stuff, the hard fought battle, the outcome flying in the wind. You could cheer Patton’s 3rd Army . The grunt in the trenches, the captain beset by doubt (see also: Saving Private Ryan ), the general in his HQ. The enemy was our enemy, the fight our fight. Not this party’s or that’s. It belonged to all of us, we all pitched in.
I wonder if it really felt that way, at the time?
Of movies about the Korean “conflict” (it was a war to those who fought in it), not so much. The good guys didn’t obviously win. Why fight for a draw? There was a great movie, “The Bridges of Toko Ri, ” but that was about the individual, not about society, and not about larger goals and meanings. All of that was ambiguity, the backdrop in the fog. This was a transitional movie.
Movies about Vietnam reflect not ambiguity so much as an almost existential view of the struggle of man with himself. How to be a good person in a bad place, doing a bad thing? John Wayne did an unabashedly pro-American (pro-democracy?) movie in “The Green Berets ,” which was pilloried of course by the punditry. Quelle simplisme! More in favor were “Apocalypse Now ,” and “Full Metal Jacket. ” You could get on side with the protagonist while sharing his contempt for the policy that sent him to the bad place.
In America, the fault lines on that fight still reflect the divisions in the polity today. I can remember as a child, watching the evening news (in black and white) and hearing the ever-favorable body count ratios. “Are we winning, dad?” Dad, who was of the WWII generation, didn’t answer so much as grimace. They didn’t do kill ratios, in his day.
There are new movies about modern war: “Blackhawk Down ,” for example. But this movie in particular takes nearly no notice of the political backdrop (according to Clausewitz, famously, war is politics carried on by other means), or strategy. It was an in-the-dirt documentary, the grunt’s eye view of killing, and being killed. COPS, in khaki BDUs. There are few moral lessons in there, you’re left to draw your own conclusions. Were the rangers dedicated heroes, or merely dupes? We report, you decide…
Gulf War I? You get a pair of movies about fictions: The hero female helicopter pilot and the disgraced armored cavalry officer who clears her name in “Courage Under Fire ,” and the the post-war bad guys gone good “Three Kings.” The lessons are personal, not civilizational.
The largest tank battle since the World War II Battle of Kursk took place in 1991. I don’t think you’ll ever see a movie about it. We’re ambivalent about that fight, like each one we’ve been in since WWII. I guess all the good fights have already been fought. This is why we can dreamily fictionalize a defense of the West in “the Return of the King ,” “I bid you stand, men of the West!” but must regard the current defense of western civilization and all that it stands for, against a threat that would kill us all if it could, with serene equanimity. This is why we can revel in the never-really-existed fantasy of pre-industrial Japanese feudalism in it’s fight against the evil of technology and modernization.
Don’t get me wrong, please: I’m not talking about going back to an age of “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” The fields of Flanders disabused us all, of all that. But I do sort of wonder what it’s coming to in a democracy, when the boys can go fight and win the nation’s wars, and our only lessons learned are personal, rather than general. When we can moralize that we support the troops, while decrying the fight they wage. Like they’re not smart enough to figure it out for themselves, although they’re willing to die for the cause. The poor deluded fools, to believe in all that – to believe in us.