Hollywood has given us a run of surprisingly good movies recently.
By ‘surprisingly good‘ I mean that they’re rather better
than one might expect from their genre. Loony Toons: Back In
Action, for example, could have been a mere merchandising
vehicle, a repetition of clichés and tired sight gags. Instead
it was a wickedly funny combination of Animaniac edginess with classic
Warner Brothers wackiness. It has a few moments of true brilliance
— the sequence in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through
Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (think of melting clocks)
is jaw-droppingly wonderful, sublime art.
Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World was
also a surprising treat. I’ve read all 20 of the Aubrey/Maturin
novels. The movie doesn’t capture their texture and depth —
that would be impossible, they are deeply literary works — but
as an adventure movie that refers to the books without insulting the
reader’s intelligence it works quite well.
The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter
movies are so good that hard-core fans of their respective books are
still pinching themselves, wondering when they’re going to wake up to
the discovery that they’re actually watching the usual dumbed-down
Hollywood crap. (I say this as a Tolkien fan so hard-core that I was
able to catch nuances of the spoken Elvish that weren’t in the
Of course there have been dreadful turkeys where we expected
better, as well. The third Matrix movie and Star
Wars: Attack of the Clones leap to mind. But dreadful turkeys
are part of the normal scene; what’s abnormal is that New
Line gave Peter Jackson the money and freedom to make
Rings movies that, while rushed and not without the
occasional compromise, are almost achingly good.
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that (a) was
a book adaptation faithful enough for the fans to cheer it, (b) got
great reviews from movie critics, and (c) was boffo box office? Just
counting the Rings and Potter movies and Master & Commander,
we’ve now had five of these in relatively quick succession. Something
is going on here. Can it be that Hollywood is having an attack of
intelligence and taste?
(My wife Cathy suggests Saving Private Ryan as a
precursor of the trend.)
The movie that pushed me to think about this as a pattern, rather
than a series of isolated incidents, is The Last Samurai.
I’d been wanting to see this one since the first trailers six months
ago, but was braced for a disappointment on the scale of Pearl
Harbor. Hollywood’s record on wide-screen historicals is
dreadful; they tend to be laughably ahistorical — either
mindless spectacles or video sermonettes for whatever form of
political correctness was in vogue the week they were made. Remarkably,
The Last Samurai almost completely avoids these flaws.
I said “almost completely”. The movie is not without
flaws. But even the flaws are interesting. They illustrate the ways
in which Hollywood’s metric for a good (or at least successful) movie
Let’s start with the bad stuff. First, way too much camera time
that could have been better employed gets spent on emotive closeups of
the lead’s phiz (a misfeature The Last Samurai shares with the first two Ring
movies and I am thus beginning to think of as ‘the Frodo
flaw’). But this is Hollywood and it’s Tom Cruise and one
supposes such excess is inevitable.
Secondly, the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we
are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the
use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms
and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse
archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before
Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from
the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were
actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.
But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are
intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone
other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had
to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice
thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.
Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are
given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored
using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a
generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a
separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end
of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on
samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and
elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most
exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).
In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat
training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets
and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the
swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this
attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of
these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to
meet their expectations.
One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai
ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand
sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real
samurai delvered the coup de grace by decapitating their
opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.
No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was
a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on
a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name
and rank would be displayed to best advantage.
While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the
wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the
behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that
‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to
serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of
“protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not
part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the
people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the
Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.
Now for some of the good stuff. It begins with an amazingly strong
performance by Ken Watanabe as the rebel daimyo Katsumoto. From the
first moment that you see him, you believe him; there are no moments
of hey-I’m-Tom-Cruise to mar his immersion in the character, for
which excellent reason he actually upstages Cruise at several key points.
Through Katsumoto and the other Japanese characters, we are made to
see the intertwined quests for perfection of both technique and self
that was so central to the samurai warrior-mystic. Indeed, there are
points at which the filmmakers have some subtle fun with the fact that
Americans of our day, having successfully naturalized Japanese martial
arts into our own culture, have learned to understand that path rather
better than Cruise’s Captain Algren does. I’m thinking especially of
the point at which a bystander watching Algren lose at sword practice
tells him he has “too many minds”. The viewer probably knows what
he is driving at even if Algren does not.
Better: the movie is properly respectful of Japanese virtues
without crossing the line into supine multiculturalism. Captain
Algren appreciates and accepts the best of an alien culture
without renouncing his identity as a Westerner, an officer,
and a gentleman. There is a telling scene after Algren has been
accepted into the life of his Japanese hosts in which he takes a heavy
load from Taka (the female lead), who protests that Japanese men never
help with such things.
Algren replies that he is not a Japanese man. In this and other
ways he refutes an already-standard knock on the movie, which is to
refer to it as “Dances with Samurai”. But this movie,
despite the flaws I’ve pointed out, is more honest and far less
sentimental about the samurai than Dances With Wolves was
about its Sioux. This is progress of a sort.
Algren’s romance with Taka is also handled with a degree of
restraint that is appropriate but surprising. We get no sexual
cheap thrills; instead, we get subtle but extremely powerful
eroticism, notably in the scene where Taka dresses Algren in her
dead husband’s armor just before the final battle.
The film is visually quite beautiful. The details of costume,
weapons, armor, and the simple artifacts of Japanese village life are
meticulously and correctly rendered. In fact there are a number of
points at which the setting is stronger than the script and carries
one through places where the plotting is a bit implausible.
This contrast is an illustration of the uneven way in which
standards have risen. The Last Samurai, the Rings
movies, Master & Commander, and the Harry Potter movies
all have vastly better production values than (I think) they would
have had even ten years ago — perhaps the huge advances in
special-effects technology have created a sort of upward pressure on
the quality of movies’ depictions of reality. On the other hand,
downright silly plot twists are still acceptable and the conventions
of the star-vehicle film remain firmly in place.
One gets ahistorical howlers and (in fiction) violations of the
spirit of the original work, but fewer than formerly. In all these
movies, you can see where they were trimmed to fit Hollywood’s
marketing needs, but the trimming is done with a lot more sensitivity
and taste than it used to be. Occasionally one even sees outright
improvements — the moment in Peter Jackson’s version of
Boromir’s death scene in which the fallen Gondorian hails Aragorn as
his king, for example, achieves more power and poignancy than
I like this trend a lot, but I’m not sure I understand it. The
Hollywood establishment is in business to make money, but the link
between market demand and the quality of films has always been
tenuous at best. It would be nice to think that film audiences
have required filmmakers to exhibit better taste by developing
better taste themselves, but in the face of all the awful schlock
that still gets churned out and makes money, this is a difficult
case to sustain in general.
It feels to me more as though some balance of power within the
system has shifted and, for whatever reason, creative artists
have gained power at the expense of the marketeers. Thus, for
example, Rowling had more than somewhat to do with the casting
of the Harry Potter movies, and Peter Jackson’s films display
a nearly obsessive concern with getting the look of Middle-Earth
right that could hardly be shared by a typical studio exec.
Whatever the reason, I’m glad of the trend. I spend a lot more
time in movie theaters than I use to — and that’s the
message Hollywood wants to hear.