Edward Zwick: Fighting talk

Edward Zwick's new movie has infuriated many critics. The director tells Susie Rees what he thinks is wrong with The Last Samurai
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The Independent Culture

''Aren't you more interested in people for their contradictions rather than their consistencies? I certainly am," says the director Edward Zwick. I've just suggested that he's, ahem, full of contradictions. On the one hand, the portly, bearded Zwick - who looks a bit like a cross between a rabbi and The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia - has a CV threaded with impeccably PC product. His career took off with the seminal 1980s yuppie-angst TV series thirtysomething, which he created with his producing partner, Marshall Herskovitz, and together they've done a number of edgy, well-written drama series, including My So-Called Life and Once and Again, that were praised for their humanism.

Then there are the liberal-minded features he's directed, such as Glory (about badly treated black soldiers during the American Civil War) and Courage Under Fire (a Rashomon-like examination of heroism during Desert Storm). As a producer, the liberalism continues with Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and Sean Penn's maudlin bid for an Oscar playing a mentally challenged guy in I Am Sam.

On the other hand, Zwick clearly loves big, epic, movie-making, craves box-office success and can wrangle big battle scenes and costume-heavy drama with the best of Hollywood's A-list directors. And his latest film, The Last Samurai (see Tony Quinn's review on page 6), is one big noodle bowl of contradictions. A lavishly budgeted slice of Hollywood hokum, it stars Tom Cruise as the soldier-turned-drunken mercenary Nathan Algren who arrives in Japan in 1876. He comes to teach the local army how to quell a samurai rebellion, led by Ken Watanabe's charismatic Katsumoto, but ends up being captured by the noble rival.

Ideologically, the movie is all over the place. The Americans, aside from Algren of course, are basically the bad guys, exercising military and cultural imperialism in cahoots with certain corrupt Japanese. So far, so Zwickian. But when I blandly put it to him that the film seems pretty congruent with his personal preoccupations in his previous films, he gets a bit defensive: "How would you describe those preoccupations?" he asks, leaning away from me on the hotel couch.

Well, you know, in its questioning of the status quo and injustices of war and military policy sort of way, I say. "Yeah, true enough," responds the fiftysomething Zwick, a bit more warmly. "I am the product of a certain generation in which the questioning of the military adventures of one's government was central to my experience growing up. And I think there's also a paradox with that Boy's Own-fascination with what a warrior is, and what that engagement and sacrifice might be. I think I'm the product of both those things and it finds its expression in these films."

"Frankly," he explains, "what I'm most happy about is the film's reception in Japan, where it seems to have become something of a phenomenon. It shows every possibility of being one of the biggest hits in their history, which means everything to me, as you can imagine. I've tried to honour a culture and it's been embraced by that culture."

Sure enough, the film press notes go into lavish detail about the efforts made to ensure the accuracy of the film's sets, costumes, style of swordfighting, etc. And yet the two Japanese journalists I met while waiting to go in to speak to Zwick were a little bothered by the licence the film takes by having, for example, Watanabe's Katsumoto speak fluent English in the movie.

Zwick deals with the criticism thoughtfully. "Language is always a thorny issue in film," he concedes. "A third of the movie is subtitled because I wanted there to be real Japanese in it. The only alternative would have been to have him speak Japanese the entire time, which would have meant having nearly the entire film being subtitled, which would have proscribed its possibilities to exist as a piece of popular culture. But also, I would have forsaken the intimacies and sense of relationship that I tried to accomplish. I think that the authenticity I feel more guilty of having betrayed, quite honestly, is having romanticised certain parts of the samurai culture. In fact it was an aristocratic culture that existed on the backs of the peasants; it was sometimes quite brutal and there were real licenses that I took, fully aware of what I was giving in exchange for what I was getting. I had a wonderful professor once who referred to Hamlet as 'great drama and shitty Danish history,' and I think that's true of any number of fictions. There are professors of Asian history I've spoken to who love the film because they say it's going to be a sales pitch for people to come and read the real history. I chose not to use the name Saigo Takamuri [the real samurai rebel on whom Katsumoto is modelled]. I chose not to bowdlerize a real piece of history."

Funny he should mention Saigo, because as one reviewer recently pointed out, "Saigo himself lived on in Japanese history as a hero of right-wing ultra-nationalists, from the Black Dragon Society to Yukio Mishima." Isn't that a little problematic for Zwick? "In fact, Saigo wanted to take the war to Korea," he answers, well versed in the facts. "That's just not the story I've been telling. But by the way, there's been a very interesting and I think even subtly racist response to [our] celebration of certain parts of the samurai culture. Some people say that samurai culture is what precipitated Japanese militarism in the 20th century, and that's not so. There were many samurai at the time who were extraordinarily conciliatory internationally, and that created the democratic Japanese government of today. There was, as there is in every country, the exploitation of a myth and a set of symbols to serve a political agenda. It still happens in America, when you see George Bush land on the deck of an aircraft carrier or on a ranch and suddenly he's the western iconic hero. I'm sure there are equivalents here in England. Just because there's been an appropriation of something, it doesn't mean that that culture is tainted."

But in some ways, you could almost see Katsumoto as some kind of internal terrorist, not that far off from the Oklahoma bombers of today, I suggest. "Yeah, he's reactionary certainly," says Zwick patiently. "But the important difference is that, for 600 or 700 years, the samurais were the society, were the status quo. It's not as if they were the dispossessed aspiring to instill terror indiscriminately by killing innocent civilians. When you're into the world of political symbols, I think one has to be very careful not to make a leap serving one's own hysterical agenda. This is a person who chooses a form of battle that's conventional, honourable - so I think that there is a danger if you go too far with those associations."

In order to lower the heat of the exchange, we turn to Cruise. Everyone I've ever spoken to about him says he's very nice, very professional, blah blah blah. True, right? "I'm afraid it is true, sorry to bore you," says Zwick. "This is the film that I wanted to make, for better or worse. He has a history of working with directors who have a point of view. He knows what a director is, he wants to be directed - he has strong ideas, please don't get me wrong - but at the end of the day they're very collegial. He brings great joy to his work and that's infectious, and in the difficult circumstances that we had I cannot tell you how important that was. Had he been ungenerous or mean-spirited or selfish it would never have gotten done. I'd still be shooting."

As I leave, Zwick nearly crushes my paw with his firm handshake and says that it's been a pleasure, which I think is politeness. Still, I can't help rather liking him, a smart, stand-up baby- boomer guy, trying to change the system from within. If that results in art riven with internal contradictions, so be it. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, he's large, he contains multitudes.