Tom Cruise needs an Oscar, and everything he has done in the past year has been devoted to its pursuit. When he turned down the lead in Cold Mountain - according to its producer, Sydney Pollack, he asked for too much money, though Cruise denies this - it was partly because The Last Samurai offered a better bet for that elusive gold statuette.
Cruise's recent nomination for a Golden Globe is at least one indication that he made the right decision. In Cold Mountain he would have been a haggard deserter with a tragic destiny. In The Last Samurai he looks mighty and very much taller than he has any right to be. He seems to be the essence of Hollywood-inflected Bushido, the Japanese honour code of the ancient samurai. The year is 1876. Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, an alcoholic former officer, not far from the embittered man he played in Born on the Fourth of July. When we first encounter him he has been hired by an arms manufacturer to extol the virtues of the new Winchester rifle on a travelling tour - but he drunkenly shoots off rounds in the public hall where he is speaking, and is dismissed.
It is clear that Algren is a man poisoned by his time in the US army fighting Native American tribes, and in the first indication of his anti-heroic position, is disgusted by the behaviour of General Custer. So instead of heading out west and trapping beaver and skulking in the mountains like Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, he heads east and dons a kimono.
He is hired by the young Emperor of Japan to modernise the Japanese army, along with his old nemesis, an officer who authorised atrocities against Indian women and children. The Emperor is pursuing a course of breakneck modernisation throughout Japan, despite armed opposition from traditionalists who want to keep the ancient ways alive.
In effect - though the film glosses over this - Algren is a mercenary hired by a foreign government in a state of civil war with its own population. This is a film with as much initial animation as a Japanese karesansui stone garden, but soon Algren is busy training the Japanese army to use guns rather than swords and arrows.
He becomes interested in books on samurai culture, provided by an English trader played by Timothy Spall. Unexpectedly, Algren is captured by his enemies and whisked away to a remote mountain hide-out, where he quits the booze and learns to become a samurai, and almost by accident acquires the wife of a warrior samurai he killed in hand-to-hand combat.
He switches sides and joins the rebels upholding the ancient feudal and caste system of Japan. When he finally bows before the Emperor in the last scene, and implores the Emperor not to give up the old ways of Japan, a single tear drops down the young king's face.
It is the opposite of How the West was Won - the former individualist Algren submits to the will of an ancient imperial system and in essence endorses the fascist samurai culture.
Its busy final battle scenes partly make up for the amazingly dull and protracted middle section. Back in 1985 the producer of Ran - the last great Akira Kurosawa samurai epic - reportedly told a press conference that the US response to the film "would have been much better had it starred Tom Cruise". Little did he know how prophetic those words would be.