The Last Samurai<br></br>Black and White

Bluntly, Tom, you've missed the point
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We may have wiped out many of the world's indigenous peoples and their customs, but at least we can be consoled by all the Hollywood films about their obliteration, films which remind us that if one white man can glean some spiritual balm from centuries of native tradition, then they won't have been eradicated in vain.

The latest beneficiary of autochthonic wisdom is Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai (12), Captain Nathan Algren. He's a 19th-century cavalryman who has just returned from a campaign of exterminating Red Indians. Cruise fans needn't worry, though, because he has nightmares and he swigs whiskey from a hip flask, so that must mean he's feeling guilty.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the Emperor wants to modernise his army. He commissions Algren to teach the country's conscripts how to use rifles and cannons, and to lead the trainees against a band of rogue samurai who cling to the old ways. But Algren's troops come off worse from their first tussle with the rebels, even though Algren personally dispatches six samurai in hand-to-hand combat. Captured by their leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), he is taken to a picturesque mountain village where the ancient philosophy and holiday-brochure views are just the thing to cure him of his nightmares and his drinking. He studies his captors' swordsmanship and archery, and comes to respect the years of discipline that go into such elegant and ancestral methods of puncturing strangers' vital organs. Then he masters these martial arts himself in a matter of weeks. He also learns to speak Japanese, and earns the samurai's trust, so he opts to fight alongside Katsumoto against the emperor's technologically superior forces. I'd have thought that he might have helped his new friends more if he'd given them a gun or two, but, according to The Last Samurai, arrows never miss, bullets usually do, and even if a man is shot eight times he'll still be well enough to battle on for 10 minutes and deliver a farewell oration.

The Last Samurai is tripe. The fact that it's reverential, stately tripe makes it all the more revolting, because it will fool some viewers - Oscar voters among them, perhaps - that it has some merit. But will a single Republican see Edward Zwick's film and decide that maybe America shouldn't be exporting weapons and McDonald's outlets around the globe? Of course not, because the bright, clean world of The Last Samurai has nothing to do with the world today. I don't suppose it has very much to do with Japan in the 1870s, either.

Black and White (15) dramatises an Australian legal case which took place in 1959. Max Stuart, an Aborigine, was convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl, mainly because he was beaten and threatened into making a confession. The appeals against his execution were a significant step towards the abolition of the death penalty in Australia, but Craig Lahiff's pedestrian treatment of the story doesn't give it any sense of scale or importance. Despite solid work from David Ngoombujarra as Stuart, and Robert Carlyle as the lawyer defending him, it's just another courtroom drama that might pass muster on TV. The one tantalising touch is that the appeal case is supported by the proprietor of the Adelaide News, a portly young chap named Rupert Murdoch. Black and White portrays him as someone who was far more motivated by newspapers sales than he was by truth or justice, but I'm sure that can't be accurate.