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Was The Last Samurai Tom Cruise’s last great movie?

Samurai man: Tom Cruise in his 2003 historical epic ‘The Last Samurai’  (Warner Bros)
Samurai man: Tom Cruise in his 2003 historical epic ‘The Last Samurai’ (Warner Bros)

Ask Steven Spielberg who his favourite superhero is and he’ll probably say Tom Cruise. Last year, the filmmaker credited the actor for “saving Hollywood’s ass” with Top Gun: Maverick, thanks to its sky-high box office numbers on the back of the pandemic. That Cruise should be the literal saviour of cinema seems fitting, given that he’s now the undisputed king of action blockbusters. And yet, for all his recent efforts and cinema-saving success, he doesn’t have a major personal award to show for it. In fact, it’s been years since the actor gave a genuinely Oscar-worthy performance. Twenty of them, to be exact.

December 2003 saw the release of director Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, a sweeping epic charting the end of Meiji-era Japan and the extinction of a noble band of warriors. Teeming with peaceful temples, opulent courtrooms and pensive shots of luscious nature (although it was mostly filmed in New Zealand, not Japan), the film didn’t exactly feel like your typical Cruise blockbuster from the offset. But it ended up becoming the perfect vehicle to showcase both his acting ability and superhuman work ethic.

“Tom’s energy was daunting and inspiring,” Zwick says today, speaking from his home in California. “We shot for 120 days on three continents. He was in practically every scene and never did I see even the slightest flagging of enthusiasm or a lowering of the high bar he sets for himself. That kind of attitude from the number one on the call sheet is incalculable. It animates everyone, cast and crew alike, and creates an on-set culture that carries the film through some very long, tough days and nights.”

In the film, Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a former US Army captain who is hired by the Emperor of Japan to train the country’s first army in the ways of westernised combat (aka guns), to quash an uprising from the last remaining samurai. However, after being captured in battle by the samurai and forced to live in their peaceful mountain village, Algren becomes accustomed to their way of life. He then decides to join their rebellion, after realising that the imperialists are the real enemy after all.

The Last Samurai was nominated for four Oscars at the February 2004 ceremony – Best Supporting Actor (Ken Watanabe), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound Mixing – but went home empty-handed. Cruise, who also produced, didn’t even get a sniff, which is perhaps unsurprising given he was playing a fairly generic hero role. But it was still a thoughtful and nuanced performance, the sort not typically required for blockbusters like Mission: Impossible, Edge of Tomorrow, or any and all aviation-based films featuring sweaty, shirtless ball-tossing.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to make an epic,” Cruise said during the film’s press tour back in 2003, after being asked why he decided to take on the project. He also cited his pre-existing fascination with the samurai and their culture. “That’s how I aspire to live my life, with integrity, compassion, honour, loyalty. Those are things I think about and that mean something to me. But in making the picture, I got to really get inside a different culture, one I’m absolutely fascinated by.”

It was essentially a passion project for Cruise, who hasn’t made a film like it since. He did deliver a surprising turn as an assassin in Michael Mann’s sinister 2004 thriller Collateral – arguably his last vaguely interesting role – but it certainly wasn’t the kind of part that could define a career like The Last Samurai looked set to do.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that it’s just hard for an actor to give a dimensional, complex performance when he’s playing a comic book hero

Though decidedly in blockbuster mode, Cruise’s performance in the film perfectly captures the conflict in Algren, a man who previously fought against the Native Americans and subsequently drinks to erase the memory of his atrocities. As he begins to fall in love with the samurai way of life – as well as the widow of a man he honourably killed with a stick in combat – he gains an even deeper understanding of the suffering his own people have inflicted. By the time he’s had some thoroughly enjoyable conversations with chief warrior Katsumoto (Watanabe), and suits up in objectively cool samurai armour, you don’t just understand why he wants to switch sides, you want to join him.

Zwick was impressed by Cruise’s acting skills, but he mentions one particular moment during filming that left a lasting impression. “There’s an important scene toward the end of the film on the eve of the samurai’s final battle,” the director tells me. “He was to say goodbye to Higen, the son of the man he killed, whom he befriended over the course of his stay in the village. I felt that shooting at magic hour would lend a sombre tone. That meant having only one take of a very emotional moment – with multiple cameras – in Japanese! It’s one of his finest moments in the movie. I’m sure had I asked him to do it while standing on his head, he would have done that, too.”

Over the course of the film, Cruise learned to speak Japanese, mastered their style of swordsmanship (kenjutsu), and, of course, performed all of his own stunts. As ever, his commitment to the role and project as a whole was immense.

As for the actor’s creative input, Zwick adds: “He understands a director’s issues as well as his own and knows how to articulate those aspects of his character that might be worthy of examination. What made it easy was that his thoughts were always in the context of the movie as a whole, rather than the kind of tunnel vision some actors indulge in.”

Cruise even put his neck on the line for the film. Literally. While shooting a battle scene, in which he and co-star Hiroyuki Sanada were meant to ride towards each other on animatronic horses, a malfunction caused them to almost collide and Sanada came within an inch of decapitating the lead star with his sword. “Tom’s neck was right in front of me and I tried to stop swinging my sword, but it was hard to control with one hand,” Sanada told reporters through a translator while promoting the film in Taipei, Taiwan. “The film crew watching from the side all screamed because they thought Tom’s head would fly off.”

It’s widely acknowledged that the Academy Awards like actors to suffer in order to win an Oscar – crawling into the carcass of a frozen horse for The Revenant finally did the trick for Leonardo DiCaprio, after all – and what could typify that more than almost losing your head?

Horsing around: Cruise goes to war in ‘The Last Samurai’ (Shutterstock)
Horsing around: Cruise goes to war in ‘The Last Samurai’ (Shutterstock)

Aside from an apparent bias against blockbusters, there’s another likely reason why Cruise didn’t receive an Oscar nod for The Last Samurai: when the film was first released, it immediately prompted questions about its depiction of Japanese culture. It was accused of historical inaccuracies and the story was deemed by some to be a prime example of white saviourism.

But the criticism wasn’t completely justified. Cruise’s character is actually based on a real person: a French soldier named Jules Brunet, who arrived in Japan in 1867 to train the Tokugawa shogunate in modern weapons and tactics. Even Watanabe’s chief warrior is steeped in a real piece of history, with the character largely inspired by Saigo Takamori, the leader of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion.

In any case, The Last Samurai does not purport to be a biopic, and is clearly meant to be watched as a piece of fiction. In 2004, Zwick told The Independent that he intended to romanticise the samurai, who were nowhere near as friendly in real life. “It was an aristocratic culture that existed on the backs of the peasants,” the director said. “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.”

In truth, Zwick ensured that the samurai were the real stars of the film, which is a genuine rarity for a blockbuster fronted by someone basically as famous as God. Instead of fixating on star power, action or special effects, The Last Samurai focused on character development, allowing Cruise to tap back into the Oscar-worthy skillset that previously earned him acting nominations for Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia.

And it turned out to be a master stroke. Critically, the film received mostly positive reviews, with Roger Ebert writing that it is “beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with conviction, [and] an uncommonly thoughtful epic”.The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, heavily praised Cruise for “underplaying his role, letting his character’s deeds speak for him and permitting intimacies not usually associated with epic moviemaking.” Financially, however, the film actually performed better in Japan than it did in the US, which could perhaps be a reason why we haven’t seen a similar Cruise epic since.

Taking direction: Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise on ‘The Last Samurai’ set (Shutterstock)
Taking direction: Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise on ‘The Last Samurai’ set (Shutterstock)

Understandably, Zwick bemoans the box office demands of modern blockbusters and how, as a result, it’s become harder for actors to deliver the sort of thoughtful performances that can really elevate a story. “I know there are lots of reasons, mostly economic, that the major studios are reluctant to take chances on the kind of adult, dramatic films – at scale – that I’ve been lucky enough to make,” he says. ”It doesn’t take a genius to know that it’s just hard for an actor to give a dimensional, complex performance when he’s playing a comic book hero. [In those films] the star of the movie is the special effects.”

Mercifully, Cruise is yet to delve into a superhero universe, but it’s possible that the demands of major studios and audiences may well prevent him from dropping another acting masterclass in a mainstream blockbuster – unless he ends up surprising us when he finally leaves Earth’s orbit for that untitled SpaceX film. Yes, Cruise may be the saviour of cinema (and Spielberg’s hero), but to become it, he’s had to take a 20-year break from true protagonist perfection.