A 2003 film directed by Edward Zwick. Tom Cruise stars as Nathan Algren, a veteran of the American Civil War and the campaigns against the American Indians, in the course of which he served under General Custer. The wars are well and truly over, but Algren is still haunted by what he has seen, and done, and scrounges out drinking money to sustain his chronic alcoholism by endorsing rifles. He's given an opportunity to go back to what he's best at — fighting — when his former boss recruits him to aid the Japanese Empire. The Meiji Emperor has been rapidly modernizing the country with the 'aid' of men like Omura, the most powerful man among the oligarchy which controls the emperor and the country from behind the scenes. Nathan is asked to train a force of the country's newly-formed national army in the art of modern warfare. His assignment comes with the knowledge that a group of Samurai, low-ranking nobles similar in rank and role to the Knights of medieval Europe, have risen up in rebellion against the oligarchy in the name of the Emperor. The rebels claim that the radical programme of modernisation endorsed by Omura is in fact a programme of 'westernisation' , one that is destroying the Japanese way of life.In Japan, Algren has his work cut out for him. His recruits are completely raw and he must start their training from scratch. Too soon, the rebel samurai army attacks. In spite of their inferior numbers and weapons, the samurai slice through Algren's undisciplined troops. Preparing to die on his feet, Algren engages a samurai in single combat and manages to kill him. After watching Algren's Last Stand, the samurai general Katsumoto realises he's had a vision about this same scene (depicted at the film's start, with Algren now revealed as the white tiger he saw) and decides to spare Algren's life.Trapped in Katsumoto's camp for the winter, Algren finds himself comfortably appointed in a family's house as more of a guest than a prisoner. He grows to sympathize with his hosts and appreciate the way of the samurai. When the opportunity comes to leave, Algren chooses to switch his allegiance and help the samurai against the forces of modernization. After battling assassins and forming a subdued romance with the widow of the samurai he killed, Algren enters the final battle for the fate of the samurai and Japan.Ken Watanabe, the fella who played Katsumoto, was nominated for an Oscar for his role.The film is loosely inspired by the actual historical events, but for their part they do not even attempt to claim Based on a True Story. All the major characters besides the Emperor were fictionalized and the actual events depicted went quite differently. The period saw two conflicts: the Boshin War, a revolutionary war/coup which saw the toppling of the Tokugawa Shogunate and 'restoration' of the emperor - later known as the Meiji Emperor - as the head of the country (and as a puppet of the victorious rebels). The second and smaller conflict was the Satsuma Rebellion, a rebellion chiefly of Samurai from Kagoshima Prefecture (the former Duchy of Satsuma) led by a man called Saigō Takamori a decade later. All the factions involved used firearms and were rushing to adopt more modern weaponry and tactics. Algren is based off French Army Captain Jules Brunet, who was dispatched by Emperor Napoleon III to train the troops of the Shogun shortly before the outbreak of the Boshin War. Plenty of Artistic License was used in order to tell a compelling story but the movie is still a loving look at Japanese culture, one that does well in capturing the spirit of the Meiji era. (See "Trivia" for more.)Not related to the novel The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.
This film provides examples of:
Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The early period of Algren's captivity, prior to the ninja attack, is entirely peaceful, a few short training fights notwithstanding.
The Alcoholic: Algren, prior to his captivity. He appears to overcome it during his captivity.
Anachronism Stew: Not nearly as bad as it could have been, but the movie simplifies the history of the 1860s and 1870s in Japan, conflating the Boshin War and the later Satsuma Rebellion for plot purposes. Emperor Meiji is also portrayed as he was earlier in time than the movie is set.
Apathetic Citizens: In the deleted scene with Ujio decapitating harasser on street (see Clean Cut below), all witnesses except of Algren, Katsumoto and Gant either ignore or even don't notice what has just happened.
Armor Is Useless: Somewhat, the bullets pierced through samurai armor like a hot knife through butter but most of the main cast are still up and running.
Arrows on Fire: Only one instance, and very justified. A fire arrow is used to light up a oil-straw-napalm ball minefield at the final battle, dividing and panicking the Imperial Japanese forces.
Bagley: Algren, what is it about your own people you hate so much?
A-Team Firing: Imperial soldiers in the first battle. Justified, as they were untrained and armed with muskets at the time. Previously they are shown practising fire accuracy, missing targets at very close range.
Algren: I suppose we should be grateful that they are firing in the same direction.
Another example comes during rescue of Katsumoto, when the guards (armed with much more accurate rifles and supposed to receive enough training) still are unable to hit anyone (except of Nobutada) while samurai take down many of them with arrows.
Badass Bookworm: Algren is an highly capable fighter, but he's also an excellent tactician (implied to be a major reason behind Bagley recruiting him for the Japanese mission in the first place), an author and a Cunning Linguist.
Bilingual Bonus: Most of the Japanese is subtitled and Katsumoto is a student of English, but it's a nice touch that the people in the village had a hard time pronouncing Algren correctly. There is no equivalent Japanese syllable for the letter "L," the closest is either "R" or "W."
Brutal Honesty: A tendency of Simon Graham, who tells Algren that this was why he was fired from his original job in Japan as part of the British trade mission.
California Doubling: Filmed on location in New Zealand. Mount Egmont-Taranaki doubled as Mount Fuji, as the real deal was too heavily developed with human activity.
Chekhov's Gun: Literally; the gatling guns and howitzers that are used in the final battle are seen being tested when Algren reunites with Bagley after being freed.
Chekhov's Gunman: Omura's associate when he first meets Algren, an officer whom Algren apparently befriends. He escapes the first battle, and isn't seen again - until right at the end, when he's revealed to have become some sort of commanding officer of the regiment. He ends up stopping the gatling guns from finishing off Algren and Katsumoto.
Cherry Blossoms: Casually mentioned not long after Algren is captured, eventually forms a symbollically important part of the climax. Katsumoto, during Algren's captivity, sincerely tells him that someone could spend their entire life looking for a perfect cherry blossom and it would not be a wasted life. And then after Algren has already assisted him in his seppuku in the middle of the battlefield, Katsumoto looks at the cherry blossom trees in the distance and with his final breath utters his realization that "They are all perfect."
Clean Cut: A deleted scene shows Algren witnessing Ujio walking along a street, who gets hassled by a pair of businessmen. The samurai takes their insults for a few moments, as they insult his heritage and his swords, but when one of them pokes him with a cane, Ujio slices off the head of the man in a clean, swift fashion, and sheaths his katana in one fluid movement while the other scrambles backwards.
Algren does a similar thing with one of the ronin who tried to assasinate him.
Algren and Katsumoto discuss Custer's Last Stand. Algren dismisses Custer as an idiot who got all his men killed due to arrogance and bad battle tactics, but Katsumoto is awed by Custer's "bravery" and remarks that he would have been a great samurai.
Another is in how Nathan refuses to surrender and tries to be Defiant to the End, whereas in a similar situation Samurai would accept their fate and/or commit ritual suicide. Algren's Last Stand is considered a very strange event, and in his first attempt dueling another Samurai he keeps coming back for more strikes to the head.
Cultural Translation: Tom Cruise's character is based on Jules Brunet, a French army officer. While most aspects of Japan's modernisation are apparently carried out with the help of European nations, in the film all the militarisation fell to the Americans. Although in the end the film claims that American support was rejected because of Nathan's plea to the Emperor.
Curb-Stomp Battle: The battle in the forest, where the inexperienced Japanese peasant army is soundly routed by Katsumoto's samurai.
Death Seeker: Algren. Katsumoto labels himself as one as well.
Dying Truce: A rarer example where the heroes are the ones dying and the antagonists are honourable. After the last remaining samurai are gunned down by gatling gun fire, the captain orders his men to cease fire (against the orders of his superior) to allow Katsumoto to commit seppuku and die with honour.
Earn Your Happy Ending: Effectively lampshaded in the epilogue; while Graham doesn't know Algren's fate for certain, he (correctly) believes that he's finally found happiness. It has, however, taken him decades and trip across the full length of the world to achieve this.
Flynning: A notable aversion, the extensive sword play is all done very efficiently and there are no protracted fights. When Algren was training with the other Samurai two men would watch and make bets on the exact number of moves before his opponent would make a "killing" strike, ranging from 4-7. In fact, it contrasts Nathan's prior experience with a rapier and his unfamiliarity with actual sword duels.
Gallows Humour: Mixed with Understatement when Katsumoto summarises his pre-battle exchange with Omura and Bagley to his commanders: "Well, they won't surrender."
Gatling Good: Omura is extremely proud of the actual Gatling Guns he has managed to acquire by the end of the film, for good reasons.
Gentleman and a Scholar: Simon Graham, a scholar who makes his living translating the lies of Japanese who never quite tell the full truth.
Heroic Sacrifice: Nobutada. The final charge also serves as an attempt to invoke the trope on the part of all the surviving samurai.
Historical Hero Upgrade: Kastumoto, a expy of Saigō Takamori, leader of The Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt of ex-samurai against the Meiji government from January 29 to September 24, 1877, 9 years into the Meiji Era. Historically, the reason why the Satsuma Rebellion was so dangerous was because it was an important manufacturing center for cannons. Paintings depicting the revolt show that Takamori's forces had plenty of guns while the well-uniformed Imperial forces mostly only had swords!
Hollywood Healing: Averted twice. When Algren is captured he spends days healing (and kicking his alcoholism). Later on, after being shot in the final battle he limps and stumbles his way to the Emperor.
Hollywood Tactics: Most of the battles are actually justified. In the final battle, Bagley starts with a mortar barrage but when the samurai begin their feint retreat, Omura -who has no military experience but technically has control of the army as the emperor's advisor- gets overconfident and gives several bad orders that Bagley calls him out on but can't stop.
When the surviving samurai begin their final charge, Bagley is infuriated that the samurai have the balls to commit to such a suicidal act and chooses Honor Before Reason, wanting to kill them face to face. Algren's throw was very, very lucky. Bagley's men inflict significant casualties and by the time the cavalry breaks through the line, there's barely a dozen samurai left.
The opening battle where Algren is captured is started because Bagley is overconfident in the guns that the fledgling Imperial Army has. He says that Algren should win because he has "superior firepower and a larger force", ignoring the demonstration Algren puts on that the men cannot perform well under pressure and are hesitant to shoot, and when they do shoot, they miss. Algren is proven to be correct when the men panic as Katsumoto's men charge at them and almost immediately start to rout.
Honor Before Reason: Basically the entire existence of the Samurai according to the film is based on this, with their refusal to adopt any modern technology intended to look noble but actually seeming slightly pigheaded. This is especially true given the fact that real Samurai eventually put aside their pride and did acquire guns, a necessity since swords just aren't as good against them as they'd like to believe.
I Did What I Had to Do: "I did what I was ordered to do, and I have no remorse" from Bagley, in reference to slaughtering the women and children of a village that raided his and Algren's forces. The memory of the event still haunts Algren, and by the beginning of the film he has turned to alcoholism to forget about it. He eventually comes to terms with it in his time in captivity.
Improperly Placed Firearms: At the beginning of the film, imperial soldiers use caplock muskets, which were outdated at the time (but guards at Emperor's palace nevertheless have more modern rifles). Repeating rifles they use later also count, as they were not common at the time. Single-shot breechloaders would be suitable for late '70s.
Instant Death Bullet: In the first battle all samurai shot by Algren or Gant immediately dies and falls from his horse. Later subverted, when main characters seem to take bullets with no effort. But there are still many Red Shirt samurai who fall after just one shot.
Possibly justified as the main characters are also of high rank and stature, and thus, their armor would be significantly better then that of a Samurai who just earned his armor. Historically, while the armor of your average Samurai is good, as time goes on, the armor wears out, and the samurai would acquire new armor to replace it for battle, and the older armor cleaned up and put on display in the home. Ergo, it goes without saying that samurai who had seen many battles (as Katsumoto certainly did) would have the best armor they could get their hands on, especially if they go up in rank. (This, of course, assumes that we are also conflating the early Meiji Period with the Warring States period some 300 years prior, as the samurai of the 19th Century had mostly switched over to more practical armors, or even abandoned them outright for Western-style military uniforms.)
Invulnerable Horses: In the last battle, many samurai have their horses shot out from underneath them. But other horses are seen running away riderless.
Jerkass: Omura is pompous, self-serving and will stop at nothing to advance himself and his interests. Bagley is a man of the times who believes in his own cultural and racial superiority and has no qualms about massacring lesser peoples, inclusive women and children.
Karmic Death: Algren has spent years hoping to get an opportunity to bestow one upon Bagley. He eventually succeeds.
Katanas Are Just Better: Katana, as well as the other trappings of the samurai warrior, are quite fetishized throughout the course of the film. Though, realistically, they are completely no match for Gatling guns.
Kill 'em All: Algren excepted, every single Samurai at the final battle dies, along with Bagley and presumably a sizable majority of his men in the final charge.
Knights Templar: Algren learns that Katsumoto believes himself to be a servant of the Emperor
Last Stand: Algren makes a last stand in the opening battle, bravely fighting back countless samurai with everything at his disposal. The samurai army makes its own last stand in the end, knowing that they cannot actually defeat the enemy army. Two real life last stands serve as conceptual reference points - Custer's at the Little Big Horn, and the Spartans at Thermopylae.
Laser-Guided Karma: The emperor making a pauper of Omura at the film's end is poetic justice for the latter's greed.
Manly Tears: At the end of it all, Algren with Katsumoto, Japanese Lieutenant guy, and Algren with the Emperor. Also, the audience.
Mighty Whitey: Averted. Algren is the main character and learns the ways of the samurai, but he's never shown to be any better at being a samurai than the Japanese. The only advantage he has over the Japanese samurai is his knowledge of western war tactics, but by the end of the film the Japanese imperial army is shown to have already learned western tactics.
My Greatest Second Chance: Algren experiences immense regret and guilt over his past experience with the tribal Native Americans, but the opportunity arises to redeem this regret when faced with a similar situation with the tribal Japanese
Ninja: A group of them are sent by Omura to kill Katsumoto and attack the village at night.
Mooks/Red Shirt Army: Since the film is primarily told from Algren's perspective, the Imperial army are the latter in the first battle, and the former in the last.
More Dakka: The row of gatling guns in the final battle.
Katsumoto is a fictional counterpart to Saigo Takamori, who led the Satsuma Rebellion, and is generally thought of as the "last true Samurai". Of course, the real Saigo wore a Western-style military uniform into battle...
Nathan Algren replaces Jules Brunet, a French lieutenant.
Colonel Bagley replaces Captain Charles Chanoine, but is heavily based on his in-universe backstory superior, General George Custer.
Omura stands in for Omura Masujiro, the father of the modern Japanese Army.
Only a Flesh Wound: Still and still in the final battle. Ujio is shot through his stomach, Katsumoto gets stabbed with a bayonet and Algren takes several bullets to his legs - and they all quickly recover and continue fighting.
Pride: Bagley and Omura are far too confident in their firearms and derisive of the Samurai's fighting abilities - after nearly 300 years of peace - early on in the film. The former appears to learn the err of his ways, suggesting sending in skirmishers rather than a main attack force at the start of the final battle with the samurai. The latter has definitely not not learned a thing, overriding Bagley and sending his men to the slaughter rather than listening to his paid military adviser.
Putting the Band Back Together: When Bagley enthusiastically encourages Algren to rejoin the army and help train the Japanese, Algren (who is completely hammered) starts cracking up and lampshades this trope by saying, "The corps back together—it's just so...inspiring!" and nearly falls off his chair laughing.
Pyrrhic Victory: The samurai eventually defeat the first wave of imperial forces... and have about two dozen of them left afterwards.
Algren: They'll bring two regiments up here soon... we won't be able to stop them again.
Quintessential British Gentleman: Simon Graham, though he's more lively than the stereotypical British scholar, a typical trait of whom is generally not a fascination with execution and torture.
Rock Beats Laser: Partial and minor victory initially for the samurais, but eventually subverted.
Samurai Ponytail: Katsumoto's son, Nobutada, sports one. When the Meiji government passes laws restricting the rights of the Samurai, he is subjected to a very undignified public haircut by the emperor's guards.
Shell-Shocked Veteran: Algren, because he saw the people he killed as people, but not Bagley, because he has no empathy for 'savages'.
Short-Range Long-Range Weapon: In the final battle, imperial soldiers prefer to fire from a very short range or use bayonets rather than just wiping the samurai off with volley fire. Bagley does similar thing when trying to stop the charging cavalrymen, letting the samurai crash into his ranks and kill him.
Justified both times. The whole point of the final battle for the samurai was to get the imperial soldiers disorganized and close enough so that their guns wouldn't be such an advantage. Once the battle was underway and the soldiers fired their shots, there wouldn't be enough time to reload.
For Bagley, he had his men hold fire until the samurai got close because there was mortar fire and smoke partially obstructing the view. Plus, he knew that he would only have time to get off one or two volleys before the samurai got to them and he wanted to make them count. His men did cause significant casualties before the remainder of the cavalry broke through their line.
Shown Their Work: Historical changes/inaccuracies aside, a lot of details - from architecture to Ujio's simple tea ceremony - was studied meticulously, as noted in the Official Movie Guide. When the Japanese extras were brought to the village set in New Zealand, many of the older ones teared up because of how accurate the set designers and builders had created the buildings, saying that it reminded them of their grandparents' village homes.
The Smart Guy: Simon Graham, obviously, but also Algren, from a military perspective at least.
The Triple: Simon Graham suggests Algren says a word or two to him in the language of his Native American opponents. He suggests "Hello", "Goodbye" or "Cut his tongue out and boil him in oil," the latter eliciting disturbed looks from Algren and Gant.
The Voiceless: "Bob", whose first and only line in the movie is "Algren-san!" before taking the aforementioned bullet.
Thwarted Coup de Grāce: Nathan Algren got wounded in the first battle. When the enemy was about to finish him off, Nathan landed the final attack before falling unconscious.
Unable to Cry: Averted with Algren, who is too desensitised and jaded to show the slightest hint of grief or regret in all the film's tearjerking moments... even including Katsumoto's death. His Manly Tears before The Emperor show how he has changed from.
Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Every character but the Emperor is fictional or fictionalized. The war is an amalgam of the Boshin War (1868-1869) and the Satsuma Rebellion (1877). The real military mission was French instead of American, and five of its members chose to stay and fight with the rebel Samurai, not just one. Jules Brunet (Algren's inspiration) didn't surrender to the Emperor and was evacuated on a French steamship; Japan would then unsuccessfully demand his extradition to punish him for 12 years, until one of Brunet's former friends gained enough influence in the imperial government and had the order revoked.
Warrior Poet: Katsumoto, literally. He writes haiku in addition to being a master swordsman.
Word of God: Some viewers bristled with the assumption that a white American man was the eponymous "Last Samurai", but the word of god clarified that the title refers to Katsumoto and his samurai. The "samurai" in the title refers to plural samurai.