January 02, 2004

At The Movies

Over the last week, I saw The Return of the King twice and The Last Samurai once. Before I get into the reviews proper, I have one question for all our pomo friends out there. Why is it that some reviewers detest what they see as simplistic characterizations of good and evil in, say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and yet seem to be completely oblivious to the ridiculously simple characterizations that pit the noble savage against the decadent and corrupt West in movies such as The Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves? In each of these movies the noble savage, whether it be Japanese Samurai in the former movie or Native Americans in the latter movie, embody Rousseau's ideal of the untainted, pristine primitive who is at one with nature and at peace with his brothers, while everyone -- and I mean, everyone -- associated with the West is crude and completely corrupt by comparison. But it doesn't stop there, as there are two more aspects of this proselytization of Jean Jacque Rousseau that are even more pernicious. First of all, any of the noble savages that dare try and engage with the West (Omura in The Last Samurai and the scouts in Dances With Wolves) are themselves corrupted and so plainly wicked as to be obscene in the sense of having no socially redeeming value. And what's worse, the heroes of each film (Captain Algren in The Last Samurai and Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances With Wolves) achieve redemption only by their abandonment of Western values and technology and acceptance of non-Western ways. Could it be that simplistic views and characterizations of good and evil are only alright when the West is depicted as evil? That's a rhetorical question, incidentally.

Anyway, I'll save the best for last and treat with The Last Samurai first. As some of you may remember, I have recently been to Japan, but that's not my only connection or interest with this film. My father-in-law was stationed in Japan while he was in the Army. He learned a bit of the language and traveled about Japan in the mid-1950s in areas where he was virtually the only white man some of the villagers had ever seen. He became so enamored of the culture that he married a Japanese woman and brought her back to the US. My mother-in-law is working on her memoirs which includes her experiences just outside Tokyo during the war and its aftermath (she was 20 when it ended). My mother-in-law has something of a simplistic view of the nature of WW II and Japan's actions before and during the war that led to what have to be considered harsh, though IMHO justified, measures against Japan by the United States. I can understand her myopia and her distaste of war based upon her experiences, but such historical revisionism from others who really ought to know better is still highly offensive. While I'm on this point, I'll also note that my maternal grandfather was a Petty Officer on the USS Ocklawaha in the South Pacific in WW II. But I digress.

My father-in-law (and my brother-in-law) and I went to see The Last Samurai. As other reviewers have noted, it is a slightly shorter version of Dances With Wolves shifted about 12 hours to the east across the international dateline. Despondent, disillusioned Civil War veteran gets thrust into an exotic situtation with exotic people and exotic customs in exotic surroundings where he experiences an epiphany of -- dare I say it -- enlightenment by seeking the way of the warrior, or bushido in this case. In addition to my anti-Rousseau comments above, I also found it fascinating that Captain Algren could learn a fair bit of Japanese and become proficient in samurai swordplay in a few winter months while recovering from his acute alcoholism and a number of rather serious injuries. I suppose it could happen if he had a strong, innate linguistic capability and if he could build upon his experience with a saber as a cavalry officer. There must be something good to say about Western Civilization if it can produce so many men capable of fitting in so rapidly in a foreign culture, compared to, say, dropping your above average samurai off in Dayton, Ohio, in 1875 and seeing how well he would fare. But why the Japanese samurai would ever come to accept Captain Algren so readily, or how he managed to defeat five armed, "bad" samurai after they had surrounded him unarmed on the streets of Tokyo, or why the Japanese court would allow him to approach the Emperor Meiji with a katana defies even my suspended disbelief. Taking another whack at it, I read a story in the Asahi Shimbun while I was in Tokyo that wondered why the Japanese should think favorably of a movie that advocated and promoted bushido when it had been such a pernicious influence in the past. All in all, a visually pleasant movie with a simplistic, wholly ludicrous plot that made it difficult for me or my father-in-law to enjoy. Wait for the DVD.

The Return of the King. Stunning. Really. Sure there are little nits to pick here and there, but overall, I'd have to say that Peter Jackson's trilogy was as faithful an interpretation as we can ever hope to see of J.R.R. Tolkein's book, though I cannot imagine seeing this instant classic remade in my lifetime. I can't wait for the DVD to come out. And then the Extended Version of the DVD. And then some repackaging of all three movies into some huge boxed set. I have no idea if it will win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but right now, I'd say it's the best film series ever, clearly ahead of Star Wars, the Bond Pictures, the Godfather trilogy, etc. If it doesn't win Best Picture, I expect Peter Jackson will get some special award a couple years hence. He may get that anyway. All in all, see it on the big screen. Twice.

One minor note about the movies -- and the book for that matter. J.R.R. Tolkein was a conservative in many ways, including the idea of kings and rulers being born into power, while all the little people were there to follow and accept their place in the natural order of things. Naturally, my libertarian leanings find this a little distasteful and it has always stuck with me, even as I appreciate the skill, wisdom, intelligence, imagination, and consummate storytelling skills of J.R.R. Tolkein. It in no way lessens my enjoyment of everything about the Lord of the Rings, but it does keep me from drawing too many conclusions or parallels from it to the world situation today.

Posted by Charles Austin at January 2, 2004 09:38 PM


Re: the notion of kingship & followers, etc. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic of the old (pre Vatican II) school, & a medievalist (Shakespeare was too modern for him), & of course British so of course the hierarchical system of ruler/ruled seemed best to him. That's why I also think that attempts to make parallels between the story and the modern world are mistakes. But people will try to do that, even if it means ignoring what the author himself said about it.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 10:27 PM

Don't plan to go see the Last Samurai. Like you, I have already seen Return of the King twice. I took my sons to see it on opening day then took my wife to see it during Christmas. It was just as good the second time. And I got the extended version DVD of The Two Towers to go with the extended version of the Fellowship. I can pick some nits over some of the film variations of the book. However, Peter Jackson has quite simply created a film masterpiece that, like the books, will be a classic that will be enjoyed for decades.

Posted by: Jon at 09:39 PM

I forgot to add that I won't be going to see Last Samurai; why, when I've already got Shogun on videotape?

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 11:14 PM