Re-posted from a previous blog because I am tired.
Recently I had the opportunity to watch the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai.
So, the good. Tom Cruise, dabblings in cults developed on a bet notwithstanding, isn’t a bad actor, and his portrayal of an alcoholic war veteran turned samurai warrior is excellent–more on that in a moment. The first battle goes much like such battles usually do–inexperienced infantry break and run when cavalry charge them, and then they die. During the final battle, the portrayal of how to defeat men armed with breechloading rifles when one’s troops are using swords and bows is quite good as well, although the plan went rather better than it likely would have in real life. Also, the swordfighting was good–none of the usual Hollywood prancing about, just straight-up getting the job done and killing people. That the movie was set in the Meiji Restoration period was an added plus–while it’s not like the story could have been told at any other time, the transition of Japan from feudal aristocracy at a 1400s level of technology to the late 1800s in less than thirty years is a fascinating process, and deserves far more attention than it gets.
Now for the bad. The problem is that Hollywood has this compulsion to A. Americanize history and B. whitewash it, in multiple senses of the term. First, the Japanese never went to the United States for military training or arms. They went to Europe for those things. Then there’s the whitewashing. Essentially, the samurai are represented as the representatives of all that is good about Japan, while the modernizers are presented as your typical Hollywood rapacious greedy capitalists, as are the Americans–well, except for Tom Cruise’s character, who essentially performs an about-face similar to that of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves. (In point of fact, this movie is Dances with Wolves, except set in Japan rather than the Great Plains.) In truth, many samurai sided with the modernizers, giving up their privileged , as they saw that rapid modernization was the only way to avoid Western dominance of Japan. Also, both sides in the civil war used modern weapons whenever they could get their mitts on them. There is also a scene wherein a group of soldiers saw off the braid of one of the samurai after taking his swords. Left off is the fact that these soldiers were probably former peasants who had family stories about dealing with arrogant samurai who treated them like dirt, and who probably had been treated like that themselves. Y’know, the kind of stories Hollywood likes to tell, unless the folks getting some of their own back are supported by Westerners.
Then there’s the other thing. Spoiler alert: The samurai leaders, along with Tom Cruise, lead a final, doomed cavalry charge onto a line of cannon and Gatling guns. Every single one of them dies except for Tom Cruise.
What. On. Earth. Seriously? Every single other one of the samurai die except for Tom Cruise? Really? The only American and white guy in the film? I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with Tom Cruise surviving if at least one other guy had made it through.
Of course, this totally leaves out the fact that the guy Cruise’s character is based off of was French.
Anyway, the point of all this is to point a basic problem with Hollywood, and American historiography. There is a belief that there are purely good and purely bad sides in history, and that America is the center of everything, for good or ill–witness the fact that American textbooks on World War II have a tendency to elide over the fact almost all of the German and Japanese armies during World War II were fighting opponents other than America–Russia and China, respectively. The fact of the matter is, finding the right side of history almost always consists of finding a lighter shade of grey, and America is not the center of the world. The consequences of these beliefs have made themselves felt in anything from the near-mindless jingoism of the American right to the near-automatic America-bashing found among certain elements of the American left, both of which have led to some truly awe-inspiringly boneheaded decisions.