Hollywood vs. History: 'The Last Samurai'
Christopher R. Johnson
The disillusioned veteran of the Civil War and American Indian Wars played by Tom Cruise in the 2003 film The Last Samurai had a real-life progenitor: a French military officer, Jules Brunet, who was sent to Japan in the mid-19th century to train soldiers on the use of modern weapons and tactics. Brunet later chose to stay and fight alongside the Tokugawa samurai in their resistance against Emperor Meiji and his move to modernize Japan.
So, the premise of The Last Samurai works. But how does the rest of the Edward Zwick-directed epic hold up against history?
Military historian Christopher Johnson assesses the movie and its depiction of social, political, and military transition in Japan in the 1870s in the latest installment of the Library’s Hollywood vs. History series in partnership with the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Cruise’s character, much like Brunet, is hired by the emperor of Japan to train its army in Western warfare in the face of a samurai rebellion. He’s captured and finds himself drawn to the samurai ethos. Ken Watanabe co-stars as a proud samurai warrior.
Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of Military History at the Army Command and General Staff College. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served for more than 31 years as an Army officer with operational tours throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.