There is something inherently fascinating about “stranger in a strange land” films. They provide a sort of fantastical wish fulfillment and allow audiences to get a glimpse at a culture or period of time they may know little about. Two examples of this from Hollywood, Witness and The Last Samurai, may seem like completely different films but they are more alike upon a deeper examination. Which one will wind up on top? Let’s find out
Witness, starring Harrison Ford tells the story of Philadelphia detective John Book who finds himself hiding out among the Amish community as he is protecting a young boy who witnessed a brutal murder at the hands of a crooked police officer. The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, is set in the late 19th Century as Japan is attempting to modernize its society and military by enlisting a troubled Army officer who winds up being sheltered by the people he was originally ordered to destroy.
Both films star leading men who were arguably at the height of their fame and popularity; Harrison Ford had cemented his legacy as one of Hollywood’s all-time great leading men after starring in the three original Star Wars films as well as the first two Indiana Jones films and Blade Runner but had wanted to branch out to more dramatic roles and Witness was the film for him as his performance would land him the only Oscar nomination of his career (for context, Ford would not win the Oscar but was up against William Hurt, Jon Voight, Jack Nicholson and James Garner during the year he was nominated). For Tom Cruise, he was not quite the big-time movie star just yet in the early 2000’s but was well respected after starring in Born on the Fourth of July, Top Gun, A Few Good Men, Mission: Impossible, Minority Report and had recently received an Oscar nomination for his role in the ensemble film Magnolia.
The characters these leading men inhabit are heroic if not complicated. Tom Cruise’s Nathan Algren is a tortured veteran of American Indian Wars as he was personally involved in several of the atrocities perpetrated during that conflict and is trying to literally drown these horrors with copious amounts of alcohol. When he’s recruited, or accepts out of necessity, for the job of modernizing Japan’s army, he sees it as an opportunity to maybe get rich and escape the horrible events of his past and through his time as a captive among the samurai, he finds a culture that not only accepts who he is and what he has done but offers him a chance to heal and genuinely start over whereas Ford’s portrayal of John Book is every bit reminiscent of the straightlaced hero cop who lives to uphold the law and be on the right side of justice. Book winds up being betrayed by the system he swore to uphold and is hunted by corrupt colleagues he would have taken a bullet for in the past. Among the Amish, he connects with a young widow named Rachel that complicates his situation. While in hiding, he bonds with the community and accepts their ways while learning that the Amish are mocked and are the subject of ridicule among the local townspeople. Book sees this abuse and decides what they cannot; fight back and stand up but by doing so threatens the little boy he is protecting.
Both of these men go on incredible journeys of self-discovery as they find out about worlds beyond their own, learn lifelong lessons and even fall in love with drastically different results. Book concedes that he loves Rachel but admits that he cannot stay with her and she cannot go with him but he leaves knowing that Rachel and her son will be safe forever once he leaves. While Algren is unsuccessful in stopping the tide of modernization and progress, he found peace and serenity among his former captors and returns to start a new life with the widow of an enemy Algren defeated in combat. It is a stark contrast between two heartwarming endings to great films.
While Witness’ story is more character and conflict drive, The Last Samurai includes an incredible supporting cast along with an Oscar nominated performance from American newcomer Ken Watanabe. His character of Katsumoto is the literal last samurai of the film and shows Algren the way of a warrior life all while facing down his inevitable destruction and balancing the duties of a father, soldier and community leader. It is an amazing breakthrough performance from a now internationally recognized actor who has since appeared in films like Batman Begins, Inception and Godzilla. The Last Samurai also offers some of the most incredible and brutal battle sequences which is to be expected from director Edward Zwick who had previously directed Glory, Legends of the Fall and Courage Under Fire. The Last Samurai certainly has the edge over Witness in this regard as the best that Witness can offer is an incredibly satisfying Harrison Ford beatdown of a douchey local and a climatic chase that has a crooked cop choking to death in a corn silo.
Witness and The Last Samurai are both great on their own merits. Witness has a tender love story in the middle of a police conspiracy drama and The Last Samurai features broken men who are desperately trying to hold on to the last remnants of their existence in a shrinking world. Either would make for an incredible movie night but the choice has to be The Last Samurai as it offers a tale of regret, war, love and redemption and marks the beginning of Tom Cruise’s reign as one of the 21st Century’s most bankable leading men.
Featured Image Credit: IMDb