The Last Samurai (2003) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.

  • In the 1870s, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a cynical veteran of the American Civil War, who will work for anyone, is hired by Americans who want lucrative contracts with the Emperor of Japan to train the peasant conscripts for the first standing Imperial Army in modern warfare using firearms. The Imperial Omura (Masato Harada) cabinet's first priority is to repress a rebellion of traditionalist Samurai, hereditary warriors, who remain devoted to the sacred dynasty, but reject the Westernizing policy, and even refuse firearms. Yet, when his ill-prepared superior force sets out too soon, their panic allows the sword-wielding samurai to crush them. Badly wounded, Algren's courageous stand makes the samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) spare his life. Once nursed to health, he learns to know and respect the old Japanese way, and participates as advisor in Katsumoto's failed attempt to save the Bushido tradition, but Omura gets repressive laws enacted. He must now choose to honor his loyalty to one of the embittered sides when the conflict returns to the battlefield.

  • In 1876--while still haunted by the massacres against the American-Indian tribes--the former Civil War veteran and now an embittered alcoholic, Captain Nathan Algren, is presented with an offer to train the inexperienced army of the Japanese emperor. However, when the untried Imperial soldiers are sent too early into battle against the seasoned men of the samurai leader, Katsumoto, Algren will find himself captured as a prisoner of war. Intent on knowing his enemy, Katsumoto spares Algren's life, only to see him, little by little, embrace Bushido: the dying code of the samurai. Now, Nathan faces an entirely new enemy. Will the last samurai find peace in his quest for redemption?

  • Set in Japan during the 1870s, this movie tells the story of Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a respected American military officer hired by the Emperor of Japan to train the country's first Army in the art of modern warfare. The Imperial Omura (Masato Harada) cabinet attempts to eradicate the ancient Imperial Samurai warriors in preparation for more Westernized and trade-friendly government policies, Algren finds himself unexpectedly impressed and influenced by his encounters with the Samurai, which places him at the center of a struggle between two eras and two worlds, with only his own sense of honor to guide him.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In the summer of 1876, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), is a disenchanted ex-United States Army captain and an alcoholic. He has been traumatized by his experience fighting in the Civil War and the Indian Wars. In the years following his army service, Algren makes his living by telling war stories to gun show audiences in San Francisco, an experience which further hampers his mental state and stimulates him to drink. Fed up with Algren's perpetual drunkenness, his employer fires him. Algren reluctantly accepts an invitation from his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), whom Algren deeply hates and blames for his waking nightmares about his role in Indian massacres. On behalf of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Omura (Masato Harada), Bagley offers him a job helping the new Meiji Restoration government train its new Western-style Imperial Japanese Army. Japan is in the middle of drastic civil change and the new Western-style additions to society have not gone unopposed. The samurai are conducting an insurrection against the modernization campaign, which has motivated Omura to seek Bagley's assistance.

    Under the command of Bagley, Algren and his companions travel to Japan. They are assisted by Algren's former army colleague Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) and Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), a British translator with a deep interest in the samurai. The newly-formed Japanese Army is formed of poorly-trained and equipped conscripts, peasants who completely lack combat experience. Algren does his best to remedy this, but before the men are trained to his satisfaction, the leader of the insurrection, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), attacks a railroad outside his province. Bagley orders Algren to lead the inexperienced conscripts to engage Katsumoto. Algren protests and offers a demonstration of the army's inexperience and inadequate training. Bagley dismisses Algren's concerns and orders a regiment to track down and engage Katsumoto.

    When the regiment arrives at the battlefield, Bagley moves to the rear and orders Algren to do the same, since the Americans are technically non-combatants. Algren refuses and takes personal command of the regiment. Algren then orders Sergeant Gant to report to the rear as well, but Gant refuses out of personal loyalty to Algren. During the battle, despite Algren's best efforts to command and encourage them, the conscripted peasants panic.

    Samurai swarm the wholly unprepared army and the soldiers flee in disarray. Algren and Gant stand their ground and manage to kill several samurai, but Gant is killed by a red-masked samurai named Hirotaro and Algren is thrown from his horse. On foot, he desperately fends off several samurai with a broken spear embroidered with a flag depicting a white tiger. The flag on the spear reminds Katsumoto of a vision he had during meditation. Hirotaro, Katsumoto's brother-in-law, prepares to kill the wounded Algren, but Algren seizes a spear from the ground and stabs Hirotaro through the throat, killing him. Believing what he has witnessed to be an omen, Katsumoto stops his warriors finishing off Algren and takes him prisoner. His forces take Algren to their isolated village, where Algren gradually recovers in a house belonging to Hirotaro's family, including his widow Taka, her two sons, Higen and Magojiro, and Katsumoto's son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada).

    Over time, Algren overcomes both his alcoholism and the nightmares of his traumatic past, and begins to assimilate to village life, although he does not adopt many Japanese customs. Eventually, he meets Katsumoto, who takes an interest in Algren and begins conversing regularly with him, each gaining a healthy respect for the other. Algren confides in his journal that he has never felt entirely at peace until he came to live among Katsumoto and his people. Despite lingering fidelity to her dead husband Hirotaro, Taka develops romantic feelings for Algren, particularly when she notices his fatherly relationship with her children. Algren studies swordsmanship under skilled swordmaster Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), gradually gaining skill and the rising respect of the village samurai, and becomes fluent in Japanese as he converses with the local residents, earning their admiration.

    One evening, during an open-air torchlight performance (Takigi Noh), Katsumoto parodies the comic role of a kygen actor. The villagers' carefree respite is interrupted by an attack by ninja assassins. Algren raises the alarm and then takes up a sword to help defend Taka, her children, and Katsumoto. He fights skilfully, killing a number of attackers, earning Katsumoto's respect. The samurai defeat the ninjas but with many losses. Though Katsumoto does not confirm it, Algren deduces that the attack was ordered by Omura.

    In spring, Algren joins Katsumoto in a trip to Tokyo that has been approved by the Emperor. Algren learns that the army under Bagley's command is now better organized and outfitted with howitzers and Gatling guns from the United States. Omura offers Algren a new contract to assume command of the army and crush the samurai rebellion, but Algren politely declines by agreeing. In private, Omura orders his men to kill Algren if he attempts to warn Katsumoto of their intentions. Katsumoto offers his counsel to the young Emperor, to whom he was once a teacher. He learns that the Emperor's hold upon the throne is much weaker than he thought, and that he is essentially a puppet of Omura. When Katsumoto refuses to observe a new law that forbids samurai to carry their sword in public, Omura orders him arrested and confined to his home in Tokyo. Anticipating an assassination attempt on Katsumoto, Algren attempts to warn him. On the street headed for Katsumoto's quarters, he is ambushed by several of Omura's men. Unarmed, Algren kills all of his attackers, narrowly escaping death by using the skills he learned while living among Katsumoto's people. With the assistance of Ujio, Nobutada, Nakao, the Silent Samurai, and Graham, Algren frees Katsumoto from custody. During their flight, Nobutada is mortally wounded and stays behind to aid his father's escape; Algren watches a mortally wounded Nobutada charge their foes, only to be cut down by gun fire.

    Katsumoto is still mourning the loss of his son when he receives word that two battalions totaling about 2000 Imperial Army soldiers, commanded by Omura and Bagley, are marching out to engage the samurai. A counter-force of samurai, numbering only 500, is rallied. Algren tells Katsumoto about the Battle of Thermopylae in which a small force of 300 Greeks held an opposing force of one million Persians to a standstill for three days by using the terrain and the enemy's overconfidence to their advantage. Algren suggests using a similar tactic in the current situation to reduce the effectiveness of the enemy's artillery. On the eve of battle, Katsumoto presents Algren with a katana. Taka also gives him her dead husband Hirotaro's armor and they kiss as Algren leaves.

    When the Imperial Army confronts the samurai's rebel forces, the samurai fall back to higher ground, preventing the Imperial soldiers from using their superior firepower. As expected, Omura immediately orders the infantry to advance. Bagley expresses misgivings and advises sending in scouting groups first to assess the area, but Omura overrules him and insists on a full attack, and the infantry marches straight into a trap. They set fires that cut the enemy's immediate fighting strength in half and the samurai then unleash volleys of arrows on the infantrymen. A wave of samurai swordsmen, Katsumoto and Algren among them, attack the disorganized body of soldiers before they can recover from the arrow attack. A second wave of Imperial infantry follows behind, only to be countered by samurai cavalry, and a savage mêlée ensues that leaves many dead on both sides before the remaining Imperial soldiers finally retreat.

    Realizing that fresh Imperial forces are coming and that defeat is inevitable when they arrive, the surviving samurai resolve to make a final, fate-charged mounted assault. During the battle, Bagley shoots Katsumoto in the shoulder, but before he can finish off the samurai, Algren hurls his sword at Bagley, killing him by spearing him through the chest. On approaching the Imperial rear line and progressing far enough to scare Omura, the samurai are finally cut down by Gatling gun fire. Moved by the sight of the dying samurai, who charged fearlessly despite the Imperial soldiers' superior firepower, the captain of the Imperial troops (who was originally trained by Algren) orders the Gatling guns to cease fire, against Omura's wishes. Katsumoto, observing Bushido, asks Algren to assist him in performing seppuku; Algren obeys, ending Katsumoto's life. Led by their captain, the Imperial soldiers show their still-lingering respect for the old order by kneeling and bowing before the fallen samurai.

    Later, as the American ambassador prepares to receive the Emperor's signature on a treaty that would give the U.S. exclusive rights to sell firearms to the Japanese government, a wounded Algren offers the Emperor Katsumoto's sword as a gift and remembrance of his former teacher's honor. The Emperor receives the sword and realizes that, while Japan must modernize, it also must never forget its own history, cultural identity, and traditions. The Emperor then tells the American ambassador that his treaty is not in the best interests of Japan. When Omura objects, the Emperor realizes that Omura is not acting in the best interests of the people, and he confiscates his estates and fortunes. When Omura tries to protest, the Emperor then offers him Katsumoto's sword, retorting that if the dishonor is too great to bear, he should commit seppuku. The cowardly but respectful Omura merely lowers his head and backs away.

    In a voice over, Simon Graham reveals that Algren was never heard from again, but he surmises that Algren likely returned to the samurai village and to Taka. Graham philosophically concludes that Algren has "found some small measure of peace that we all seek, and few of us ever find".

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