Kimono-Clad Cruise Quite a Swordsman

“Everything old is new again,” sings Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz , stopping the show nightly on Broadway. But 200 years old may just be a little too old for anybody to care. Is the 19th century all the rage again? All four of this year’s big holiday movies-Ron Howard’s The Missing , Peter Weir’s Master and Commander , Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai and Anthony Minghella’s still-to-come Civil War tapestry Cold Mountain -are counting on it. They are all extravagantly mounted, richly detailed, numbingly violent action epics set in the 1800’s with the same theme (honor, ethics, courage and human sacrifice on the field of battle) but different wars, different weapons and a different set of unoriginal references to other people’s movies. So if The Missing is Hitchcock in spurs and Master and Commander is Moby Dick with Russell Crowe pursuing a French warship instead of a whale, then The Last Samurai is Braveheart with kimonos instead of kilts. (Or The Alamo with sushi.)

Japan has always lived by the sword. Sure, the Japanese brought us sake, Sony and Subaru, but despite their technology and their menus of raw fish, their cultural and political history are still rooted in the ethical code of bloodshed by the blade. The Last Samurai borrows heavily from the films of Akira Kurosawa in an attempt to explain why, setting the ethos of the noble but outdated samurai against the spiritual voyage of a cynical American soldier disillusioned by the Civil War and guilt-ridden by the Indian campaigns. When we first see Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) he’s a soulless drunk in 1876 San Francisco, reduced to putting on cheap theatrical shows about the Battle of the Little Bighorn to sell Winchester rifles. On the other side of the planet, another soldier faces shame in the sorrow of changing values. Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is the last leader of the ancient tribe of samurai warriors who have dedicated their lives to serving and protecting the time-honored traditions of their country for centuries. Like the Indians of the American West, the samurai now face extinction as telegraph cables and railroad lines threaten the values and codes of the land for which they have lived and died in the name of progress. Seeking escape from the binding traditions of his feudal ancestors, the young emperor, wooed by the selfish counsel of greedy American advisers with their eyes on westernizing the growing Japanese trade market, hires Algren because of his fame and experience wiping out Indian tribes. The object: to turn Japanese peasants into a modern, gun-wielding army big and powerful enough to destroy Katsumoto and his small band of sword-wielding samurai. From his arrival in Yokohama Harbor, through the spectacular scenery of a country unspoiled by time, to his personal encounters with the strange but strong-willed people, Algren is haunted by his new spiritual surroundings. Although he barely survives the first premature battle, he is captured and nursed back to health, out of curiosity (and silent, grudging respect), by the enemy. He’s their prisoner and he cannot escape, but while he studies the disciplines of Bushido that teach them strength, compassion, elegance, loyalty and the duty to honor their word and die for their cause, his wounds heal and so does his spirit. In time, Katsumoto becomes a role model, Algren adopts the samurai as his spiritual leaders, falls in love with Katsumoto’s sister, the widow of the warrior Algren killed in battle, and in his newly found dedication to perfection of mind and body, sees in the plight of the samurai a parallel to the innocent people he slaughtered in the Indian campaigns. Naturally, there is another massacre coming. The rest of this long and daunting challenge to the human tailbone consists of massive, elaborately staged battle sequences from which there is no earthly reason for Tom Cruise to survive except for the fact that he is the star and somebody has to live in order to describe the end of the traditions and the way of life he has come to love. The human suffering is hard to watch as Algren leads the outnumbered samurai, equipped only with swords and arrows, against the vast, better-equipped Meiji Imperial Army, led by the villainous American officer who once commanded Algren to kill women and children in American trenches (Tony Goldwyn, who seems to have cornered the market in handsome, clean-cut heels). When they charge, the samurai are heroic but doomed, like the Greeks at Thermopylae-or, to better complete the metaphor, Custer at the Little Bighorn.

Every time I attempt to tell friends about this plot, or even a small segment thereof, their eyes glaze over and they nod off in a stupor of profound disinterest. This is unfortunate, because even though The Last Samurai is brutal, exhausting and so not my kind of movie, it is extremely well-made and undeniably engrossing. This is not surprising, since it’s the work of two men I greatly admire-director-writer-producer Edward Zwick and his partner, Marshall Herskovitz, the team that created the brilliant, superior, Emmy Award–winning Once and Again , my favorite television series of all time. Most of the work they do is too good for the unwashed masses, but they may have hit on the right formula this time. The appeal of watching Mr. Cruise go through physical hell in costumes that weigh more than he does, plus the obvious comparisons to be drawn between the feudal samurai versus the unsympathetic American aggressors of 19th-century Japan, and the current war in Iraq, could have solid box-office appeal. If nothing else, I have a special admiration for the way everyone re-created the authentic period look and feel of another world without digital effects, computers or animatronics. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the Westernization of Japan and its dramatic effect on world history. The shoguns now run the stock exchange, and today’s samurai are on the board of Mitsubishi.

My Gift List

I just polished off the turkey, the Thanksgiving china is still in the dishwasher, and already it’s time to do the Christmas shopping. I gave up buying and sending Hallmark cards when the December postage exceeded the garage bill, I no longer schlep dead fir trees down eight floors in the service elevator, and I hate fruitcakes. Still, I was always taught to share my toys, and here are a few suggestions guaranteed to please the people on your holiday list long after the inflammable tinsel and plastic snow are in the refuse bin. If you can afford it, buy the person with whom you are in love or lust a pair of orchestra tickets to see Donna Murphy electrify Broadway in the delicious revival of Wonderful Town . Or, for a small fraction of the price, pick up this season’s lavish feel-good coffee-table books about Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, two legendary ladies who go on giving long after many people erroneously think they both gave out.

John Fricke, the No. 1 Judy fan who has turned into the No. 1 Judy historian, counters the legions of salacious Garland books written for titillation and profit with Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art and Anecdote (Bulfinch Press, $50), the ultimate celebration of the humor, talent, professionalism and artistry of the greatest performer of the 20th century. The 324 pages of this star-spangled salute to her life and career are divided into five decades, with a candid, heartfelt introduction by Lorna Luft, never-before-seen photographs and artwork that is nothing less than astounding. Foreign movie posters, original 1946 color ads with Al Hirschfeld caricatures of all the MGM stars in Till the Clouds Roll By , stills from deleted musical numbers and recording sessions culled from the studio archives, wardrobe tests, family heirlooms, candid shots of Judy off-guard with Mickey Rooney, Vincente Minnelli, Kay Thompson, the entire population of the Emerald City “and Toto, too”-if you’re a Judy fan, there’s more magic in these treasures than Dorothy found in Oz. From childhood talent shows to comebacks at the Palace and Carnegie Hall, the many faces, weights, griefs and triumphs of Judy Garland, warts and all, are laced with comments and observations by the people who knew her best and loved her most. This is a book you will pick up and study, one page at a time like sips of brandy, for the rest of your life.

A bit more refined, perhaps, but equally rapturous and revealing is Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit (Atria Books, $29.95), a compilation of memories by her son, Sean Ferrer. Millions of glamorous photographs through the years have revealed the reasons why she became one of the most cherished and enduring women of her time, but none are more appealing than the shots of Audrey in her unposed leisure, playing with her pets, caressing her two sons, leaping like a gazelle through the landscapes of her favorite country gardens. Here among her Givenchy fashion illustrations, oil paintings and graceful tastes in furniture and flowers, you will find the mischievous imp, clowning with Cary Grant, and the dedicated humanitarian, cradling the starving children of Africa. Sean Hepburn Ferrer started collecting these photos and writing his impressions of the mother he adored on Jan. 21, 1993-the day after she died. Sharing his personal memoirs in a volcano of love and respect now becomes an unforgettable gift to us all.

Too Much, And Too Little

New CD’s by Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, both on the Columbia label, beckon seductively from frosted Yuletide shop windows, but they’re artistically below par and musically disappointing. Streisand’s The Movie Album is an over-arranged potpourri of syrupy orchestrations and dull selections from such oddball films as Bagdad Café . As usual, she employs the best musicians, and I like what Johnny Mandel does with his own composition, “Emily.” But does anyone remember the love theme from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ? On song after song, Barbra’s control-freak intonation is so unyielding in its demand for vocal perfection that her phrasing sounds frozen and metallic. The voice is in good shape but there’s no room for intimacy, and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” starts to sound exactly like Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.” No improvisational quality to be found anywhere, no thrilling new freshness of interpretation. Playing it safe, she has stripped these movie songs of every shred of the superior quality that might have set some of them apart from pop-chart pabulum in the first place. Unlike Garland, who was good or bad but always in your lap, there is no sense of discovery, humanity and vulnerability in Streisand. When Judy had a breakdown, she took you with her. Whatever Streisand is feeling, she ain’t tellin’ nobody but her shrink.

Bette Midler’s talent is more open-hearted and in-your-face. She’s a popular entertainer with a captivating personality and an infectious sense of humor. But I don’t care how much she appeals, her chops are limited, babe. Musically, she is not in the same universe as Rosemary Clooney, and that is not an opinion, it’s a fact, with which the divine and very savvy Miss M would probably agree. I love her for calling her new CD, produced by Barry Manilow, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook , but let’s get real: Close but no cigar, it’s just not in Rosie’s league. The up-tempo charts don’t swing, the ballads drag behind the beat to the point of no return, and the “Sisters” duet with Linda Ronstadt goes nowhere. Out of the thousands of tunes in Rosie’s library of classics, there is too much focus here on the cornball fluff Rosie was contractually forced to record in her fledgling days of 78 and 45 r.p.m. jukebox novelties like “Mambo Italiano,” “This Ole House” and “Come on a My House”-campy tunes Rosie always hated. “They pay insurance premiums,” she used to moan. Why do second-rate renditions of songs that were never any good in the first place? “Dedicated to the great Rosemary Clooney” are the words stamped on the box cover. Thanks, but this time I’ll pass.