"Honor, loyalty, compassion: Those aren't just words, they are action, they are a way of life,' Cruise says. "This movie has a lot of adventure and battle scenes, but I wouldn't have made it if it didn't explore the samurai's code. The purity of that is stronger than any battle scene we could have dreamt up.'
As Cruise says this, he and "Samurai' director Ed Zwick are flying in a private jet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. They're returning from a whirlwind trip to Japan, and we do mean whirlwind. They were on the ground for less than 12 hours, in the air for more than 24. But this code thing has proved to be a hard habit to shake, and Zwick promised Japanese officials that they'd be the first to see clips from the movie, which will be released in the States on Dec. 5.
"It's their culture, and I think they were a little reticent at first about us making a movie depicting it,' Cruise, 41, says. "Now I get the feeling that they're excited. We'll see. In Japan, young people today don't really know what Meshido is or the code of the samurai. I don't know how much of a history lesson this is, but at least it will be out there for them to absorb.'
Indeed. Cruise's movies don't usually want for exposure, although this year he's going to have to fight for the attention of moviegoers. "The Last Samurai' is a historical epic in a holiday season crowded with period yarns: Peter Weir's "Master and Commander' sails the high seas, John Lee Hancock remembers "The Alamo,' and Anthony Minghella's Civil War love story "Cold Mountain' will have the Miramax marketing might behind it. Each one is a potential box-office blockbuster and best-picture contender.
Like "Cold Mountain,' "The Last Samurai' is set in the Civil War period. Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a tortured Union officer, a former war hero turned drunk, haunted day and night by the massacre of a Sioux tribe. Algren comes to Japan in 1876 when the Japanese emperor decides to modernize his army and teach them Western warfare. That spells the end for the samurai.
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