Who'd have thought the last Samurai was Tom Cruise? I know, it's a surprise to me as well. The Last Samurai
is a film with ambiguous historical credentials, indeed one review described it as an 'historical fantasy' suggesting an entirely imaginary story set in a semi-realistic backdrop. Whatever the case, it takes its lead from Dances with Wolves
featuring an American who goes native and learns the way of the Samurai before their ultimate destruction. A metaphor for the white man bringing down foreign cultures? Who can say. In any event, Edward Zwick's epic did pretty well, especially for a film that contains fairly lengthy scenes with little dialogue and then much of what there is in Japanese anyway. Although previous Zwick collaborator James Horner
might have seemed a good choice, this fairly plum assignment ended up at the door of Hans Zimmer
A careful look at the credits is always a good move on a Zimmer score given his preponderance for roping in Media Venture colleagues to help out, but in this case the only credit seems to be for 'Additional Arrangements and Programming' by Messrs Geoff Zanelli
, Blake Neely
(also conducting) and Clever Trevor Morris
. Nice how that scans there. As per usual, the album is sequenced with a few fairly substantial tracks, particularly at the beginning and the end. A Way of Life introduces what is ostensibly the main theme which is a long lined, elegiac melody that is nice enough, but doesn't quite capture either the location, period or nobility of the film's characters. Not entirely characterless, but a few more pentatonic scales might have given it a stronger flavour. However, this rather basic opening is built upon fairly effectively.
The film contains a number of battles, but Spectres in the Fog covers Cruise's first encounter with the Samurai (initially fighting for the other side) and, perhaps as expected, Zimmer breaks out the Taiko drums which bang along dramatically. According to the press notes, the composer manipulated 10,000 Taiko drum samples and then picked 'the best ones by their emotional resonance.' Erm, OK Hans. Whatever the convoluted route to their appearance in the score, they are undoubtedly effective and of course, make a nice gesture to the location. However, the action highlight is Red Warrior with chanting chorus, more booming percussion, racing string figures and, perhaps becoming something of a Zimmer clichι, this is all set against a broad melody in the horns. However, the swirling background materials drive the music hard toward an abrupt conclusion before a quieter interlude leads into more action during The Way of the Sword.
About the only point where the music picks up without action is the martial finale to Idyll's End, although at times it comes a little close to Crimson Tide
. Despite numerous fine moments, I am somewhat undecided about The Last Samurai
. It's a rare event that I see the film before hearing the album, but just the case here and for my money, the score didn't leave much of an impression after seeing the film. Zimmer's extended, low key melodies coming close to aural wallpaper on occasion, but they are undeniably well suited wallpaper and the action pumps up nicely when necessary. It doesn't reach the dramatic peaks of The Thin Red Line
or the variety of Gladiator. Some of the low key tracks threaten to drag a touch, but there is enough variety to sustain the running time and the athletic bursts of action are undeniably exciting. Good, but not quite top drawer Zimmer.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad