From Screenplay To Screen: John Logan’s The Last Samurai

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.


As some of you might already know, my all-time goal is to become a screenwriter in Hollywood, and as some others of you may well be aware, the first step to becoming a successful screenwriter is learning the structure of a good screenplay. How, you might ask, does one do that? Well, just as aspiring authors might look to Pulitzer, Man Booker, or Nobel Prize winning texts for inspiration, the up and coming screenwriter examines Best Screenplay winning scripts for hints as to what made these pieces successful. It is a practice I myself have employed, and one that I have found extremely helpful over the years. And yet, it is also one that has made me far wearier of the film industry in general, for as I read these beautiful works, I couldn’t help but notice something troubling they all had in common. Rarely, if ever, are the films that get produced the same as the scripts on which they are based. Now, to some of you, this might seem like a pretty trivial matter. After all, isn’t the practice of writing really all an exercise in revision? Isn’t it a given that the final product won’t be identical to the first draft? Yes, writing is all about revision, and yes, the end product does differ greatly from the original work, but you see, its different for screenwriters because, unlike regular authors, who just sell their final pieces as is, we have to sell our scripts to directors and studios, who can do whatever they want with our babies, if we want to get paid. Plus, there is a substantial difference between making alterations to a text, and flat out transforming it into something else, as is often the case with screenplays. Doing so can drastically alter the tone, meaning and themes of the story, and in some extreme cases, turn a touching and profound piece of work into generic Hollywood junk. Case and point: Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai.


Now before any of you fan boys out there feel the urge to crucify me, let me make one thing abundantly clear: I do NOT hate this movie. I am, in fact, a HUGE fan of it. Everyone’s got that one movie that changed their lives–either it opened their eyes to a whole new imaginary world, or else motivated them to do something. For my father, that film was Ridley Scott’s Alien. For me, it was The Last Samurai.


For those of you who don’t know what it’s about, it’s basically Dances With Wolves set in Japan. In 1876, the Japanese government recruits alcoholic American soldier, Nathan Algren, to train the newly formed Imperial Army. Japan has just emerged from centuries of isolation, and is now hoping to modernize and learn from the West. As such, the country is caught between the new–embodied by the greedy businessman Omura, who manipulates the young emperor Meiji to increase his own wealth–and the old–represented by the samurai lord Katsumoto, who, while loyal to the emperor, believes the nation is changing to fast. While he’s there, Algren gets captured by the samurai, who decide not to kill him, and spends several months in their village, sobering up and learning their way of life. As you might expect, during his time there, he grows attached to them, particularly to the family of Taka, Katsumoto’s sister. Eventually deciding that he can no longer fight these people he loves, Algren dons red armor, picks up a sword, and rides into battle against the very Imperial Army he trained. Unfortunately for him, the samurai, being both outnumbered and going up against canons and machine guns, get massacred, and he is the only one left alive. The film ends with Algren appearing before the emperor, offering the latter Katsumoto’s sword, and urging him to respect tradition. Touched by his pleas, the emperor accepts the blade and refuses to sign an arms deal that would vastly expand both Omura’s wealth and America’s sphere of influence in Japan. Satisfied, Algren returns to Katsumoto’s village and the home of Taka, where he finds, “some small measure of peace. One, which we all search for, but few of us ever find.”


The first time I saw this film, I was truly blown away. It was every nerdy, pre-teen boy like my self’s dream: young man goes to distant country, becomes fluent in a new language, acquires bad-ass skills, learns important life lessons, and even finds love with a beautiful woman. I feel no shame when I say that this picture was the single greatest reason why I took three years of Japanese and studied Aikido. (I guess I deluded myself into thinking that somehow I could make what had happened in it real). Anyway, for years I watched it over and over again, finding something new to enjoy about it every time I did. And yet, even in the midst of all my adoration, I began to question some of its odder aspects. At first, it was little things like; If Japan has only just opened up to the West, how is it that so many people–Omura, Katsumoto, the Emperor–are fluent in English? Over time, this curiosity expanded to other, larger things like; why is the conflict, which is clearly a civil war, characterized as a tribal uprising? How could Graham, the British interpreter, have lived in Japan for decades if the Land of the Rising Sun only just opened up to foreigners? Why is it that the White guy, Algren, is the only one to survive the war? And if the emperor wasn’t willing to preserve tradition at the behest of Katsumoto, a native Japanese who’d lived his whole life by the book of Bushido, why would he suddenly agree to do so when a foreigner, the exact kind of person that’s threatening Japan and that Katsumoto wouldn’t want him to associate with, tells him to? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the film was seriously lacking in the way of logic. This, as you might expect, seriously decreased my enjoyment of the picture.


But by far the greatest factor in changing my perception of the film was the reactions of Japanese and Japanese-Americans who saw it. Many, like my Japanese teacher, Yukiyo Mormon, felt that the movie inaccurately portrayed the period in which it was set. As she was quick to point out, the emperor did not, as the film portrays it, have any real political authority at that time, and more importantly, there was no major uprising by samurai during the Meiji Restoration. Many of them, as I was shocked to discover, willingly set down their swords and happily joined modern Japanese society, becoming powerful businessmen and government officials. By far the most troubling thing to her and other Japanese people was how the film excessively glorified and simplified samurai culture. See, throughout the movie, Algren, as well as the people who hire him, characterize the conflict as a tribal uprising. In one scene, for instance, the characters even liken the samurai to Native Americans, whom it is revealed through flashbacks Algren has fought in the past. What this does is cast the samurai as an ethnic minority–noble savages living in harmony with nature; struggling to preserve their way of life in the face of outside encroachment. This portrayal, as my teachers were desperate to point out, is just about the polar opposite of the truth. Not only did the samurai belong to the ethnic MAJORITY of Japan, they were also the country’s RULING CLASS for centuries. So, if they ever were to rise up against the central government, it wouldn’t be because they thought the rest of Japanese society viewed them as a sub-human scourge that needed to be eradicated, but rather, it would be because they were rich old fogies who didn’t want to lose all their power to the nouveau riche. Also, many Japanese people I spoke to found it kind of insulting that it was the White guy, Algren, who manages to convince the Emperor to respect tradition. To them, this was a classic example of Orientalism, of Westerners attempting to keep Eastern societies from modernizing. In short, I was hard pressed to find a single Japanese person who liked this movie. This, in turn, got me thinking about it in a whole new light, and, as result, led to me liking it a great deal less.


But what, you might be wondering; does any of this have to do with screenplays? Well I’ll tell you. See, after hearing all the complaints from my Japanese friends and teachers, I didn’t watch this movie for ages. Then, around junior year of High School, when I realized that I wanted to be a screenwriter, I decided to take another look at it. See, I thought it would be a good idea to read the screenplays for the movies that I’d loved growing up, or had been successful, in order to understand what worked about them, and since The Last Samurai had been both financially successful AND a huge part of my life, it was only natural that I should include it. Anyway, I looked up the original script by John Logan–who also wrote such films as Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo–and discovered some shocking things about it, namely that it was almost nothing like the film that was produced. How different was it? Well, why don’t I draw you up a list of all the details that were either changed, or just plain omitted, from the original text?


  1. In the screenplay, Algren is shown as a Civil War Vet, not an Indian fighter. This is precisely why Omura and the other Japanese officials want to hire him–because they’re in the middle of a Civil War, and he understands these kinds of conflicts.


  1. The screenplay explains how Katsumoto and Omura learned to speak English so well–Katsumoto, as an Imperial official, was given orders to study the language so as to negotiate with foreigners, while Omura learned it at Princeton, no doubt to get ahead in the area of international business.


  1. Much more back-story is given on the Meiji Restoration, the Samurai Code, and the structure of Japanese government. Also, the script points out everything that my Japanese teacher told me–that the emperor was a figurehead, that most samurai and daimyo set down their swords willingly, and that the samurai were not an ethnic minority, but rather, an old aristocratic class dissatisfied with the prospect of losing power.


  1. The conflict is shown as a civil war, and not a tribal uprising. This, to me, makes the story much more respectful to the samurai and to Japanese culture in general, because when Katsumoto is described in the movie as a “tribal leader,” and likened to a Native American rebel, it’s not only inaccurate, its kind of condescending.


  1. In the script, Bagley–Algren’s old commanding officer, and the one who convinces him to go to Japan–is portrayed as a cowardly old buffoon, and not a heartless young psychopath. There’s a whole subplot in the movie where Algren hates Bagley because, years before, Bagley had his men massacre an entire Native American village. This was what caused Algren to become a depressed alcoholic, and is the reason why he feels so reluctant to train the Imperial Army. Even when I absolutely adored the movie, I never really understood why the filmmakers chose to include this part. If you think about it, it doesn’t add anything to the picture, or make sense given the larger narrative. I mean, if Algren hates Bagley so much, and doesn’t have to listen to him anymore because he’s no longer in the Army, why would he agree to travel across thousands of miles of ocean, and adapt to a strange new culture, just to fight for a man he despises? It just doesn’t come off as all that logical. If, on the other hand, Bagley is just a guy–not angelically good or devilishly bad–it becomes far more plausible that Algren might want to work with him again.


  1. The character of the Emperor is considerably more nuanced in the screenplay. He’s shown as an intelligent, curious young man caught between two worlds, and not a weak-willed boy easily manipulated by his advisors. There are several scenes that were not included in the film where we see him talking with Omura and the other officials, trying to strike that balance between traditionalism and modernity. All this makes him a far more complex and interesting figure, and I think it’s a real shame that, in the film, he only ever got to be a cardboard cutout.


  1. There’s a scene in the movie where Katsumoto’s village is under attack from a group of ninjas hired by Omura. In the screenplay, however, the assault takes place on the road back to Tokyo. This makes more sense if you think about it, because if Omura already knows where Katsumoto’s village is, and is even able to send mercenaries there, why bother building up a huge army to crush him? Why not just solve the matter quietly, as opposed to spending millions of dollars on military equipment and training?


  1. The screenplay gives us a much more concrete reason for why Omura is so hell-bent on removing Katsumoto; if he can build a railroad through Katsumoto’s province, he’ll have access to the sea, and from there his Zaibatsu will be able to trade with China.


  1. In the script, Algren is shown as having lost a wife AND a younger brother, and it is implied that it is his sorrow over their deaths that caused him to become an alcoholic. I’m personally glad that they chose to omit this part in the movie, because it felt kind of contrived to me, but that’s beside the point. This is still a major difference between the two pieces.


  1. The differences between Japanese and American society are explored much more deeply in the screenplay than in the film. Yes, they do show Algren experiencing some culture shock in the movie–like in the scene where he watches a defeated general commit seppuku, or ritual suicide–and yes, he and Katsumoto do have a couple conversations about the differences between their countries and peoples. However, on the whole, the film’s Algren seems much less put off by the strangeness of his new environment, and adapts to it far more rapidly. In the screenplay, by contrast, he’s shown as reacting far more negatively, and in some cases, violently, to his surroundings. There’s one scene early on in the story where he and his friend get thrown out of a Geisha house because they mistake it for a brothel, and when he arrives in Katsumoto’s village, he regularly argues with, and even insults, the people around him, calling their culture savage and bizarre, and asking them why they can’t act in a manner that’s more comprehensible to him. This behavior, while obviously making him come off as far less likable, is considerably more realistic if you think about it. Even in today’s world, where people from different nations interact with one another on a regular basis, many Westerners who visit Japan find its culture rather perplexing, so imagine how confused an American from the 19th century, a time when most people never left their town, let alone their country, would be if he were suddenly dropped into a samurai village. It would be shocking, to say the least.


  1. The screenplay explains what happens to all the major characters, and not juts Algren. This was always something that bothered me about the movie–that we never got to see what fates befell The Emperor, Omura, or Graham the Interpreter. In the screenplay, however, we’re given full closure on each of these individuals. Omura is stripped of his wealth and position, and sent to an island up in the far north. The Emperor grants equal trading privileges to all nations, and lives to see his country surpass China, Korea, and even Russia in military, technological, and economic might. And lastly, Graham returns to England, where he publishes a book entitled, “The Last Samurai,” based on Algren’s writings.


  1. It is made abundantly clear in the script that “The Last Samurai” is Katsumoto, not Algren. What this does is make him out to be the main character, or at the very least, the moral and spiritual pillar of the story, neither of which he is in the movie.


Phew! That’s a lot of changes!


Anyway, after I read the screenplay and saw all the alteration that had been made to it in the film, I had an epiphany. I realized that, if you want to work in Hollywood, there are certain rules that you, as a writer, must abide by. First, you can only have white people be the heroes of your stories. Why? Because the largest demographic that goes to see movies in this country is white people, and white people are still uncomfortable with the idea of having a person of color, who’s not Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman, in the lead. Second, if you’re writing a period piece, don’t bother throwing in too much historical detail or accuracy, because 1) popcorn chewing audiences won’t notice how much effort you put into making your story authentic, and 2) because these same audiences will find too much history boring. And thirdly, you’ve got to have a romance in there somewhere. Even if what you’re writing is an action movie or war epic, you’ve got to include at least one scene with sex or kissing in it. Why? Because boners speak louder than brains. (Sigh).


Anyway, after discovering all this, I started to question whether or not I actually wanted to be a screenwriter. The more I thought about it, the more the profession didn’t seem like a logical choice for me. After all, I’m a person who loves history, who believes Americans should be better informed on current events and global issues, and who’s long fought to end the stereotypical portrayals of certain groups in the media. So, did I really want to be part of an industry that, in addition to controlling what content I could put out there, very often exploits minorities, rewrites history, and thrives off the public’s love of sex and violence? The answer I inevitably came to was “YES!” Yes, I do want to be part of that industry. Why? Because how else, except from within, can I make the films that Americans watch more accurate, more educational, or more respectful? How else can I make the dreams I have come true? Yes, Hollywood and the movie industry are flawed, but neither of them is beyond saving. My generation, the Millennials–the most highly educated, international, and Tec savvy generation in global history–is taking over, and I have no doubt that we will bring about substantial changes in the content that gets put out there. Together we will usher in a new Golden Era of filmmaking, one with new rules, new standards, and new techniques that surpass anything our forebears have done.


So, fellow writers–do not despair! Continue to hone your craft. Don’t be afraid of the supposed restrictions of Hollywood. The people enforcing them will be gone soon enough, and together we can create new movies and works of art, unbound and unblemished by anything!