I feel like thus far I've been rather negative during my film commentary posts. It's an easy trap to fall into. Cinephiles, like myself, can get so caught up talking about the mistakes that get made, or why certain movies failed to live upto expectations that we don't spend time talking about the things we LOVE in this medium that we also claim to LOVE. I hope to address that balance today by dissecting one of my all-time favourite film scenes - and it's not an obvious candidate...
The film in question is The Last Samurai. If you're unfamiliar with the film, it stars Tom Cruise, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall, and Ken Watanabe and is essentially the plot of Avatar 6 years before Avatar came out, set in 1870's Japan.
In the lead-up to the scene Ken Watanabe's Samurai leader has captured Tom Cruise and kept him as prisoner in his village, although he is granted some dignity and free to wander the village.
In the scene, Cruise watches two children practice their sword skills, sparring against each other with wooden swords called bokken. Cruise goes to return a dropped bokken to one of the children and is encouraged by one of the adults accompanying him to try for himself. Given he is against a child, Cruise does not take the fight seriously. He ends up stopping the child's sword with his hand when they are interrupted. One of Watanabe's men, Ujiro, who has taken a fierce dislike of Cruise has seen the fight. He then proceeds to beat Cruise for the lack of respect he has shown the child. Cruise attempts to fight back but is completely outmatched by the master Samurai. What follows is the Samurai repeatedly beating down Cruise, only for Cruise to get up again, and then again; each time slower and more beat up than before until finally he no longer has the strength to get up again.
So what makes the scene so great? The guy that just never gives up is a very well used character trope so the action of the scene is hardly unique. In short, it is great because all the individual elements that go into a scene come together superbly to create something much greater than the sum of its parts. The acting is superb; not just from Cruise, but by onlookers, and especially by Hiroyuki Sanada who plays Ujiro, first with the utter disdain that he regards Cruise with and then with his anger and disbelief at Cruise's continued defiance.
Whilst cinema is a mostly visual medium, sound also plays an increasingly big part and what perhaps plays the most important part in elevating this scene higher is the sound and the music. I would urge you, watch the scene, then watch it again but only paying attention to the sound, maybe even close your eyes. It first becomes really noticeable right after Cruise is told "Try". At this point the rain starts to come down harder and the noise of it gets louder. Cruise stays quiet during the fight, putting emphasis on the child's noises of effort, and then just as Ujiro shouts down we get a very distinct rumble of thunder and the atmosphere of the scene shifts. As Cruise shows his defiance, squaring up to Ujiro Hans Zimmer's masterful score kicks in, and as Cruise starts to get up the first time it begins it's rising crescendo, finishing on a single violin that serves a melancholy note and the scene ends.
What are your thoughts on the scene? What is your favourite scene from a film and why?