Lord of the Savages

The Last Samurai, The Missing revisit the tragi-romantic fate of the white Indian

 

"I'm a white Injun, and there's

nothing more despicable."

Nathan Slaughter, in Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods,1837

American intelligence agencies just can't seem to infiltrate Middle Eastern and Muslim terrorist cells. The military hasn't produced homegrown soldiers capable of assimilating into these highly insular organizations, and (because of unofficial official xenophobia) native agents aren't an option. Witness the recent court martial of Muslim chaplain James Yee for trumped-up adultery charges and last year's dismissal of six Arab army translators after the revelation of their homosexuality.

What this administration needs is Tom Cruise and Tommy Lee Jones. Cruise's The Last Samurai and Jones' The Missing revisit the idea of the white Indian, the Caucasian male who masters the ways of the enemy race while remaining "civilized." Literature—and film is our modern literature—instinctively returns to this archetype during times of imperial conquest, when concerns about understanding the Other dominate the American mind. The public loves these men, whether real or imagined—from Natty Bumppo to Lawrence of Arabia to Rambo to Dances With Wolves' John Dunbar.

But patriots yearning to become pseudo mujahideen in the name of liberty, beware. Both The Last Samurai and The Missingshow that the white Indian is expendable in the ultimate American occupation strategy.

Historically, the white Indian served as the arrow's tip in the campaign to push indigenous people from valuable land. The constant in tales of the white Indian is the battle within: whether he can resist "going native" and begin fighting against the white man. Usually, "civilization" loses, and the white Indian—sick of imperialism or attracted to a simpler lifestyle—assimilates into the foreign society.

The conversion, however, is a death wish. White society merely procures whatever information it needs from the white Indian and abandons him to face the relentless gunfire of Manifest Destiny alongside his newfound people. "In this ideological geography of the American West," wrote Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. in his 1978 analysis of American/Indian relations, The White Man's Indian,"the earliest wave of white frontiersmen … that led the march of civilization westward were as doomed to disappear as the savages they replaced, because they too must make way for the pioneer farmers and cities that followed just as surely as they had followed the Indian in the march of progress."

This is the fate the protagonists encounter in The Last Samurai and The Missing. In the former, Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a renowned Indian killer. His commanding officer, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), boasts to Japanese businessmen interested in purchasing American military might that Algren's studies of the "most savage of Indian nations" were crucial in clearing the West. Interested in vanquishing Japan's own vanishing wild men, the Samurai, the Japanese industrialists quickly hire Algren to train peasants in their campaign against the Samurai.

By this period, however, Algren is a delirious drunk, haunted by the genocide he helped unleash upon the Great Plains. He switches allegiances almost immediately after Samurai capture him, desperately attempting to cleanse his murderous soul. But Bagley is furious when he discovers Algren's choice. "What is it about your people that you hate so much?" Bagley demands of his former informer. Algren doesn't respond, instead showing up at the climactic battle resplendent in Samurai armor and using American ambush strategies to fend off the newly industrialized Japanese army.

Director Ed Zwick—who also directed Glory, a white-Indian tale with African American soldiers taking the role of the endangered race—manipulates The Last Samuraiso that viewers identify with Algren's metamorphosis and jeer the rise of capitalist Japan. But Zwick also argues that aligning with foreign foes is suicidal—despite the celebration of Algren as a redeemed warrior, all he's left with by film's end is a return to the bucolic village where he learned to love Japan, a village that Zwick shows cannot survive the unsympathetic sweep of modernity. To love the Other is to die, with personal redemption the only reward.

While The Last Samurai depicts the dangers of embracing the Other, The Missing offers a view of the white Indian that Donald Rumsfeld might appreciate. Jones portrays Sam Jones, a man so dangerous that farmhands mistake him for a coyote, then an Indian, when he first appears in the film.

Unlike Algren's conflicted fighter, Jones is pure id. When his daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett) asks why he abandoned her years ago to live among Indians, Jones replies that he needed to cultivate his wild side. Maggie tentatively accepts her father's savagery because he's the only person who can rescue her daughter, kidnapped by Apaches practicing slavery. "Takes an Apache to catch an Apache," Jones croaks early in the film, referring to himself. It's true: while incompetent U.S. cavalrymen quickly abandon their search, Jones successfully tracks down the Apaches using his Indian wiles.

The search is also an atonement of sorts for Jones, but director Ron Howard doesn't celebrate it. Everyone hates Jones—his daughter, actual Indians ("You're a make-believe Indian!" his Apache captors laugh at one point), and the army. "You must be the pride of your people," Jones tells an Apache scout soon after an Army battalion subdues Jones. The young man sneers, "And you of yours."

Treachery, thy true name is tribelessness.

The only way Jones can gain honor is by dying. And he does. Soon after Jones rescues his granddaughter, an Apache warlock kills him. Doing the job anddying—somewhere, a general smiles.

 
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