Before co-writing the screenplay for The Last Samurai, co-producer and director Edward Zwick and writer Marshall Herskowitz were best known for writing, producing and directing the groundbreaking television drama series thirtysomething. The movie tells the story of a United States Captain in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, played by Tom Cruise, who meets a group of Samurai warriors after the Meiji Restoration in Japan in the nineteenth century. The film was inspired by the westernization of Japan that took place in the late 1870s, and the writers also wove in the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain, who fought alongside the Samurai against what he saw as western interlopers.
The film was a box office success and also a critical one; it garnered four Academy Award nominations, including one in the Best Supporting Actor category for Ken Watanabe; Watanabe also received a Golden Globe nomination, as did Tom Cruise, in the Best Actor category.
Although the film was well-received, many critics in the Asian American community questioned whether or not the portrayal of events was racist, or at least guilty of racially stereotyping. History professor Cathy Schultz also criticized the film for its romanticized notion of the Samurai and their resistance to modernization; this resistance was actually never as altruistic or romantic as it was shown to be in this film, but was actually a defense of their own status as revered warriors with a great many privileges.
The film was not actually shot in Japan but in New Zealand, because of the topographical similarities between the two.
This film experienced a resurgence in 2014 when it was re-analyzed and viewed from the perspective of its white savior narrative, one in which a white character rescues a non-white character from difficult circumstances.