Rod Lurie’s latest film, The Last Castle, depicts a straightforward struggle between good and evil, adequately summed up by its tagline: “No castle can have two kings.” In this case, castles and kings refer not only to territory and authority, but also to the ancient aspect of the battle. So, we know where this is going and how it will all turn out: good will conquer evil; the righteous king will defeat the unworthy one; and the castle will stand and be reclaimed.
None of this is particularly new or thought-provoking; after all, the story is, well, ancient. What makes The Last Castle worth talking about is something the filmmakers could never have foreseen and had little control over: the alarming timeliness of its release. In the aftermath of the events of September 11th, U.S. audiences especially are ready for such overt depictions of the good/evil dichotomy, and in fact, that’s how President Bush has defined the current war on terrorism: at its most basic level, a fight between good and evil. The Last Castle will likely do very well at the box office, not because it is particulary good, but becuase, simply put, timing is everything.
Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini) is the sadistic, meticulous warden of a military prison nicknamed “the Castle.” His newest inmate is 3-star general Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), a military hero by all accounts, whom we are meant to think is unjustly imprisoned: “They should be naming a base after him, not sending him here,” complains Winter. The warden fawns over Irwin upon his arrival, even asking for his autograph, but quickly turns on him when he overhears Irwin insulting his collection of military relics: “Any man with a collection like this is a man who has never set foot on a battlefield.” With that, Winter is on a mission to make sure that Irwin understands who holds rank inside the Castle.
It turns out Winter runs his ship-shape prison through manipulating, bullying, and even occasionally murdering the helpless inmates. But it isn’t long after General Irwin enters genpop, that he discovers that these criminals are basically good soldiers who wound up where they are because of some lapse of self-control, momentary or otherwise. They enlighten him on Winter’s evil-doings and soon Irwin, the great American hero, has organized the prisoners and whipped them back into soldiers. Then he decides to take over the prison in order to overthrow the evil warden (but only after he politely asks him to resign). It’s an elaborate game of capture the flag, complete with MacGuyver-like improvised weaponry, that offers plenty of explosions and brings many a cheer from the audience.
So, back to the interesting part: The timing of the film’s release. One can’t help but wonder if any bits were added to the film post-September 11. For instance, there’s the American flag is practically a character unto itself, taking on a Holy Grail kind of quality by the end of the film. This reverence is established right from the start. The Last Castle opens with a voice-over by Irwin (which is then repeated three times thoroughout the film), delineating the elements that make a castle a castle: location, protection, garrison, and apparently most important, flag.
This point is pounded home relentlessly: the first time we see Winter, we look up at him through a window, as he looks out over the prison yard, the reflection of a billowing American flag superimposed over his face. And the final part of Irwin’s battle plan is to steal the American flag out of Winter’s office and fly it upside down, as a distress signal. Of course, such imagery is meant to inspire patriotism, and it’s hard not to respond to it in a kind of pre-programmed way especially now, when every Wal-mart in the country is sold out of American flags.
But if you respond solely to the onslaught of overtly loaded flag-images, you miss the film’s argument, which is problematic, if not downright flawed. When Colonel Winter discovers that his flag has been taken, he demands that Irwin “Give me back my flag!” “It’s not your flag,” Irwin cooly responds. Whose flag is it? At film’s end, Yates (Mark Ruffalo), a redeemed prisoner, states in voice-over, “That’s my flag. Nobody takes my flag.”
And so, on one level, the argument is obvious and simple: Winter is “the Evil One” in the film, and of course, the Evil One cannot have the flag, our symbol of liberty and goodness and freedom. But here’s the twist: Winter is an American. Why isn’t it also his flag? He’s not a particularly nice American, granted; he’s even a criminal when all is said and done. Why is it okay for the inmates to claim the flag, when they are in prison for murder, drug-running, insubordination, and the like, and not Winter? Things get even messier when you consider that the film codes Winter as gay and pits him against ranks of hyper-masculine soldiers. Aligning a straight/gay dichotomy against a good/evil one is disturbing enough, but complicating it with American-ness and inclusion/exclusion of rights to the flag is downright scary.
Winter, for all his villainy, does have some sense of how this all works (though Irwin is the character who will put such knowledge to effective use). Near the beginning of The Last Castle, he’s again gazing out his window, watching the inmates play ball. Out of boredom, he orders one of his lackeys to put only one basketball out in the prison yard the following day. Predicatably, a fight breaks out; even more predictably, the fight sets Hispanics against blacks. Observing the melee, Winter poses the rhetorical question, “You see how easy it is to manipulate men?” Such is the danger of buying in to The Last Castle‘s very particular version of patriotism and especially, what it invests (or more importantly, what it divests) in the American flag. Especially now.