Published on June 15th, 2008 | by simeon0
The Last Castle
Great leaders throughout the ages have often been studied intensely regarding their character and accomplishments both on and off the field of battle. There are volumes of books dedicated to Patton, McArthur, Hannibal, and Caesar, to name but a few, and every aspect of their lives are examined in an attempt to gain a better understanding of these men who were larger then life, and shaped and changed the course of history.
Many military leaders often spoke of the burden of command. Simply put, it is the decisions that leaders have to make that not only determine the outcomes of a conflict, but decide who is to live and die, and who is to be sacrificed for the objectives to be achieved. This is an ability that makes a great leader, as those who posses the gift of leadership can inspire their troops and can overcome all obstacles they are faced with.
In the film “The Last Castle” Lt. General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), is one such man. He is a gifted tactician and on of the nations greatest military leaders. Not only is he a highly decorated hero, he is the author of several books on command and military strategy as well as a legend to those he has served with as well as many well placed people in the Pentagon.
Not all men can be celebrated leaders, as many have to forge their own identities in the military and serve their nation in much less heralded positions. One such man is Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini). Winter commands a maximum-security military prison known as The Castle. Winter commands with a harsh, yet effective style as he notes that there have been neither escape attempts nor attacks on the guards during his command. While the command Brass may like his results, the inmates resent his brutal treatment and have caused three investigations of winter who was exonerated each time.
It is into this hostile setting that General Irwin is placed. Following a court-martial, Irwin is sentenced to 10 years for failing to follow orders in a military action that caused eight men under his command to be executed. While many of the military upper ranks, including Winter himself are in awe of Irwin, and do not think he has any place in a prison, much less one as harsh as The Castle.
Winter is in awe of Irwin, and he greets him warmly in his lavish office upon his arrival. He even goes as far as to ask the General to sign a copy of one of his books that Winter has in his office. It is obvious that there is a lot of respect towards Irwin from not only Winter but from the staff that he commands. It is during this office meeting that an interesting insight is given into the character of Colonel Winter. Winter has a very elaborate collection of military artifacts in his office, and he overhears Irwin telling a guard that person who has this sort of memorabilia has clearly never stepped foot on the field of battle.
Winter seems to be a man who wants to be greater than his current status and he takes pleasure in manipulating the prison population. Soon after his meeting with Irwin, Winter instructs the guards to place only one Basketball on the courtyard and then watches from afar at the ensuing fight that erupts amongst the inmates. Winter icily orders his guards to fire rubber bullets into the crowd and takes pleasure in watching the inmates get hit.
Amongst the population, Irwin is a man who gains respect. There are those who salute him, even though it is forbidden and punished. At first Irwin is a mystery to the inmates as they think a man of Irwin’s background will not survive and there is a pool formed to see if he will kill himself. However Irwin’s kindness to his fellow inmates, and his strength and determination during a hard labor punishment soon win the men over and they grow to respect the General.
The men bond over a rebuilding project as they attempt to complete a wall that is from the original prison, and they show a unity and a spirit under Irwin that threatens Winter and he has the wall-destroyed killing an inmate that stands defiant in the process.
Before long, a battle of wills results and Irwin unites the men in a daring plan to take the prison and remove Winter from command.
It is at this point that the film seems to lose bearing. It goes from a drama to scenes that would make the A-Team proud as the inmates wage war on the prison with weapons fashioned in very little time from items found in their prison. The trebuchet and rocket launcher was a nice touch that brought laughter from the press screener audience.
The battle for the prison is nicely done and Redford is great as the leader who is cool under pressure. Gandolfini is also great as a power hungry man, who uses his position to make up for his shortcomings and sees his world being taken from him, as Irwin commands the respect he is only able to get through force.
The characters in the film are not fleshed out as well as they could be, and this is perhaps the greatest flaw in the film. We learn that Irwin has a grandson he has not seen and has a daughter he is estranged from. Aside from a brief visit early in the film and a letter whose content is unknown, we learn little as to why they have such tension in their relationship other than the fact that his career kept him away, and we learn nothing of her mother.
We know little of Winter other than that he believes his cruelty is justified as the men in his prison are there for a reason and that his methods are necessary to maintain order.
There is no mention of him having a family, friends, or a life outside the prison. He seems to be the king looking over his kingdom and the prisoners are his serfs while his soldiers are his knights. The interplay between Irwin and Winter is like a chess match and this comparison is made in the film. It is interesting to see the exchanges between the two, but there is little compassion for Winter, and this hurts the film, as we never get a look into his motivations and he is portrayed as a cruel and controlling individual who feels power in causing others pain and humiliation.
Rod Lurie who wrote and directed last year’s political drama “The Contender” to much acclaim directed the film. The film had a slow pace and Redford plays Irwin in a leisurely manner as he calmly and methodically works his character up to the grand finale of the film, never losing his cool or his site of the objective.
While the pacing of the film and some plot points could have used some strengthening, the film is an interesting character drama and an entertaining film, that if given some depth, could have been a classic in the lines of Redford’s early works such as “Brubaker”.
While not a classic, “The Last Castle” is an entertaining vehicle for one of Hollywood’s enduring legends.
3 stars out of 5.