Release Date(s)2001 (May 25, 2021)
Studio(s)DreamWorks Pictures (Paramount Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
In the first few minutes of The Last Castle, director Rod Lurie cheekily shows Col. Winter (James Gandolfini) listening to Salieri—on vinyl, no less, which is a nice touch. It’s a brief moment which is easy to miss, but it quickly limns the nature of the story. For all its military trappings, this is a retelling of Amadeus: a man with limited skills of his own becomes destructively jealous of a truly gifted individual. The actual narrative involves a legendary general named Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) who is court martialed and sent to a maximum-security military prison run by Col. Winter. Winter deeply admires Irwin, but because of his own insecurities due to lack of combat experience, he feels the need to exert his authority over Irwin and the rest of the prisoners. Irwin simply wants to do his time and leave, but as he becomes aware of the sadistic treatment of the prisoners by Winter, his own natural leadership skills result in the prisoners becoming organized and forming a resistance. Winter’s initial feelings of inadequacy may be due to his inexperience, but as the film progresses, he becomes insanely jealous of the loyalty commanded by men like Irwin. While The Last Castle bears a superficial resemblance to other military films (and even has a touch of Brubaker to it), it’s ultimately the story of Salieri attempting to destroy Mozart.
The Last Castle marked the first time that Lurie directed a film that he didn’t write. In this case, the screenplay was by David Scarpa and Graham Yost, working from a story by Scarpa. That story changed significantly after Redford was cast as Irwin. In the earlier drafts, the roles end up being reversed by the end of the film, with Winter becoming sympathetic and Irwin proving to be tyrannical. While it would be fair to criticize the changes in the final draft as appealing to Redford’s vanity, the film is more thematically coherent with Irwin as the hero and Winter as the villain. Besides, the characters as presented in the finished film play to the strengths of each of the lead actors. Redford is superb as Irwin, and the part takes advantage of the natural nobility that he can evoke wordlessly—one silent closeup of Redford’s stoic face is worth pages of dialogue. Similarly, while Gandolfini was wonderful playing against type in films like Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, he was almost too perfect for a character like Winter. The rest of the cast is excellent, with Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo, Paul Calderon, Clifton Collins Jr., and others filling out their roles capably.
The film was a box office failure, but that was at least partly due to it being a victim of bad timing when it was released on October 19, 2001. The original poster design featured an upside-down American flag, and while that was changed after the events of 9/11, this was not the kind of film that audiences wanted to see just five weeks after the towers came down, with Americans still on edge and fearing for the worst. (Unfortunately for Lurie, this wouldn’t be the last of his films to fall victim to external events, with the release of his 2020 film The Outpost being hindered by theatrical closures due to the pandemic.) Regardless of box office, The Last Castle is a memorable film which deserved a better fate than it received.
The Last Castle was shot on 35 mm film by cinematographer Shelly Johnson using Panavision cameras and lenses, and framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. Paramount didn’t give any information regarding the transfer for this new Blu-ray release, but it’s a good one. Everything is clean with few signs of damage, yet the fine detail and grain is still intact, so there hasn’t been any aggressive DNR application. Johnson used a diffusion filter for certain shots which do look softer, but that’s inherent to the original cinematography. The contrast is good with solid black levels, though a few of the brightest areas of the screen can look a little blown out. The colors accurately reflect the stylized intent of Lurie and Johnson. The scenes of Winter in his office appear well-saturated while the scenes in the prison yard appear more desaturated, though that balance deliberately shifts as the story progresses.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio; German, French, and Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital; and English descriptive audio. The surrounds are used subtly to provide ambience for the prison environment, and aggressively during the action scenes. There’s some deep bass in the music, especially in the track at the opening of the film. But it’s the music by Jerry Goldsmith which really stands out—The Last Castle would prove to be one of his final scores, and he had lost none of his touch. Subtitles options include English, English SDH, German, French, and Japanese. The disc also includes the following subtitle options for Rod Lurie’s audio commentary track: English, German, French, and Japanese.
Special features include the following, all are in HD (though the last three are upscaled from SD):
- Audio Commentary by Rod Lurie
- Rod Lurie on The Last Castle (10:35)
- A Hero's Farewell: A Discussion on the Alternate Ending (2:45)
- HBO First Look: Inside the Walls of The Last Castle (15:01)
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary (14:26)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:24)
The commentary track was recorded shortly after the film’s theatrical release, and it was originally offered on the DVD. Director Rod Lurie discusses the script, the cast, and the Mozart vs. Salieri parallels, and the nature of leadership—though interestingly, he never mentions showing the Salieri LP. He also describes the cinematography, the locations, and how they transformed the prison which had been used previously in The Shawshank Redemption. He talks about Goldsmith's score and how the main cue was composed on 9/11 and ended up being named after that day. It’s a solid track, and Lurie is honest about things that he wishes he had done differently. In the Alternate Ending featurette, he describes why he decided to drop the coda from the film. The HBO First Look contains interviews with the cast and crew, but it’s too short to provide much detailed information. The Deleted Scenes can be played individually or as a group, with or without optional commentary by Lurie. In it, he second guesses himself again as to whether or not he should have left some of them in the film. Included inside the package is a paper insert with a Digital code as well.
The Last Castle is one of many Paramount titles which has been missing from Blu-ray for far too long, and it’s nice to see it finally get its due with a quality A/V presentation and a decent selection of extras. The film is arguably more relevant today than it was in 2000.
- Stephen Bjork
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