The Last Castle


A three-star general pleads guilty in a court-martial and is sentenced to ten years at Leavenworth in The Last Castle, directed by Rod Lurie. The offense is to disobey orders and ignore intelligence by authorizing a foray in Burundi that results in the death of eight American soldiers. Colonel Winter (played by James Gandolfini), the prison commandant, greets General Irwin (played by Robert Redford) personally in his office on his first day of confinement, when Irwin says that he just wants to serve his time and get out. Although Winter initially asks Irwin to autograph a special book, he demurs when Irwin comments that the collection of memorabilia in his office means that he has never seen battle. But battle is indeed in store for Winter, who sadistically enjoys provoking racial conflict among the prisoners and giving out punishments way out of proportion to the offenses. In particular, Winter picks on Corporal Aguilar (played by Clifton Collins, Jr.), who is so impressed by the presence of General Irwin that he disobeys regulations and salutes him, for which the punishment is to maintain a salute for hours despite a heavy downpour of rain. Irwin, meanwhile, assesses the social and physical aspects of the prison the way a chessplayer analyzes a chessboard. As the film’s tagline says, “No castle can have two kings.” One of his first moves is to end the racial divisions by encouraging Caucasian prisoners to accept Aguilar’s masonry expertise in building a wall, and Aguilar carves his name in one of the blocks. However, Winter arranges to bulldoze the wall in order to destroy morale. Aguilar then places himself between the bulldozer and the wall, whereupon Winter orders him shot with a rubber bullet so placed that he is killed. Incensed by the mistreatment, Irwin then plans to take over the prison, citing grounds in the Unified Code of Military Justice. Meanwhile, Yates (played by Mark Ruffalo) appears not to want to go along with the plan, which is to conclude by raising the American flag upside down. Winter asks Yates to reveal the battle plan, and Yates discloses that the flag will be flown upside down. When the prison flag is missing one day, Winter orders a shakedown of all the prison cells, so the prisoners assemble together outside, just what Irwin expected. Thereafter, Molotov cocktails blow up some of the guard towers, a catapult hurls Aguilar’s block into the picture window of Winter’s office, the prisoners take over a water cannon, the prison’s helicopter is seized, but surprisingly the walls are not breached despite all the firepower. When Winter gives the order for all prisoners to lie on the ground, they refuse. When Irwin gives the same order, they obey. Irwin has indeed taken control of Leavenworth. The climax of the film then deals with how Winter deals with Irwin and whether the flag is flown upside down or rightside up. As an action film, The Last Castle is one of the best of the year. Careful reviewers will note, however, that Irwin ended racial conflict rather easily by providing leadership and a common goal, perhaps a lesson for other prisons where rehabilitation is no longer the goal and racial division is endemic. MH

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