Irwin: Take a look at a castle. Any castle. Now break down the key elements that make it a castle. They haven’t changed in a thousand years. 1: Location. A site on high ground that commands the territory as far as the eye can see. 2: Protection. Big walls, walls strong enough to withstand a frontal attack. 3: A garrison. Men who are trained and willing to kill. 4: A flag. You tell your men you are soldiers and that’s your flag. You tell them nobody takes our flag. And you raise that flag so it flies high where everyone can see it. Now you’ve got yourself a castle. The only difference between this castle and all the rest is that they were built to keep people out. This castle is built to keep people in.
In 2001 a film unceremoniously premiered, was ignored and almost immediately demoted to Walmart discount ancient DVD bin fodder. I regard it as one of the finest military films in cinematic history. This film was called ‘The Last Castle’. It starred Robert Redford, James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo. I loved this film more over the years as I could identify by personal experience the personality of each cast member who had even a single line of dialogue with Men I encountered while in the Marine Corps. I knew the fallen angel former infallible, the sadist, the affable killer, the innocent accused preserved to incarceration by cement of false facts and circumstantial evidence, the fool, the neutral follower, the barracks lawyer, the genius, the hard case, the neutral leader, chaos, victim, killer, killed, and the hero, all of them. I knew these Men, as well as I knew myself and wonder often what I was to…them.
Yates: My father was with you in Hanoi.
Irwin: What’s your name?
Irwin: Yates? Sam Yates?
Yates: That’s right.
Irwin: Good man.
Yates: Nah, he wasn’t.
Irwin: After 30 years everyone’s a good man. It’s the law.
The Last Castle depicts a glacial march clashed mash of castes primarily focused on the locked struggle of psychological and moral ascendancy amongst the inmates and the warden and is set within the brittle unforgiving confines of a military prison. The highly decorated and revered U.S. Army Lieutenant General Eugene Irwin, played by Redford, is court martialed and sentenced for insubordination of a standing Executive Order. Throughout the film he challenges the malicious prison commandant, Colonel Winter, played by Gandolfini. The film had a budged of $60 million and only grossed $27.6 million worldwide.
It is a complicated narrative and was met with mixed reviews. It is not a traditional action nor drama film. It is something else entirely, a brutal autopsy of the human condition. Do not pick a fight with someone who has less to lose than you do.
Let me preface this with antagonists often are not self-aware. In all of human history, very rarely if ever do bad guys believe they are bad guys. Colonel (Col) Winter, the warden, is obligated by duty to run the prison. He has very little ability for flexibility and he DOES attempt to afford Irwin civility and Gentlemanly respect upon their first meeting at reception/intake. Col Winter is disrespected, without cause, as Irwin, is in transition from 3-star commander to…INMATE.
Irwin: [while looking at Winter’s military collection] Any man with a collection like this is a man who’s never set foot on a battlefield. To him a minié ball from Shiloh is just an artifact. But to a combat vet, it’s a hunk of metal that caused some poor bastard a world of pain.
I’m referring to this exact comment posted above. Irwin had no reason to make such comment, which insults Winter, yet it was not intended to insult him, he was not present before it was made. It was made in front of Colonel Winter Aid. If you recall prior to Irwin’s arrival Col Winter is preparing himself to meet a man he respects greatly. Then Winter, knowing his role as warden is slighted, thus begins the seeding of resentment, however light the slight was, without pure intention. The importance of words, and meaning, directed or not, made may shape PERCEPTION.
Ultimately Irwin embodies the tragic hero, he is a warrior yet WAS neglectful to duty/orders, resulting in his incarceration. He channels empathy for the other inmates as he gets to become more familiar with him. His individual encounters slowly erode his own preconceptions of them prior to knowing them in such an acute experience. He was high brass, a man of integrity, he dismissed them once, yet not he sees them as people as he himself is nothing more than ONE of him. This stresses the point of Man’s exposed condition. When relieved of rank, prominence, and title, when everything you know is taken from you, when you are left with nothing but your body, what are you? He enters an arena with self, and self-identity.
Irwin: We can no long wear the uniform of the soldier. We forfeited that right and that includes me. I disobeyed an executive order, I violated my duty as a commanding officer. And eight men paid a catastrophic price. It’s a mistake not easy to live with. So here I am just like you, a convicted criminal. Only difference between you and me is, I know I’m guilty.
[the prisoners laugh]
Irwin: So we’re packed away here as prisoners. And one thing is certain, our captor have the power. They can humiliate us, they can beat us, they can lock us away in a dark hole for days on end. But there’s one thing they cannot do. They cannot take away from us, who we *are*. And we are soldiers! And it is the one thing, the ONE thing that gives us a chance in here. And that nobody can take away!
Yet we cannot be lazy and believe the adversarial tone is simply one of good and evil. The inmates have been convicted of serious crimes, some violent / lethal crimes, they are MORE than merely misunderstood former warriors. Irwin broke a law, not a life in half, yet he remains, as them, inmates. Winter is charged in maintaining them, this is his role and he himself as Commander is FAITHFUL to his duties in full compliance and if stripped of emotional analysis, a splendid commander who may be grimaced with far too heavy a hand if contested in debate yet overall he is in charge of a prison and it’s not light duty or weight of responsibility. Irwin believes still he owns the moral high ground and the conflict erupts with extreme…consequences.
Winter: See, I too share the burden of command. You may not think that I’ve ever set foot on a battlefield, but that’s because you’ve never sat behind this desk. This desk! My men and I are vastly outnumbered. We spend every day behind enemy lines because, make no mistake about it, Mr. Irwin, they are the enemy! But then, I don’t have to justify myself to YOU, do I, Mr. Irwin?
Irwin: I don’t know. Do you?
There exists a myriad of endless parallels to examine within the characters, they are both of them heroes and tyrants in their own right yet popular opinion may fall harder on Irwin’s side as he retains and exudes the stoic handsome hero. The knight against the dragon of bitter administration. Irwin is our champion yet when you apply further discriminatory inspection, he is nothing more than a man, who spent his life in saddle of purposed nobility yet recall the encounter between he and his daughter during his visit, she does not regard him. As she grew into a Woman, he was gone, she does not know him and nearly rejects him despite is extraordinary utility to the entire nation in which she resides.
Cpl. Ramon Aguilar: That was a salute.
Irwin: A sa… Oh, no.
Irwin: I don’t think so. You know where saluting comes from?
Cpl. Ramon Aguilar: No, sir.
Irwin: It comes from medieval times. Two knights would approach each other on horseback. They would raise their visors and show their faces. It’s like they’re saying, “This is who I am. I’m not the enemy and I’m not afraid.” A salute’s about respect, son. Respect for yourself, the service and the flag.
Irwin can be perceived rightfully from a neutral unbiased perspective as arrogant, overconfident, condescending yet victor based, yet THIS is EXACTLY what you want from a Combatant LEADER OF MEN. His role as a General / Warrior leader is fitting in a theater of war yet wholly inappropriate in any other setting, especially a domestic one. He is a Father to his Warriors yet a stranger to his own flesh and blood children, this is a Socratic Paradox.
Irwin: Colonel. I’m taking command of your prison.
Winter: Like hell you are!
Colonel Winter may be perceived rightfully as callous, tyrannical, sadistic, evil even, yet he, again my I remind you is a non-warrior administrator charged with the responsibility of keeping an army of trained killers and violent felons from SOCIETY thus in his own right he is a defender himself and faithful to his role as that of warden, which you must respect under all circumstances save those in which inmates suffer cruel and unusual punishment and pain to include death itself under his ward.
Winter: Do you see how easy it is to manipulate men?
Thus two characters, the two leading men are both heroes and villains, both wolves and the blades of grass they trot over during their hunt. They are both right, and wrong. The culmination of the film perhaps is utterly fitting for both men, Winter is relieved and is no longer placed in position of authority preventing a recapitulation of the bloodletting / carnage and Irwin completes his circuit by staffing one final noble & redemptive act of demonstrative selflessness in penitent lift of the colors that giveth and taketh away as his life waters are dammed by hearty rock of glorious self sacrifice.
Irwin: I’m not fighting anyone or anything, anymore.
Duty, like ricin is a unusual and terminally awesome end to a means of convicted living.