Warning: Contains plot spoilers.
In The Last Castle (2001), the famed war hero Lieutenant General Eugene Irwin has been sentenced to ten years in military prison for disobeying a presidential order and causing the deaths of soldiers in a mission in Burundi.
The prison’s warden, Colonel Winter, starts off admiring Irwin, but his opinion changes when Irwin criticizes Winter’s military artifact collection as something gathered by “a man who’s never set foot on a battlefield.”
At the beginning of the film, Irwin simply aims to do his time in prison and go home. When the other prisoners try to tell him that Colonel Winter is abusing his power—hoping to persuade him to use his influence to get Winter fired—he shrugs them off.
Gradually, though, he sees that Winter is indeed acting maliciously—exerting control, manipulating the prisoners, and even injuring or killing them when he sees fit. Irwin begins to plot an insurgency with the other prisoners. They aim to take over the “castle,” so that Winter will be forced out of power.
The object level plot of The Last Castle concerns Winter’s military prison and Irwin’s efforts to remove Winter. But the heart of the film is about a war between perspectives: seeing the worst in people, or choosing to see the best in them.
Winter describes his prisoners as “animals.” He describes one, Aguilar, as a “stuttering monkey.” He sees them as subhuman, violent, irredeemable.
He confides in Irwin that when he is “filled with doubt, whenever sentiment creeps in, I just have to open an inmate’s file and see what he’s done. I see what he’s capable of. I see the worst in him. And that makes my job easier. It crystallizes my mission.”
Winter justifies his methods by their “success.” His predecessor’s final years saw numerous escape attempts, injuries, assaults on officers, and one officer killed. His own reign has had had “zero escape attempts, zero injury assaults, zero fatalities”—at least of his officers. Several prisoners have died, which military courts exonerated as accidental—but the prisoners know to be intentional.
Irwin, on the other hand, sees the best in people. He stops one of Winter’s guards from hitting Aguilar with a baton, saying “you’re better than this.”
This same sentiment applies to the prisoners. One character, Yates, serves as a pivotal character in the plot, and a mirror for Winter and Irwin’s diverging perspectives.
Yates’ father was a military hero. He served with Irwin, and alleged that Irwin kept him alive while they were both prisoners of war in Vietnam.
Yates’ father pressured him into joining the military, and got him into West Point. Yates served as a helicopter pilot. During that time, he ran a drug-smuggilng operation from Mexico to Texas. When he was caught, he wore a wire, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of his subordinates. That reduced his own sentence by four years.
Accordingly, Yates’ fellow inmates see him as a snitch, and distrust him. He acts as a bookie in the prison, keeping track of bets made with bundles of cigarettes. Before Irwin arrives, he takes bets on whether Irwin will kill himself or not. Some of the men view his willingness to bet and profit on such things with disgust.
When Irwin begins his plans to remove Winter, Winter turns to Yates to ask him to snitch for him again, with the promise that if Yates gives Winter good information about Irwin’s plans, he will reduce his sentence and free him within a week.
Irwin predicts that Winter will ask Yates to help him, and pleads Yates to help him instead:
The only thing that matters here is… what we are now and what we do now. This man is going to you because he sees the worst in you. He’s going to play for the worst. I want to see the best. That means there’s no middle. Now, these men need you. And I need you. Now, it’s your choice.”
The film keeps the viewer in suspense as to which decision Yates makes, but he is persuaded by Winter’s appeal to his better nature. Where his father, Winter, and fellow prisoners saw a weak man, an unscrupulous gambler and a snitch—Irwin gives Yates a chance to see himself as a good man, who does the right thing, setting aside his own interest for a greater good.
When Winter invites Yates to his office, they use a distraction—another prisoner storming the warden’s office—to give him a chance to steal the prison’s American flag. When the insurrection begins, the prisoners launch Yates into the prison helicopter 1This whole portion of the plot, enganging as it is, violently stretches the imagination. The prisoners deploy a trebuchet and molotov cocktails, dig into the prison’s water supply so as to turn off the source of the tank’s water gun, and hold back a prison SWAT team with metal shields made from the cafeteria dinner trays. Fridge logic isn’t the half of it.. Yates’ skills bring down the helicopter, the final obstacle to raising the flag upside down, which would constitute the official basis for Winter’s dismissal according to military guidelines.
As I see it, Yates is the main character of The Last Castle, set against the more prominent foreground of the toil between Irwin and Winter. He symbolizes our own tortured pasts. We all have a history. We have all made mistakes. We all have regrets. How will we hold ourselves? Will we dwell in the past, see the worst in ourselves, and act from there? Or will we see the glimpse of our better, higher selves, and act from there?
Irwin and Winter are then simply symbol of fundamental forces within our own soul, wrestling for control over our concept of self and our actions.
You can either consistently see the best in people, or consistently see the worst in them. You get to choose which you lean towards. Irwin chooses to see the best in people, and I do, too.
Striving to see the best in everyone isn’t always easy, but it is so beautiful and rewarding. I can unqualifiedly recommend it.
vow to see and bring out the best in all beings
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