The Last Castle is a 2001 American action drama film directed by Rod Lurie, starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo and Delroy Lindo.
The film portrays a struggle between inmates and the warden of a military prison, based on the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth
Lieutenant General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) is brought to a maximum security military prison to begin a ten-year sentence for his decision (in violation of a presidential order) to send U.S. troops on a mission in Burundi, resulting in the deaths of eight soldiers. Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), the prison’s commandant, is a great admirer of the general, but is offended by a comment he overhears: Irwin criticizes Winter’s much-prized military artifacts collection, calling it something no actual battlefield veteran would ever have.
Winter, who has never seen combat, resents the remark. He then takes exception to what he perceives as Irwin’s attempt to change the attitudes of the prisoners, his admiration for Irwin fading fast. On one occasion, Irwin is punished harshly after stopping a guard from clubbing a prisoner, Corporal Ramon Aguilar (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who had made the mistake of saluting Irwin in the prison yard (a tenet of Winter’s methods for running the prison is that the prisoners are told “you are no longer soldiers” and prohibited from acting in any way like military servicemen).
Continuing to observe acts of cruelty, Irwin attempts to unify the prisoners by building a “castle wall” of stone and mortar at the facility, which in many ways resembles a medieval castle. Envying the respect Irwin is clearly receiving, Winter orders his guards to destroy the wall. Aguilar, directly involved in its construction, takes a stand before the bulldozer. Winter orders sadistic sharpshooter Cpl. Zamorro (David Alford) with a coded hand gesture to fire a normally non-lethal rubber bullet directly at Aguilar’s head, killing him.
After the wall is destroyed, Irwin and the inmates pay final respects to Aguilar in formation. Winter later tries to make amends with Irwin, who calls him a disgrace to the uniform and demands his resignation.
The prisoners begin to behave like soldiers around Irwin, using code words and gestures, infuriating the commandant. Winter reaches out to an anti-social prisoner named Yates (Mark Ruffalo), a former officer and Apache helicopter pilot convicted of running a drug-smuggling ring. Yates is bribed to inform about Irwin’s plans in exchange for a reduced sentence. He lets the commandant know that Irwin intends to take over the prison, then raise the flag upside down, a signal of distress.
Irwin organizes a plot to throw the prison into chaos. His intent is to show a friend, Brigadier General Wheeler (Delroy Lindo), the commandant’s superior officer, that the commandant is unfit and should be removed from command under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. During a visit, Winter receives a letter threatening the kidnapping of General Wheeler by the prisoners if he doesn’t resign. After ordering his men into action, Winter discovers that the scheme was a just a bluff. Irwin uses the event to gain intelligence on how the prison guards would react during an actual uprising. Wheeler, who has made it clear that he hates Winter and loves Irwin, nevertheless respects Winter’s angry argument that Wheeler has no idea what running a military prison is like; he snidely offers to transfer Irwin to another prison if Winter requests it, but Winter hisses that he has no interest in that resolution.
Yates discreetly steals a U.S. flag from the warden’s office during one of his visits and reveals he is on Irwin’s side; Winter orders all the prisoners to be outside in the yard in an attempt to prevent their plot, but this was part of their plan as well, and the riot commences.
Using improvised weapons, the prisoners capture an armored vehicle and the prison helicopter, which Yates uses to kill Zamorro. The prisoners place a call to Wheeler’s headquarters and inform him of the riot. Winter has little time to regain control before Wheeler will arrive to see the prison under siege, so orders the use of live ammunition against the prisoners.
Winter knows from Yates that Irwin’s ultimate goal is to raise the American flag upside down, a classic signal of distress. Irwin’s men create havoc, but ultimately are confronted by overwhelming numbers of guards armed with live ammunition. The colonel orders the men to lay down, but they refuse. He order them again, telling them that the sharpshooters that are in place above them will fire if they do not obey. Just before he gives the order, Irwin orders his fellow prisoners to lay down. The colonel then tells Irwin to give him back his flag, to which Irwin replies, “It’s not your flag.” Irwin then turns and begins walking toward the flagpole in order to raise the flag. The colonel, increasingly unsettled, tells Irwin, “You will not raise that flag upside down.” But Irwin continues to walk, while the colonel continues to order him not to raise the flag upside down. Seeing that he is having no effect on Irwin, the colonel orders the shooters to fire on Irwin, but they do not. He orders them again and again, trying to stop Irwin from raising the flag upside down. But after Winter’s men, including Captain Peretz, disobey his orders and refuse to kill Irwin, Winter fatally shoots Irwin in the back as he lifts the flag. As his life ebbs away, Irwin continues to raise the flag.
Peretz places the colonel under arrest for the shooting of Irwin. The prisoners, now standing again, begin to salute the flag. To his astonishment, Winter now sees that Irwin has actually raised the flag in the correct manner, which means that the colonel had shot Irwin for no good reason. The flag flies above the prison’s walls as General Wheeler arrives. Colonel Winter is led away in handcuffs. The inmates build a new wall as memorial to their fallen comrades. Aguilar and Irwin’s names are among those carved onto the castle’s wall.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Rod Lurie.
- Producer: Robert Lawrence.
- Writer: David Scampa and Graham Yost.
- Music: Jerry Goldsmith and Tom Waits.
- Cinematography: Shelly Johnson.
- Editors: Michael Lawrence and Kevin Stitt.
- Production: Robert Lawrence Productions.
- Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures.
- Release Date: 19 October 2001 (US).
- Running Time: 132 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.