Release date: Dec. 5
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Prior Oscar winners: Ed Zwick (producer, “Shakespeare in Love”), Hans Zimmer (score, “The Lion King”), John Toll (cinematography, “Braveheart,” “Legends of the Fall”)

With its epic sweep, period trappings, political subtext and marquee lead, “The Last Samurai” fits all of the tenets traditionally associated with best picture contenders. This late-year entry into the kudo race could resonate among Acad members who like their pictures big, with all the money, as they say, up on the screen. And with the great majority of films nommed for picture released in December, Warners boasts a better-than-fair chance of gaining major nominations for more than one of its releases (the other being “Mystic River”).

Story concerns Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a veteran of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles — Antietam and Gettysburg — who becomes disillusioned with his role in the postwar Indian Campaigns taking place in the American West. A parallel story is told of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the so-called last leader of the ancient samurai, whose traditions are being encroached upon by a more Westernized, trade-friendly government. Algren is recruited by the young emperor of Japan to train Japan’s first modern army, and eventually becomes Katsumoto’s adversary before realizing that they’re fighting for the same ideals.

Advance buzz confirms the film’s wide-screen impact, with plenty of action and a straightforward narrative that clearly sides with the underdog, a la “Dances With Wolves.” Indeed, some have already dubbed it “Dances With Samurai.”

As exemplified by his Oscar-nominated turns in “Jerry Maguire” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” Cruise has proved very effective at playing men at war with their own conscience. This will be an opportunity to show the Academy he can carry an epic on his shoulders, not unlike Russell Crowe in “Gladiator.”

Director Ed Zwick has displayed a deft hand with wide-screen dramas about men of honor who step once more into the breach (“Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Courage Under Fire”). And two-time Oscar- winning d.p. John Toll has become a veritable visual poet of battle, having lensed “Legends,” “Braveheart” and “The Thin Red Line.”

Based on trailers, costume designer Ngila Dickson — “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — confirms her place in the upper echelon of movie artisans. And Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator,” “Thin Red Line”) has beome the composer of choice for this type of warrior epic.

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