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The Hidden Fortress
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Misa Uehara, Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara in The Hidden Fortress.
Japanese: 隠し砦の三悪人  
Literally: Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress  
Year: 1958  
Director: Akira Kurosawa  
  Producer: Sanezumi Fujimoto, Akira Kurosawa
  Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima
  Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fijita, Misa Uehara
  The Skinny: Ever hear of a little film called Star Wars? Well, here's where filmmaker George Lucas got his inspiration. Thankfully, there's not a hint of Jar Jar Binks in Kurosawa's fun-filled original.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

If the idea of an epic tale told through the eyes of two bumbling characters sounds familiar, it should. For some, the names C-3P0 and R2-D2—the robotic supporting characters that anchor the Star Wars trilogy—will come to mind immediately. However, Star Wars creator George Lucas has admitted that an earlier Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, served as the inspiration for his own phenomenally successful space opera. But even so, there's certainly more to The Hidden Fortress than just being the answer to a Star Wars trivia question.

The Hidden Fortress relates the time-honored tale of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. In this case, those people are Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), two peasant farmers who went off to war looking for fame and fortune only to find themselves penniless, alone, and on the run behind enemy lines. Along the way, the farmers meet a disguised general, Rokuruta Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). Unbeknownst to our two bickering protagonists, the general hopes to smuggle the beautiful, but defiant Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) across the border to a friendly clan, along with a stockpile of gold. Capitalizing on Tahei's and Matakishi's greed, Rokoruta tricks the two gold-diggers into carrying their precious cargo, cleverly hidden inside sticks of firewood.

The ragtag group encounters several seemingly impossible situations, and many life lessons are learned. The haughty, sheltered princess learns what the lives of her subjects are really like and vows to become a better ruler: "I have seen people as they really are, in all their beauty and their ugliness, with my own eyes. I thank you." Rokurata meets an old colleague who has sided with the enemy, and the two engage in a duel, the outcome of which figures heavily into the climax. But what about Tahei and Matakishi? Well, they squabble, complain, and try to outsmart the general, but ultimately, they don't learn a damn thing. But that's quite all right; they wouldn't be the born losers the audience comes to love if they actually progressed as human beings.

Though some might bristle at Ewok creator George Lucas "stealing" from an Asian filmmaker to fashion his own masterpiece, it's important to realize that Kurosawa himself was highly influenced by American films. The Hidden Fortress may very well be a rousing, highly entertaining jidai-geki picture, but it's also strongly reminiscent of American films, in particular some of John Ford's best Westerns. But no matter who influenced whom, the fact remains that The Hidden Fortress is a great film all on its own.

Though not meaning to belabor the films relationship with Star Wars (particularly after just putting it to rest), there is one scene that might provide ample fodder for such a discussion. At one point early in the film, Tahei and Matakishi go their separate ways (as C-3P0 and R2-D2 would do on Tatooine) only to find themselves captured by the enemy. The two meet by chance among a horde of prisoners, who soon turn against their captors in a scene of bloody revolt. What is remarkable about this sequence is that the hundreds of people fighting on the stronghold's staircase are real extras, not CGI-clones as we've grown accustomed to seeing in everything from Attack of the Clones to The Two Towers. Though such computer trickery is highly impressive and sometimes photo-realistic, there is nothing quite like seeing an armada of soldiers and prisoners engaged in mortal combat and KNOWING that those people are actually there duking it out.

But, while that sequence is a remarkable part of The Hidden Fortress, its importance to the film's success is quite small. It is not the massive battles or thrilling duels that win over the audience. Whether it is the comical antics of the farmers, the sardonic, self-assuredness of Toshiro Mifune's character, or the transformation of the Princess from spoiled brat to regal warrior, it is the The Hidden Fortress' ability to make you care about its characters that makes it a truly memorable film. Ultimately, it is the human element that matters most of all. Perhaps someone should have mentioned that to George Lucas before he started the prequels. (Calvin McMillin, 2003)

Notes: • Though the connection to Star Wars: A New Hope has been covered ad nauseum in critical treatises, The Hidden Fortress actually shares much more in common with the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. To wit, the film is about a young, strong willed royal (Queen Amidala) who must sneak away with an older, experienced warrior (Qui-Gon Jinn) across unfriendly territory (Tatooine) using a royal decoy on more than one occasion.
Awards: 1959 Berlin International Film Festival
• Silver Bear for Best Director (Akira Kurosawa)
1959 International Film Critics Prize
• Blue Ribbon Prize for Best Film of 1958
Availability: Region 1 NTSC
Japanese Language Track
Removable English Subtitles
George Lucas Interview
Theatrical Trailer

image courtesy of the Criterion Collection Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen