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-D2the robotic supporting characters that
anchor the Star Wars trilogywill 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,