While recording our most recent podcast, I got into an argument with my co-host about Kurosawa’s films. He said they’re unwatchable, I said they were great. The Hidden Fortress (1958) is not great. Hidden Fortress really is almost unwatchable; a disjointed, overlong piece that seems far more old-fashioned than either the hyper-stylised Throne of Blood or the very modern Seven Samurai – I’m surprised it has high critical praise, but I’m not surprised it’s being compared to even older adventure movies like Gunga Din (1939) and Thief of Baghdad (1924).
I was looking forward to this one in particular as it’s said to be a significant influence on George Lucas in the making of Star Wars, and I did joke as it started, that it would be funny if Lucas managed to pick the worst Kurosawa film to rip off. However, it’s actually quite hard to see the connection unless you really, really squint. The two spectacularly pathetic peasants are a little bit C3-P0 and R2, but that’s about it (and Lucas does acknowledge this is where he got the idea for them, of showing the story from the perspective of its lowliest characters). I actually thought the scene in Seven Samurai where Kyuzo (the hypercompetent samurai) is introduced with a duel was likely to be an influence on the way Lucas shot and staged the lightsaber fights: really slow, with a single killing blow, like Vader and Obi-Wan in Star Wars. I figured that if Hidden Fortress was supposed to be the source of his inspiration, it’d be full of that sort of stuff, but if anything it feels more like Indiana Jones (and not the good one one, I’m talking Temple of Doom here).
Apparently – by which I mean, according to Wikipedia – the original script for Star Wars more closely resembled Hidden Fortress, and that got reused in The Phantom Menace. That makes sense. Collecting a princess from a defeated territory and escorting her in secret to safety, using a retainer as a decoy for the princess, some bumbling comic relief – it feels like a lot of that can be traced back to Hidden Fortress.
There are some good bits. There’s a sequence near the start where some POWs revolt and storm down a staircase under tanegashima fire that’s pretty epic now, so must have been mind-blowing in 1958. A yari duel halfway through is pretty cool, too. This is also the first movie Kurosawa shot in Tohoscope, so it’s widescreen, and the picture quality on the transfer is way, way better than the last couple of films in the BFI’s Samurai Collection. Unlike the other movies from it that I’ve watched so far though, I think I’d struggle to recommend this, even as a curiosity. While I genuinely enjoy tracking down older films and other influences that are behind things I already enjoy, the apparent lack of connection between Hidden Fortress and Star Wars somewhat undermines my interest.
Still, he’s 2 for 3 so far, and that’s fine. Ridley Scott has his Prometheus, Christopher Nolan his Dark Knight Rises. Not every film from even the best directors has to be a hit.
The Hidden Fortress / 隠し砦の三悪人 (Kakushi toride no san akunin)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Japanese Release Date: 28th December 1958
Version Watched: The 2014 BFI Blu-Ray, Akira Kurosawa: Samurai Collection, 139 min