The Hidden Fortress [50 Films Older Than Me #10]

Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #10.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Hidden Fortress

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Release Year:  1958 (12 years before I was born)

What it is about:  In the 16th century, opportunistic peasants Tahei and Matashichi escape from a war and wind up in the company of a famed Samurai general, Rotorota Makabe, who is attempting to transport a disguised Princess Yuki and her supply of gold to safety. The group has many difficulties including a fight with a rival general, Hyoe Tadokoro. The peasants escape but the princess, the general, and another party member are captured–but General Tadokoro defects and helps to set them free. The gold is recovered with the help of the peasants, and Princess Yuki eventually reaches safety.

Starring Toshiro Mifune as General Rokurota Makabe, Minoru Chiaki as Tahei, Kamatari Fujiwara as Matashichi, Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki, Toshiko Higuchi as a prostitute who the group rescues, who becomes loyal to the Princess, and Susumu Fujita as General Hyoe Tadokoro.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew this was a Kurosawa film and was pretty sure it was a samurai movie. I think I was vaguely aware that the movie had helped inspire Star Wars in some way…I think I supposed that the “hidden fortress” of the title was going to parallel the Death Star in some way.

Reality: Well, the “Hidden Fortress” of the title doesn’t parallel the Death Star at all. If anything, it might play the same role as the rebel base on Hoth at the start of The Empire Strikes Back. But there are many other parts of the film whose influence on the Star Wars saga a lot more obvious.

Most clear (and most well documented) is the two peasants at the start of the film–the first third of the movie or so focuses on Tahei and Mataschichi, and through their efforts to survive reveals some of the details of the conflict that rages across the countryside.

The two peasants are a fair bit like R2-D2 and C-3PO, but only if both droids were C-3PO, and if C-3PO was the worst. Tahei and Mataschichi are funny and engaging, but there is not a hint of heroism or selflessness between them. Like the Star Wars droids, they find themselves caught up in an effort to move a princess and a valuable treasure from the grip of the enemy to safer territory. Most of this time they spend complaining about their hardships and scheming about how to turn things to their advantage, both financially and with the fetching young lady they find themselves traveling with (not knowing that she is a princess).

George Lucas also seems to have drawn upon this Hidden Fortress dynamic when he crafted Star Wars Episode One, as the fearless General Makabe certainly brought to mind images of Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, especially as he travels through a rural environment with disguised royalty and comic relief characters who sometimes display Jar Jar Binks-levels of stupidity. More recently, at least one episode of the recent Star Wars Visions (the last one, Akahiri) drew even more obviously from these characters for much of its story.

But Hidden Fortress is not just interesting as a well for Star Wars to draw from–it’s solid action-adventure tale with some sharply defined characters and a number of impressively staged sequences. About a third of the way in, the focus of the storytelling transitions from the peasants to General Makabe and the fiercely independent Princess Yuki that he is charged with transporting. She must pretend to be mute to disguise her identity, but even with her limited dialogue, Misa Uehara imbues the character with tremendous strength and presence–she really owns the screen whenever she is there.

And Toshiro Mifune is also a commanding figure, especially when he’s standing silhouetted against the sky, inspiring awe in everyone who sees him.

Maybe a little surprisingly for its subject matter, The Hidden Fortress is not a particularly action-heavy film, but when it does go that direction it’s quite impressive. There is a standout sequence in the middle when Makabe chases two horsemen who have seen them to prevent them from raising the alarm. He manages to kill them both, but only a moment before inadvertently riding into the enemy camp and facing his old nemesis, General Tadokoro. The two warriors then face each other in an honor duel with spears that is one of the best fight scenes I’ve seen in film–though my eye is fully untrained in this or any other sort of combat.

There is a patience demonstrated in this combat sequence which is rare in equivalent American scenes–the two men stalk around each other for quite some time before any blows are exchanged, which just means that when they do they are all the more gripping.

The Hidden Fortress also features, of all things, something akin to a large musical number as the characters find themselves in the midst of a local wood-burning festival. It is Princess Yuki’s deep respect for the sentiments being expressed here that eventually help to turn General Tadokoro to her side. To my surprise, the defecting general ends up surviving the story, as does a prostitute that the Princess liberates halfway through the story–these are the sorts of the characters I’d have figured would be used as easy cannon-fodder to elevate the tension.

Instead the movie treats them with the same respect as the leads, and in so doing trades cheap thrills for genuine character drama, delivering a legitimately upbeat and uplifting story.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I am woefully unfamiliar with Akira Kurosawa’s work (having only watched The Seven Samurai before this, and a long time ago). This movie was a strong re-introduction. Though a little slow to begin with, it remains engaging thanks to the fascinating visual and cultural journey which it offers. The movie eventually becomes deeply immersive and emotionally satisfying, dealing as it does with questions of honor, respect and courage, in spite of the comical depravity of two of its main characters.

See here for the Master List.

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