The Hidden Fortress

Princess Yuki and General Makabe


The Hidden Fortress is a film by Akira Kurosawa and just that fact alone – “a film by Akira Kurosawa” – is enough to get it bracketed as an arthouse movie. Which is entirely ridiculous if you watch it, because there’s nothing difficult or abstruse going on here, no philosophical musing, no challenging style experiments to overcome or difficulties over character, plot or chronology.

It’s an out and out Saturday evening adventure movie with action, comedy, a pretty girl and a strapping hero. It’s that aspect of it, its entertainment value, that first attracted George Lucas to it when he was first scoping out his first Star Wars film. Great though Star Wars is, an arthouse movie it is not.

There are other similarities with Lucas’s film, though the whole “it’s based on The Hidden Fortress” argument takes things too far. This is a quest movie, there is an endangered princess and in its lead characters, venal, cowardly peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) there are obvious templates for joined-at-the-hip robots R2D2 and C3PO. Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) is also an obvious role model for Princess Leia – feisty, brave, combat-ready and also struggling against enemy forces who would extinguish her blood line and with it the hopes of a lot of innocent people.

John Williams clearly listened to Masaru Satô’s soundtrack, though not as closely as Ennio Morricone did with Satô’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo when he was scoring Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful of Dollars.

But… no Darth Vader, no Luke Skywalker, no Han Solo, or anyone who might fit that bill. Instead there is Toshirô Mifune as legendary General Makabe. You could argue that Makabe is a composite: Obi Wan’s wisdom, Han Solo’s charm and swagger, but that is to put the cart before the horse. Getting our chronologies in the right order, Mifune is obviously modelled on Douglas Fairbanks, down to the fists-on-hips stance and the head thrown back in uproarious laughter.

For full enjoyment it’s actually best to leave the Star Wars comparisons to one side once those obvious borrowings have been taken into account, and follow Tahei, Matashichi, Princess Yuki and General Makabe on a grand adventure to spirit the princess and a hoard of gold across enemy lines, the first two doing it for the money, the second two for more noble reasons.

Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki
Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki



Kurosawa is a master of action. His crowd scenes are brilliantly choreographed (watch an entire platoon of soldiers flinch as one) and he’s also a dab hand at the action set piece – spears and samurai swords might not be light sabres but isn’t the way they are wielded incredibly familiar? Sorry, I’m comparing again.

Everyone overacts, which is to say they bark their (post-dubbed) lines, strike fierce poses and roll their eyes in the theatrical Japanese style whenever possible. Once you’ve tuned in to the idea – overdoing it – it’s all great fun. Join in at home.

Mifune was Kurosawa’s favourite actor and you can see why here. He exudes manliness, charm and natural authority and he’s the sort of person who can jump onto a horse and gallop off, samurai sword aloft, motionlessly ready to strike while the horse thunders away beneath.

Some of the Japanese notions of martial honour – we’re only alive when we fight and it’s better to die than to be allowed to live after losing – don’t quite map to the current zeitgeist, but on the whole this is a remarkably familiar sort of film, with incident, jeopardy, comedy and action all crowding in on each other like something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Enjoy with pizza and a beer in other words. As for the subtitles – given that you’re reading these words they shouldn’t be too taxing.

PS: a word about the Criterion 2K restoration I watched. It’s spectacular. Not only is the image sharp and the monochrome shades incredibly nuanced, but it’s been resubtitled, and brilliantly, in a way that’s both up to date but unobtrusive. No one ever said “Get out of here,” in 1958 to mean “I don’t believe you,” but they do here. It fits the whole knockabout ethos perfectly.




The Hidden Fortress – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Star Wars

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 March

 

President Reagan proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative,

On this day in 1983, President Reagan announced a change in the country’s defence policy. Hitherto relying on a launch-on-warning (aka fail-deadly) response to attack – Mutual Assured Destruction – the US switched to a stated position of defending the country, not attacking an enemy: the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since the previous strategy had relied on a superabundance of ballistic nuclear weapons, the idea being that even if only a small percentage got through, the damage to the other side (the Soviet Union, generally) would be so great that nobody would even countenance a nuclear war, the new one needed something conceptually equally awesome. What was proposed was an umbrella of defence over the whole country, provided by tactical weapons able to bring down any incoming missile before it found its target. To achieve this the US proposed stationing some of its defence systems in space, hence the nickname Star Wars. Whether the initiative was truly part of a switch from quasi-offensive MAD to the defensive is moot – critics suggest that putting missiles in space, defensive or otherwise, just moves the arms race into space. Either way the announcement was largely a publicity exercise – no SDI system has ever been put into operation, nor do scientists believe one is yet possible, though the injection of government money into strategic weapons shield research has undoubtedly given the US an edge in the realm of advanced missile defence systems.

 

 

 

Star Wars (1977, dir: George Lucas)

A long time ago in a culture far far way, the progressive 1960s yielded to the conservatism of the 1970s. This change expressed itself in a variety of ways. In music it was punk – an effort to re-assert the diminishing dominance of rock’n’roll, which had ceased to evolve ten years earlier, and which now referenced only itself. In movies the focus went even further back in time, to the comforting good v evil space operas of the 1930s, Flash Gordon being a prime visual inspiration for George Lucas’s tale of a simple boy who discovers he is in fact the bearer of incredible gifts, gifts which will aid him in his forthcoming fight with the fount of all evil, somewhere up in space. If the story is elemental – it’s the same plot as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – that’s because Lucas was drawing on memes (eg angels falling to the dark side) going back to the Bible at least. Lucas had read Joseph Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which makes the claim that most myths from all epochs and geographical regions share the same basic “monomyth” structure (hero goes somewhere magical, wins a victory, returns with new powers). So Luke Skywalker’s is the Jesus story and the Buddha story too. Lucas adds elements from Kurosawa’s most successful film at the box office, samurai actioner The Hidden Fortress, a touch of Freudian psychology (Skywalker’s oedipal mother-love is transferred to his sister; the film is awash with father figures he has to struggle against), some camp robots at the comedic fringes, a shitload of special effects, and voila, in terms of business and film culture probably the most important film of the past 50 years.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that changed Hollywood
  • The film that re-asserted Hollywood, after a decade of auteur directors (Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Bogdanovich etc)
  • Darth Vader – all 12 minutes of him
  • Because Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is, when not fully in shot, wearing fluffy slippers

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Star Wars Trilogy – at Amazon