The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Kurosawa was setting out to make a pure adventure film when he made The Hidden Fortress. Two frightened peasants, fleeing the death and destruction of the civil wars in 16th century Japan are captured and forced into slavery. Making their escape, they hear of a reward for the capture of a fugitive princess and soon thereafter they find a fortune in gold, hidden inside kindling wood. This gold is the treasure of the very same Princess Yuki being hunted and is needed to rebuild her army, now in retreat.
Perhaps predictably by this point, the peasants are thrown together with the princess and her protector, General Makabe. Motivated by greed and fear (of the general, primarily) and in no small part the general’s deceptions, the peasants assist the princess and the general in getting themselves and the gold to friendly territory, having great adventures along the way, all the while scheming against and attempting to betray one another.
Interestingly, the Japanese title for this film translates to “Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress.” While the two peasants are certainly portrayed as greedy and cowardly, why would Kurosawa group the seemingly heroic general in with them as being bad? Perhaps it is for his treatment of the peasants, but more likely it is for how he puts all other concerns as secondary to his goal, including protecting the lives of his fellow travelers (aside from the princess).
Kurosawa’s approach to telling this story is at once very typical and very innovative. He successfully creates a new perspective on an old familiar scene, and this is what makes The Hidden Fortress the classic it is within its genre. Kurosawa breaks the mold of typical jidai-geki adventure films by telling this story through the eyes of the two comical peasants, and this device works well for him.
It is perhaps a bit disappointing, although ultimately probably more realistic, that the two peasants, through whom the story is told, are in the end little better off than they were at the beginning of the film. Ultimately, though, while they have gained much less than they once hoped, they have at least learned to share without greed interfering.
The Hidden Fortress was filmed on location in the area around Mount Fuji, lending the film an epic, if often stark feel.
No discussion of The Hidden Fortress would be complete without mention of George Lucas’s Star Wars films. Lucas had openly credited The Hidden Fortress with being the inspiration for the narrative of the first Star Wars film, and by extension, the entire Star Wars phenomenon. Specifically Lucas cites the use of two comical characters that are apparently negligible and peripheral to tell the central story. The two peasants become R2-D2 and C-3PO in Lucas’s version, though Lucas insists that both films featuring a princess on the run is a coincidence.
The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa’s last film under contract with Toho Studios. On all future projects through Red Beard Toho and Kurosawa’s newly formed company split production costs, with increased profits for Kurosawa, while Toho continued to act as a distributor of the completed films. — Dan Tinianow
This article was originally published on 17 October 2010.