Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - The Hidden Fortress

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly blog where I watch one of the movies I own and rant about it.  Today, something a little different.  I'm looking at the 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.  This is dated in my notes at April 5, 2014. 

A few weeks ago, I noticed the classic 1958 samurai film The Hidden Fortress had finally been released on Blu-Ray, in one of those coveted, yet pricey, Criterion editions.  I hummed and hawed for about a week, before finally deciding to bite the bullet and buy it.  It's a movie I'd been curious to see for quite some time

"Of course," you're probably thinking to yourself.  "Lover of fine cinema that you are, Mark, you no doubt wanted to see it because it is regarded as one of Akira Kurosawa's finest films, and Kurosawa is regarded as one of the finest directors."

Nope.  That's not it.

"Then it must be because it's a much-beloved samurai film.  Oh, Mark, you wacky otaku, you must have developed a soft spot for samurai films during your time in Japan." 

That's not it, either.

I wanted to see it because of Star Wars.

George Lucas has long acknowledged The Hidden Fortress as being his primary inspiration for the plot of Star Wars.  I once read an interview with Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz in which he revealed that early drafts of Star Wars' script were so similar to The Hidden Fortress that they considered buying the remake rights to avoid any potential lawsuits.  The Hidden Fortress was once dismissed as just a silly action film, nowhere near as good as Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, until Lucas revealed it's influence on Star Wars, leading critics to re-examine it.  In fact, an interview with George Lucas about The Hidden Fortress's influence on Star Wars, and in fact, Kurosawa's whole filmography has influenced his work, is a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray.

The film opens with two destitute drifters:  Tahei and Matashichi.  And these two represent the #1 thing that Lucas took from this film and applied to Star Wars:  they are R2-D2 and C-3P0.  There's a big one and a little one.  They bicker a lot.  One, like 3P0, complains about their lot in life quite a bit.  Lucas said that these two, and how the story is told from their point of view ("the two lowliest characters," as Lucas put it), is the biggest thing he stole from this film for Star Wars.  

Anyway.  Tahei and Matashichi.  Two peasants who figured that selling their homes for weapons and heading off to join the war effort were quick paths to fortune and glory.  However, they showed up late to the war, got lumped in with the losing side, and got put to work burying the dead.  The film opens, they've just escaped from their captors, and they're just trying to get home.  On the road, the war catches up with them, as a samurai is hunted down and killed before them by the villains.  They stand there by the body for a while, debating whether to loot it or not.  One decides to, the other decides not to, and this difference in morals causes them to go their separate ways.

Again, this was put straight into Star Wars.  Our characters are making their way across rocky terrain (Tatooine), they get into a fight about looting a corpse or not (just bickering about which way to go), which causes them to part company.  But they are soon both captured by enemy soldiers (the Jawas) and reunited in prison (the Sandcrawler). 

They escape their captors once again, and soon the main plot is set in motion.  Around their campfire, they discover a piece of gold hidden in the firewood.  They scavenge for more gold, which soon brings them to a strong and powerful man, claiming to be the great samurai General Rokurata.  Our two peasants don't believe him, but it turns out that he is Rokurata, and he is charged with protecting Princess Yuki, the last remaining member of the royal family of this fallen kingdom.  Rokurata and Yuki have been living in hiding, but their path is clear:  they need to smuggle Princess Yuki and 200 pieces of gold -- the entirety of the royal treasury -- out of enemy territory and into a friendly one, where she can live in exile and begin rebuilding the kingdom.  Rokurata is able to manipulate Tahei and Matashichi into helping by preying on their lust for the gold.  And doubting Yuki's ability to pass for a commoner, Rokurata convinces her to act as a mute. 

And thus our road movie is set, as our quartet sets out across the land to get to friendly territory.  Tahei and Matashichi continue to bicker and occasionally plot to ditch the party and make off with the gold.  Yuki goes through a "Prince and the Pauper" type story arc as she sees the plight of the commoner and resolves to be a better person because of it.  And Rokurata leads the charge, using his wits and his warrior skills to keep his charges safe. 

Rokurata, as played by legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune.  This is the first time I've seen Mifune's works, and he can swashbuckle with the best of them.  There's this great scene where he charges after some rival soldiers to hunt them down, which is just a great action scene, ending in an epic duel with the soliders' general.  Again, this scene is really interesting.  Even though they're on opposing sides, these two legendary samurai generals regard each other as old friends, and treat each other as such.  Although, when this other samurai returns near the end of the film, scarred because of their duel and looking for vengeance, perhaps we get a pinch of the inspiration for Darth Vader. 

It also struck me at how funny it is.  Tahei and Matashichi make for a very funny duo as they bicker and scrap throughout their quest.  Whenever they reunite, it's always with a tearful "Let's never fight again!" only to disintegrate into more bickering. 

I will admit, I didn't have high hopes for the film.  I was expecting a very artsy foreign film.  But instead, I got a very fun and funny action film.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I'll have to watch it again, not that the "I wonder what went into Star Wars" filter has been turned off.

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