The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress ★★★★½

At certain points in their careers, even cinema’s greatest auteurs have needed to cover their asses with a hit; it’s the nature of the beast, and even the most thoroughly housebroken of pets still needs to be fed. For Akira Kurosawa — a soft-hearted tyrant who lorded over his sets like an emperor, tamed the feral Toshirô Mifune into one of filmdom’s most nuanced stars, and remapped the possibilities of his medium with arthouse classics and rousing samurai epics alike — that wasn’t going to be a problem. At least not at the height of his powers.

Kurosawa had earned a tremendous amount of goodwill after the critical and commercial success of 1954’s “Seven Samurai,” and by 1958 he’d spent every last scrap of it. First there was “I Live in Fear,” a difficult (but worthwhile) melodrama in which Mifune played an elderly man so fraught with nuclear anxiety that he obliterates his own family. Kurosawa rebounded with the grim yet profitable “Macbeth” adaptation “Throne of Blood,” only to follow that with the most dire film he would ever make: A riff on Maxim Gorky’s miserablist play “The Lower Depths.”

Kurosawa knew that he was backing himself into a corner that he could only buy his way out of with box office receipts — he knew he would have to make something fun and exciting that would resonate with audiences the world over in much the same way as even the frothiest John Ford Westerns had resonated with him. “The Hidden Fortress” over-delivered on that front more than he ever could’ve imagined.

A self-described piece of “100% entertainment” that became the biggest hit of Kurosawa’s career to date, the fourth-highest-grossing film of its year in Japan, and later one of the most consecrated inspirations for a movie called “Star Wars,” “The Hidden Fortress” is typically remembered as a low-calorie snack or a historical footnote. And that’s if it’s remembered at all.

Even George Lucas, who rescued the film from oblivion (and leveraged his own success to support Kurosawa after the industry had turned on the aging master like a wild tiger), is reserved in his praise. He’s always been quick to credit “The Hidden Fortress” for informing the creation of R2-D2 and C-3PO, and for giving him the idea to introduce a galaxy far, far away through the eyes of its most innocuous characters, but that’s where it stops. Even when Lucas agreed to participate in a video interview for the Criterion Collection DVD of “A Hidden Fortress,” all he could muster was a monotone “it’s not at the very top of my list — but I liked it.” It’s no wonder that people tend to think of it as a minor work in the career of a major artist.

In the immortal words of Disney’s legal team: “Thanks for your input, George, but we’ll take things from here.” It’s time to annihilate that idea from the inside out; to reduce that reputation to smithereens like the evil Death Star that it is (in that critics seemingly need to destroy it all over again every few years). Not only does “Star Wars” owe the film a greater debt of gratitude than Lucas has ever given it, “The Hidden Fortress” is also a bracing adventure in its own right — not a frivolous outlier from one of cinema’s most formative oeuvres, but rather a Cervantes-inflected delight that complicates and enriches Kurosawa’s signature humanism by exploring the value of morality in an amoral world.