The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress ★★★★

Kurosawa already wowed me with 'Seven Samurai,' and while 'Hidden Fortress' doesn't measure up as well as that effort, it still fulfills its duty to entertain as well as be a great piece of film to study. Also for any fan of the 'Star Wars' films, this was apparently the prime inspiration for George Lucas when he wrote his screenplay for Episode IV.

Two peasants Tahei and Matashichi are wandering around after a brutal war between two enemy clans, the Yamana and the Akizuki, in ancient Japan. They find deposits of Akizuki gold, and unite with the defeated Akizuki general Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune) to transport it, and them, home. The general is also attempting to get their princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) to safety, but the terrain, enemy soliders, and the peasants greed constantly get in their way.

With the element of the peasants' lust for the gold a constant theme of the film, I'm reminded more heavily of 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre' than Star Wars, but that may be intentional since Kurosawa was a big fan of Hollywood westerns. The fact that this was his first film that he shot in widescreen is not at all apparent in the finished product. He comes off as very comfortable in this new format, and takes advantage of the new screen dimensions, showing off enemy samurai battles with both combatants staring each other down from opposite sides of the screen.

The movie takes the unique step of telling this grand adventure story from the perspective of two very non heroic characters, the greedy peasants. They may have justification for wanting some compensation for their hard work, but they spend most of their time onscreen complaining, conniving, and misleading the true heroes of the film, the general and the princess. Yet, they are endearing. Perhaps they remind the audience that anyone in their situation, if pressed with the decision, would probably be looking out for themselves rather than the good of the nation, too.

I love the memorability of the fights and locations, as well. The hidden fortress itself is tucked away behind a mountain with trenches, and is not far from a bubbling spring. The general is revealed with his silhouette against the sun atop the mountain, disapprovingly looking down upon the peasants as they first find the gold. The general also has a great spear fight with a rival general, to prove one's superiority in battle as well as their honor. Even in the festival of fire, where an entire village dances around a giant blaze while the peasants are desperate to keep their gold from being tossed into the inferno. Great stuff!

Not only is the film easy to watch in spite of its foreign language, it's fun, entertaining, and even funny with the complaining peasants, their frequent attempts to run away from the angry general, and the princess' mounting frustration of maintaining her disguise as a mute by not talking. It's not on as grand of a scale as a modern action blockbuster, most of the movie is just those four characters and their interactions with each other. If you want something with more explosions and less subtitles, you're going to be bored. Otherwise, it's a delight, and a treasure of cinema. Four stars.

Added to: Directors Ranked: Akira Kurosawa

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