Old Ass Movies: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

By  · Published on August 22nd, 2010

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents a story of a General, a secret Princess, a farmer’s daughter and two peasants who are traveling through dangerous territory with enough gold to rebuild an empire. This is a simple tale, but it also gave birth to one of the largest pop cultural phenomenon’s in film history.

This is Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.

I don’t often get personal with this column. I’d rather have the film gain the spotlight while I stand picking at my nails offstage in the dark, hoping for a standing ovation for the filmmakers of years past. However, I chose this film specifically because of its personal connection.

My brother was perhaps the world’s biggest Star Wars fan. That’s a bold claim considering the host of passionate individuals vying for the title. There may be bigger collectors, people who dissect the film more than he did, and fans who can recite entire scripts by memory, but in my universe, Daryl was it. He was a young man obsessed.

He was born the same year the film hit theaters, and for some reason, this seemed like a fitting parallel. We joked around that he was the re-incarnation of Elvis (who passed in early ‘77), but a light saber and blaster always fit his belt better than a sequined guitar slung across his shoulder.

This of course led to Christmases filled with Wookies and VHS sets and plastic TIE fighters that would never make it out of the box. It led to endless discussions about what characters were the coolest (Yoda) and which movie was the best (Empire). It led to full months where he could wear a different Star Wars-themed t-shirt without wearing the same one twice (or doing laundry). There was a lot to my brother beyond the movie. He was a great listener, hated having his picture taken, supported just about every dumb idea I ever had, and got a degree in computer science – but the film was a touchstone of his character.

Daryl died on August 23, 2001 after a decade-long, protracted battle with Primary Pulmonary Hypertension. This was nine months before Attack of the Clones hit theaters and exactly nine years ago tomorrow. At the funeral, a eulogy which compared my brother’s sense of humor to Han’s, his strength to Chewbacca’s, his courage to Luke’s, and his wisdom to Yoda’s brought down the house.

As much as I’d love to write about Star Wars, I can’t (because it wasn’t made before 1960 as this column demands, and because I wouldn’t be able to write about it quite as well as Daryl would), but it’s better, I think, to point out the film that made Star Wars happen.

Perhaps a few of the rabid fans will discover the beauty of this cinema classic and gain a new appreciation of the Jedi-laden film series they love so much.

Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress has been noted by George Lucas as a major influence on what Star Wars: A New Hope would become, and it’s easy to see why. The story is about a General taking a Princess under his protection in order to deliver her to safety. Two bumbling, impoverished fools freshly escaped from the horror of battle come across the pair, and the General bribes them with gold in order to secure their help in crossing the dangerous enemy territory. Seeking her freedom, the rebellious Princess hopes to use the wealth left to rebuild an empire in order to take back her rightful land from the forces that have taken over.

This is one of the finest examples of Jidaigeki cinema there is, but it’s also one of the most disturbing. Kurosawa, not content to tell a sweet story of escape and safety, fills the screen with characters that should have their heads examined. Even considering the rough history of the time, the two focal point characters (the moronic Tahei and Matashichi) also threaten the General and discuss amongst each other which one should rape the Princess first. Like Ran, The Hidden Fortress is another heavy-breathing dive into the cold water of human interaction where the bonds are loose and mercurial.

The characterized homily here is stunning, but that’s only if you can get your jaw off the floor after the visuals drop it there. The true star of the film is Cinemascope. This was the first time Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki used the format, but the camera cuts through breathtaking landscapes like it’s being guided by old hands. Perhaps because those hands had 41 years of collective filmmaking experience by the time they got the new toy of Cinemascope. The new format is used with grand expertise, creating some truly incredible shots. That goes equally for the rambling forests and the intimate moments between the General and the Princess as they continue on an arduous journey.

What lies beneath the simplicity of that high concept story is a movement from naivete to brutish understanding. The peasants Tahei and Matashichi are the entry point for the audience, and the two display the rutting behavior of boars who are desperate for the next trove of food they’ll find. The world they live in is nasty, cruel and short so when they join forces with Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and General Makabe (the incomparable Toshiro Mifune), they do more to influence them than vice verse. The Princess is forced to hide her royal upbringing by remaining mute in front of others and dressing as a laborer. Of course, being on the run from enemy forces also prevents her from sitting down to any 12 course meals. In this mode, the shining example of fairy tale purity is transformed into a person who understands the dirt-covered nature of life below the crown. Kurosawa twists the framework of the fairy tale and exposes it for the fraud that it is.

Stunningly beautiful, filled with the intensity of characters a master like Kurosawa is known for, and filled with the crushing action and buckled swash that Toshiro Mifune is known for – The Hidden Fortress is a film that makes blood flow faster through the veins in a frantic attempt to get back to the safety of the heart.

It is no wonder that its power would have a striking effect on a young aspiring filmmaker who would one day deliver a space opera that introduced the world to an imprisoned Princess, a seasoned warrior bound to protect her, and two crass adventurers who help when they see the twinkle of coins in their eyes. If you’re a Star Wars fan who hasn’t yet discovered The Hidden Fortress you owe it to yourself to seek it out.

I have a feeling my brother would have loved it.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.