Akira Kurosawa is one of the best directors of all-time not just for his exceptional camera work, but for making samurai films both unique and fun. No film is more true of this then ‘The Hidden Fortress’, an adventure in feudal Japan seen through the eyes of two bumbling soldiers. It adds an unparalleled level of comic relief to a tale of sword fights and brutal warfare.
Trapped behind enemy lines after a failed campaign, Tahei and Matashichi try to lay low and find a way out of enemy territory. On their journey, they stumble upon a secret base for what they do not realize is a fallen clan. Within the mountains hides samurai general Rokurota and princess Akizuki who offer the two greedy men gold for safe passage to safer land. Agreeing to the task, Tahei and Matashichi try to maintain their friendship over monetary gain while Rokurota fends off any enemies and Akizuki deals with her lack of power. The journey is made all the more difficult as they hide the gold they’re transferring within wooden sticks that even the local authorities are aware of. Not to mention there is actually a price on the princess’ head.
This is easily one of my favorite Kurosawa films for the perspectives of both the characters and the camera. Several of the shots in the film are grand in scale involving hundreds of extras. One of the best scenes involves a massive wave of slaves rushing down a steep flight of stairs as guards attempt to fire on them before being rushed. The most memorable, however, is a pike duel Rokurota accepts with an old military buddy in a circle of soldiers.
The two comical soldiers are usually the trickster characters saddled to supporting roles, but it’s infinitely entertaining to watch them take center stage. They don’t become the heroes per se and they don’t exactly mend their ways all that much either. It’s a refreshing change of pace to the usual hero tale. Rokurota is best suited for this role as he makes the tough decisions that guides his group across shady ground. Princess Akizuki, however, has the most interesting development as she attempts to handle her fall from grace while still trying to do good for others.
It’s easy enough to see how this film was a large inspiration for ‘Star Wars’. The characters of C3Po and R2-D2 were clearly inspired by Tahei and Matashichi. I shouldn’t even have to mention who the samurai general and princess were inspired to create for George Lucas’ sci-fi epic. I cannot get enough of this movie as it just gets better every time I watch it. The film manages to mix perfect cinematography with an exceptional level of fun and cool. I still prefer ‘The Seven Samurai’ and ‘Yojimbo’ as the definitive samurai films of the genre, but ‘The Hidden Fortress’ is a close third simply for how much it redefined the architecture and looked good while doing it.