Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: The classic Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress.)

When people talk about the cinematic influences of Star Wars, the first movie that will come out of most mouths will be Flash Gordon. The second, though, is almost always Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress. This film tells the tale of Japanese peasants trying to escape a war between provinces and find themselves aiding a general and a princess on the run. Although there are lines and shots lifted straight out of The Hidden Fortress that made their way into A New Hope, legend grew about how influential it really was to the first Star Wars films. I find the more interesting parallels come out in the prequels. The film is undoubtedly one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, a breathless adventure film fused with heart and humor. It was also his first to be shot in an anamorphic format, ushering in an all new look for his films moving forward. And, although George Lucas undersells the influence on Star Wars, there’s no denying that its impact was indelible.

The Worm’s Eye View

If one were to sit down and watch The Hidden Fortress and A New Hope back to back (which I advise, it’s a delightful experience), there could be no argument that there are definite connections between the films. The most striking and obvious, though, might be the point of view characters. The Hidden Fortress begins with a pair of peasants, Tahei and Matashichi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who are trying to escape a war they have no part in. They’re the two lowliest characters in this universe and have the most problems in the world with the least power. The way they’re shot and the dialogue they have was lifted directly into A New Hope in the form of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio. In 2001, George Lucas sat down with the Criterion Collection to talk about this very thing:

“The one thing I was really intrigued by was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story…That was the strongest influence. The fact that there was a princess trying to get through enemy lines was more of a coincidence than anything else. In my film, the princess is more of a stand-and-fight kind of princess. In the beginning, in one of the first drafts, I did have a little bit more of her and a Jedi, an older Jedi, trying to escape, but then it evolved into the story of Luke.”

It’s true that earlier versions of the Star Wars script featured a Jedi Knight that was much more active and older in the story, more like Toshiro Mifune’s General Makabe in The Hidden Fortress. In fact, if you trace the lineage of drafts of the original Star Wars screenplay and treatments, you can see that each revision took less and less from Hidden Fortress, with the earliest versions bearing the most resemblance to the film.

Filmmaking Techniques

Even if George Lucas revised much of the influence of The Hidden Fortress out of the script for A New Hope, the look of the Kurosawa classic had an impact on the visual style of Star Wars. With The Hidden Fortress being a samurai film set in the past, one might be surprised to see that George Lucas took visual techniques right out of jidaigeki film and plopped them right into a galaxy far, far away. 

The first you’ll notice is how The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars share similar transitions. Shots will wipe from one to another and it will use the motion of the action in a frame to do it. These wipes have come to be associated with Star Wars, but they originated with Kurosawa. Because Kurosawa utilized the technique for a period film, it seemed like a logical choice for Lucas to use for his pseudo-period film.

You’ll also notice that there are times when George Lucas mirrored the lenses and movement of particular shots in order to create a kinetic energy in certain sequences. In The Hidden Fortress, there’s a sequence where General Makabe attacks on horseback, traveling at high speed down a path and taking out other samurai. With the long lenses used to shoot the sequence, Mifune’s character stays in focus, but the background behind him is a blur of motion. It makes him appear to move much faster than he probably was and that extra motion in the shot adds kinetic energy to each cut. Lucas borrowed this visual look for the trench run. Watching the two sequences side-by-side is actually quite stunning because of how similar they look. Not only because of the same technique, but the Death Star trench is essentially black and white, just like The Hidden Fortress and the effect is the same.

It’s always an interesting exercise to go back and find the sources of the visual vocabulary George Lucas learned and The Hidden Fortress is a key Rosetta stone.

A Handmaiden’s Tale

Lucas wouldn’t forget about The Hidden Fortress as he set his sights on other films in the Star Wars saga. One can find small visual flourishes here and there, one of the most striking being the shot of Obi-Wan Kenobi standing on the ramp of Padme’s ship, looking down at Anakin before their fateful battle on Mustafar. It’s framed and staged identically to a shot of Toshiro Mifune in the early parts of The Hidden Fortress. 

Perhaps the Star Wars film that embodies The Hidden Fortress the most, though, is The Phantom Menace. When you compare the premise of the two movies, the resemblance is much more striking than with A New Hope. A wisened general (Mifune and Liam Neeson) works to escape enemy territory in order to get a young princess (Misa Uehara and Natalie Portman) to safety so that she might save her people. Along the way, there are characters and situations that become reminiscent of The Hidden Fortress, but the most direct influence would be in the use and sacrifice of handmaidens.

This use of handmaidens as doubles that is prevalent on the surface of The Hidden Fortress is echoed in The Phantom Menace with the use of Sabe’s character (Keira Knightly) and the sacrifice of Princess Yuki’s handmaiden is repeated in Attack of the Clones with Corde. 

Although Padme is a “stand-and-fight” queen as much as her daughter was as a princess, the story flourishes match between the prequels and The Hidden Fortress are undeniable.

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress might be the perfect Kurosawa film to start someone down the road of Japanese cinema. With its western style of storytelling lifted from John Ford, breathtaking action, serious drama, hilarious comedy, and breathtaking pace, it’s an easy film to enjoy, even if you’re not the sort who watches a lot of films like this.

The Hidden Fortress currently available through the Criterion Collection and available to stream on their channel. If you haven’t seen this film already, now is the time.

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