The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Hidden Fortress

It would be hard not to be influenced by other movies if you work in the business in some capacity; actor, director, writer, whatever.  In 1977, George Lucas had a huge mega-hit on his hands with Star Wars and the subsequent Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, not to mention the three more recent prequels.  I'd read enough times that with the storyline of Star Wars Lucas was influenced by a Japanese film, 1958's The Hidden Fortress, and couldn't help but think that it was an odd choice for a science fiction movie.

The Japanese film is from director Akira Kurosawa and does have a storyline similar to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Co. trying to save Princess Leia from Darth Vader and the evil Empire...albeit in Japan of course without Jedis or Wookies (unfortunately).  It is an exciting movie that has a handful of main characters -- some more likable than others -- working together to save the life of one of their own.  There is also betrayal, a huge treasure of gold, and the ever present battle for honor and loyalty.

Returning home from a failed venture to make money in a war, two gravediggers, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), stumble upon two pieces of gold hidden in two pieces of wood.  They begin to look around for more of what they believe to be the Akizuki clan treasure.  But as they search, a man (Toshiro Mifune) appears, telling them he knows where the gold is and he'll split it with them.  It's all a test for the two gravediggers because the man is actually General Rokurota Makabe, and he's already mined all the gold, some 200 pieces.  Makabe needs help as he's been given the task of bringing Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the last surviving member of the Akizuki clan to safety.  The rival clans that wiped out her family want her dead too, offering a large reward of gold, making Makabe's already difficult mission even harder.

With a running time of 139 minutes, 'Fortress' covers a lot of ground.  It is almost 30 minutes before Mifune's Makabe is introduced and another 15-20 minutes before the real storyline of rescuing the Princess is laid out.  In that way, the movie is a road movie with the unique twist that it is in feudal Japan in the 1500s or so (the time period is never established for sure).  Besides the basic premise, there are scenes that clearly influenced Lucas in creating Star Wars although he clearly mainlined some of the plot and characters.  Yuki is obviously Leia, Makabe a mix between Luke and Han, and Tahei and Matakishi as R2-D2 and C-3PO with a devious streak right down their back.

Chiaki and Fujiwara are at the heart of the story as the characters first introduced.  They bicker like an old married couple, and if they didn't constantly talk about all the women they want, I would have been convinced they were gay.  At one point, they even pull straws to see who gets to "spend some alone time" with a sleeping Princess Yuki.  Clearly, they're not the most lovable characters, and they are pretty dimwitted to boot.  Not the most likable of characters -- and it seems odd that these would-be rapists are used as comic relief -- but they are interesting characters if nothing else.  The same goes for Uehara as Yuki, who comes across as high and mighty, condescending and basically a bitch on wheels.  Once again, interesting character but not easy to root for.

As when I reviewed Throne of Blood, the star of course is Mifune as the heroic General Makabe.  It is his duty to save the Princess, and he's going to get the job done no matter who he has to work with or what he has to do.  This is a more subdued part for the most famous of Japanese actors, and as much as I like verbose, theatrical Mifune, it's great to see him do a part like this.  He has to put up with the two idiotic gravediggers and a young woman who doesn't want to be saved even with her life at risk, but somehow Makabe keeps it all together.  Also, Mifune handles all his own stunts -- again -- including one amazing stunt where he's on horseback charging at full speed, sitting straight up in the saddle, holding a samurai sword above his head.  In other words, as badass as it gets.  This guy is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.

This was Kurosawa's first venture into widescreen filming, and the movie looks great because of it.  The director fills the screen in every shot whether it be a crowded city or a lonely hillside.  Kurosawa filmed at Mt. Fuji again and with all the different locations there is a real sense that over the course of the movie these characters are in fact moving long distances.  The finale too is pretty good as Makabe's ever-growing motley group tries a dangerous border crossing with a friend/rival (Susumu Fujita) deciding to join the effort.  Also look for Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura in a great two-scene part, and Toshiko Higuchi as a slave girl Makabe rescues.

I've seen a handful of Kurosawa's movies now, and I'm definitely going to continue to look out for his films.  The director has a great eye for the visual -- typically filming in black and white -- while also being able to craft stories with 3-D characters and action that few other directors would be able to do.  Star Wars fans or just a movie fan, The Hidden Fortress is one not to pass up.  No subtitles in the trailer, my bad.

The Hidden Fortress <----trailer (1958): ***/****

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