George Lucas has never been shy about his admiration for Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. "I think he comes from a generation of filmmakers that were still influenced by silent films," Lucas said in a 2001 interview, noting how silent films prioritized visuals and framing to tell a story and set a mood. "You're not going to find a lot of filmmakers that have the facile quality with the medium Kurosawa had."
Besides the Flash Gordon serials, no movie had a bigger influence over George Lucas and the making of his 1977 classic Star Wars than Kurosawa's 1958 samurai movie, The Hidden Fortress. And today, it's never been easier to watch it.
On May 27, WarnerMedia launched its streaming service HBO Max, a new subscription service that streams a wide swath of contemporary hits and cinematic classics. Aside from Friends and the Harry Potter series, one movie streaming now on HBO Max is The Hidden Fortress, a must-watch for anyone who calls themselves a Star Wars fan.
From its familiar story to its abundant use of Kurosawa's signature camera techniques and wipe scene transitions, The Hidden Fortress is one of the most important movies in Star Wars canon — even if it doesn't actually take place in a galaxy far, far away.
Directed by Kurosawa and starring Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Misa Uehara, and the iconic Toshiro Mifune — himself approached by Lucas to play either Obi-Wan or Darth Vader in Star Wars — The Hidden Fortress is the story of two peasants who smuggle a young woman and an older man across enemy lines in exchange for gold. Unbeknownst to the peasants, the people they're smuggling are a general and a princess and wind up playing a pivotal role in an ongoing war.
By now, it's well-known among cinephiles and hardcore Star Wars buffs what sort of shadow The Hidden Fortress casts over Star Wars. There are countless essays, YouTube comparison videos, and even a How I Met Your Mother gag that reveal how much Lucas took after Kurosawa like a padawan. Entire story beats and image compositions are mirrored in both films, such as R2-D2 and C-3PO wandering the desert (Chiaki and Fujiwara's peasants walking across an open plain), or Obi-Wan and Vader's lightsaber battle (Tadokoro and Rokurōta's duel with lances). There's more like them, as this one-minute video explores.
That's not to say Star Wars is in any way a remake of The Hidden Fortress (not like A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone being a remake of Kurosawa's '61 picture Yojimbo, which prompted a lawsuit by Yojimbo producers Toho.) While earlier drafts of Star Wars closely resembled The Hidden Fortress, the final version of the movie you've seen (and is streaming now on Disney+) differs in keys ways. Characters from Fortress are amalgamated into different roles for Star Wars. There is no perfect Luke Skywalker or Han Solo equivalent in Fortress, nor is the big bad villain secretly anyone's father. These are different movies, one just happened to be directed by a very clear admirer of the other.
In that 2001 interview with Lucas, filmed for the Criterion Collection's DVD release of The Hidden Fortress, Lucas admitted that the biggest influence on Star Wars was the story structure. “The one thing I was really intrigued by, was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters," he said.
"I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. Which, in the Star Wars case is the two droids, and 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."
While the film doesn't rank high in George Lucas' personal list of favorites — that honor goes to Seven Samurai, another Kurosawa classic — it's the story and technical trademarks seen in The Hidden Fortress you'll find parallels of in Star Wars. And the movie is great in its own right too, never mind Star Wars. It's an enduring classic in Kurosawa's legendary oeuvre, a period drama full of danger and humor. That it's so easily available is worth celebrating.
The Hidden Fortress is streaming now on HBO Max.