With the hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens reaching fever pitch, it’s instructive to remember that a viewing in a US cinema in the 1950s by a young George Lucas led directly to the monster franchise we’re bludgeoned with today.
Lucas was watching The Hidden Fortress, directed by Akira Kurosawa (pictured), and the main narrative device he propelled into Star Wars was choosing to tell the story from the perspective from the ‘lowest’ characters, in this case C-3PO and R2-D2.
These two annoying droids are either a masterstroke or a travesty depending on your Jedi leanings but the really interesting thing about this ‘duo’ is their gentleness and timidity compared to the outright bitterness and greed on show from the two Fortress peasants who are so compelling you could watch them all day.
Other intriguing elements from The Hidden Fortress which may wormed their way into Star Wars include (of course) the Princess, who in Kurosawa’s film, is so other-worldly and aloof that you can’t help but think of Carrie Fisher in A New Hope. In Kurosawa’s film she actually doesn’t feel ‘human’ at all and perhaps this is another subliminal signpost that registered in then fertile mind of the soon-to-be King George – or perhaps not.
And then there’s the towering presence of Toshiro Mifune, an actor so strapping, imposing and provocative that you feel he might jump through the screen and demand that you start paying more attention. He’s a general in Fortress and plays the part with such nobility and poise that Obi-Wan Kenobi comes to mind. Until that is, he lets rip again and a weary Han Solo shines through.
Okay, all speculation of course – but taken in sum The Hidden Fortress does have so many similarities to Star Wars that a revisit should be mandatory, particularly when The Force Awakens is doing such a fine job of getting tills rolling and bums on seats.
And we haven’t even got to the swords (in The Hidden Fortress) looking like lightsabers, the robes looking like, well, robes, and the horizontal screen ‘wipes’ which gives both films a smooth, casual veneer.
Yet there’s a serious point to be made about George’s Lucas’ promising film career and whether Star Wars enhanced it killed it. His earlier films like American Graffiti and, particularly, THX 1138, had a style and flourish of their own, something which sadly wasn’t seen when the Stars Wars juggernaut took off.
It may have been what he wanted all along, of course, but thinking back to the young Lucas watching a Kurosawa in that cinema all those years ago, you wonder why the director he ‘admired’ became so prolific and acclaimed while Lucas became so pigeon-holed.
The underrated THX 1130 showed he much more to offer than robes, droids and lightsabers.
That’s not to knock those things.
Particularly those taken from The Hidden Fortress.