The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Hidden Fortress

Bryan Young | September 24, 2012

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As someone who has made films and written stories, it’s almost impossible for me to completely contain the influences of the cinematic art I consume. Some might shy away of such influence and homage, worried too much about words like “originality,” but others have embraced those influences and created truly breathtaking works of art.

When I was young, I always thought Star Wars was created in a vacuum. Something so impressive had to be completely new, fresh, and original, right?

I had no idea about the long history of films that helped shape it into what it became as it formulated in the head of George Lucas. From old Flash Gordon serials to the works of Akira Kurosawa, Star Wars is a vibrant tapestry of what has come before it. Sometimes it’s not so apparent, but when you spot those influences, you can see how much the minds behind Star Wars, The Clone Wars, and everything else with a Star Wars logo, care passionately about what they do.

For me, part of that journey of discovery is tracing the influences backward. My love of Kurosawa films was sparked because of their influence on Star Wars, and when I was fortunate enough to meet George Lucas, I was able to thank him for introducing me to so powerful and moving a filmmaker.

What I’d like to do is to bring to you some of the influences on Star Wars in the hopes that you’ll explore them on your own.

The first movie I’d like to point you to is Kurosawa’s 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress, which tells the story of a general and a princess, fighting their way home through enemy lines in feudal Japan with the help of a pair of bumbling peasants. Anyone watching the film will instantly recognize the two bickering peasants as a loose analogue of everyone’s favorite droids, Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio. The peasants even begin the film on a desolate background, shot with long lenses, much like Lucas and his team would film them during their scenes on Tatooine in A New Hope. Though Artoo and Threepio are much more pleasant than the greedy peasants of The Hidden Fortress, their comedic role in driving the story is incredibly similar.

The first time I stumbled onto The Hidden Fortress I was about 12 years old and it was at the public library. There was this giant double-tape VHS cassette case and above it were the words, “A panoramic odyssey that inspired George Lucas’ Star Wars…May Kurosawa’s tour de force be with you.”

I took it home and watched it and my life was changed forever. It was a Star Wars-like film, but in a totally foreign setting to me, with a story no less thrilling or action packed. Because of Kurosawa’s influence on Star Wars, I was able to go back and witness these incredible films first hand.

In 2001, when The Criterion Collection put out a new DVD version of The Hidden Fortress, they sat George Lucas down to talk about the film’s influence on Star Wars. “I remember the one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress,” he said, “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. 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. 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 doesn’t take much to wonder if the use of handmaidens and doubles so prevalent in Kurosawa films, especially in this particular one, were inspirations for The Phantom Menace and, in particular the death of Cordé in Attack of the Clones. And, much like Padmé in The Phantom Menace, the princess finds herself in a poor and unsavory territory, learning how people in the world really live. These parallels make more sense when you consider that Lucas himself produced Kurosawa’s most notable film involving the double of royalty, Kagemusha.

There are many story parallels between the two films and it’s fun to watch them side-by-side. But, it’s not just a few story flourishes that were used as influences in Star Wars; the filmmaking techniques of Kurosawa are ever present in the works of Lucas as well. In The Hidden Fortress, there’s a thrilling sequence where the general is on horseback, evading enemies and the background motion and intensity of the scene matches that of the trench run in A New Hope. Imagine that. Kurosawa shot a trench run on horseback and it’s thrilling. The camera focuses on the horse (or the X-wing), while the background whizzes by, shot from a very long lens, all in grayscale tones, adding a dynamic speed to the chase. But then, the camera stops and the general finds himself surrounded by enemies, much like Han rounding that corner on the Death Star.

You’ll also notice in The Hidden Fortress the way Kurosawa wipes from one shot to another is very similar to the wipes we’ve all come to know and love with Star Wars.

Star Wars could have had even more parallels to The Hidden Fortress than it did. It was reported that, early on, Toshiro Mifune, who plays the samurai general Rokurota Makabe, was considered for the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

There is nothing more fun for a film and Star Wars geek like me than tracing these influences back even further. In that same Criterion interview, Lucas talked about Kurosawa’s influences. “I know Kurosawa was a very big fan of John Ford’s and that he was very influenced by John Ford,” he said, “and you can actually see John Ford’s influence in Kurosawa’s films, which I think is one of the reasons they are so accessible to Westerners.”

And John Ford is another tangent I’d find myself going down, thanks to comments like that.

It’s my hope that having these influences and intersections pointed out to you, you might in turn give some of these other movies a chance. The influence of classic film on the various Star Wars properties is infinite, and I hope you’ll all be interested in following that journey through cinema through the lens of Star Wars with me.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com!

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