22 July 2022

52 for '22: The Hidden Fortress

MovieThe Hidden Fortress (1958)
Method: HBOMax

With highly logical eyebrows

Why Did I watch this?

The Hidden Fortress has been on my list since HBOMax started existence. I had a total Kurosawa gap until I watched The Seven Samurai (1954) a number of years ago now, but I'm still pretty woeful. I knew this had some Star Wars links, which probably made it stand out to me, but it's also a famous film in general that I've never seen. During my mid-year assessment I realized how badly I need to up my old movie game and this fit the bill nicely as something easy to stream.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Okay, I forgot about the Star Wars thing, but that came back to me as I was watching it. But I knew it was an older film, it was Kurosawa, and it was some Japanese historical epic. Maybe not quite epic, but certainly a historical tale. I knew it starred Toshiro Mifune, who rocked shit in Seven Samurai, so I was pumped to watch him here.

How Was It?

Well, needless to say this movie is pretty dope. It is really a unique way of telling a story, that I'm surprised isn't copied more often. Sure, it was copied with Star Wars (1977), but everyone learned the wrong lessons from Star Wars. It's an epic historical adventure but the main characters are two idiots. It's that simple. These morons bumble their way through the rise and falls of kingdoms in feudal Japan, and it holds up surprisingly well. At one point I leaned over to my wife while laughing, commenting how these jokes work in a different language nearly seventy years later.

Basically these three Kingdoms are at various stages of war and two dudes are trying their best to not be involved in any of it. They desert and stumble upon some gold on a mountain. They encounter Toshiro Mifune and a princess who promise more gold (tho they don't know who they are until the end of the movie), and then go through wacky hijinxs including crossing into one Kingdom to get into another, until she's back on a throne.

The idea is that everything is filtered through their lens. Star Wars did that with R2-D2 and C3P-O, and if you haven't watched Episode IV in a while, check that out again. It's confounding how much story space these two moron droids take up at the start of that movie. You can thank The Hidden Fortress for that. It's a little better here because the jokes land and they're a lot less annoying. Like, they aren't distracting from the point, they are the point.

Mifune is fearsome, as expected. He's supposedly in the Obi-Wan role, but he's far more active than Alec Guinness, and a little less wry and clever. The Princess is somehow a much louder and brasher Leia, and their plan to pretend she's a mute to get by the guards is both inspired and harshly feels like a way to silence her obnoxious character. There is no Luke or Han analogue, and there's supposedly a Vader in the old enemy general, though he's much less of a menace and is fueled by honor rather than Sith Rage. I don't really think too much actually lines up. When the Hidden Fortress is burned, I did think of Alderaan, though.

The cinematography on display here is breathtaking. There is insane depth of field and wide shots of villages, battles, mountains, and streams. The US was of course making films of this caliber at the time, I mean, Ben-Hur (1959) came out the next year, but this really blows a lot of 1950s films out of the water. There is a focus with each shot with clarity of movement and editing that is totally immersive. It really doesn't feel like a film, it feels like an experience. This is pretty standard stuff these days, but watching it and remembering when it was made is a true feat. Scenes are big, full of extras and horses and fires and swords. It's a lot of fun.

Having said that, it could assuredly use a modern editor to take out twenty or so minutes of total fluff. There are scenes that drag, and it's not like they're establishing a mood. Watching the two guys scramble up a hill for five minutes is unnecessary. Same deal with the spear fight - there is less of an action / reaction to that than just dragging and over-emphasizing the same beats. It needs a trim, but hey, all movies do.

I really enjoyed this, for once a movie on my list was a solid gem and not a hidden dud. I knew that going in, I mean, this is considered an all-time classic for a reason. Every technical and story-telling facet is firing on all cylinders here and it's worth an evening of your time.

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