Unlikely Heroes: Comparing The Hidden Fortress with Star Wars

Recently, I had the good fortune of finding The Hidden Fortress, one of the many films directed by the great Akira Kurosawa, available through Hulu Plus. I decided to watch it, not only for the chance to sit through a Kurosawa film, but also because I’ve heard it mentioned so often as a major influence on George Lucas when he was developing the concept for Star Wars.

Overall, the film’s quite good, but how does it compare to the movie that introduced us to a galaxy far, far away?

Copyright © 1958 by Toho Company Ltd.
Copyright © 1958 by Toho Company Ltd.

The Hidden Fortress is about two peasants trying to avoid being held prisoner by the fearsome Yamana clan. They enter into the service of a cunning general and the fugitive princess of the Akizuki clan, who must slip through enemy territory with their clan’s remaining gold before they’re caught and executed.

Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is about two droids who wind up in the possession of a young moisture farmer. They help the farmboy find an old Jedi Knight and a pair of smugglers, enlisting their cause to rescue a princess from a space station and deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebellion before the Empire destroys any more planets.

Now, looking at the film itself, there are plenty of edits and shots that Lucas borrowed or crafted as an homage to Kurosawa’s epic film. Consider this list of common elements and themes.

Both films feature:

  • A Rebellious Princess Fleeing the Enemy: Princess Yuki in The Hidden Fortress, Princess Leia in Star Wars
  • A Pair of Low-Level Characters as Protagonists: Tahei and Matashichi in The Hidden Fortress, C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars
  • An Older and Cunning Warrior Leading the Heroes: Makabe Rokurota in The Hidden Fortress, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
  • A Duel Between Old Rivals With Enemy Troops Observing: Makabe and Hyoe Tadokoro in The Hidden Fortress, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in Star Wars
  • A Surprise Victory Made Possible By A Rogue’s Change of Heart: Hyoe Tadokoro in The Hidden Fortress, Han Solo in Star Wars

Not to mention, we can see the similarity in the bickering of the two peasants and the hostile friendship between two droids, both of whom wander the wastelands in search of a new master. We can recognize the inspiration for Obi-Wan’s famous Jedi mind trick with the stormtroopers in Makabe’s trick on the Yamana guards at the border checkpoint. Even the burning of the titular fortress is a clear payoff for the ruined moisture farm and the loss of Luke’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

Of course, anyone can see where the stories diverge, from their eras to their environments to their main hero (i.e., a seasoned samurai as opposed to a young farmboy-turned-pilot). The two films feel different not only because of their setting, but because of their own cultures. Kurosawa uses motifs and styles that tap into the Japanese audience’s sense of history and folktales, whereas Lucas is drawing on the Flash Gordon serials and Western genre films that Americans would find more familiar. Kurosawa gives his audience classic samurai duels; Lucas takes WWII dogfights and puts them in outer space.

It’s been said that Lucas’s original drafts of Star Wars screenplay were much closer to the story in The Hidden Fortress. While he certainly had Kurosawa’s blessing to adapt so much from his work, it’s been good for both Lucas and his audience that Star Wars became its own concept and a cultural touchstone for the rest of the world. Even so, I doubt we’ll ever truly forget Kurosawa’s legacy. Divorced from its legacy with George Lucas and his colleagues, as its own film, The Hidden Fortress remains a thrilling tale of adventure, intrigue, and changing fortunes, as well as an excellent samurai tale and a great showcase for the late and great actor Toshiro Mifune.

For those interested, The Hidden Fortress is available through the Criterion Collection.