The Hidden Fortress opens with two peasants walking along a round. Dirty, hungry, smelling like shit, they've spent a period of time digging graves in the service of an invading army. They're not too pleased, not too honest, and soon, through a series of events, then find themselves connected to a general who is going to smuggle two hundred pieces of gold across two borders to rebuild a kingdom. In his company will be a young princess who will pretend to be mute. Now, on the surface, this appears to be a good idea, and certainly with the fantastic Toshiro Mifune (last seen in by me in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro), it looks like a film that isn't going to disappoint.
But it does.
There is an interview with George Lucas on the DVD of the Hidden Fortress where he explains what influenced him. Paraphrasing, he says, that what influenced him was that the film is narrated from the point of view of the two peasants, the lowest characters in the film, and from this he decided to do the same with Star Wars. Hence, for the majority of the film, the two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, are the narrators, in that it is through them that we experience the world and are introduced to the more interesting characters.
Now, I like the Star Wars films*, but I have to be honest and admit that the droids are my least favourite characters, and kind of annoy me in places. When I heard that the new films would have them, I groaned quietly, but I'd already seen the reissues at that point, so my opinion of Lucas had been kicked beneath heavy objects.* However, as irritating as I find the two droids, my irritation is nothing when placed next to the outright dislike I have for the two peasants in the Hidden Fortress.
Tahei and Matakishi are motivated by greed throughout the entire film, but this is not what bothers me. I can identify with wanting bags of gold. I can identify with wanting to ditch everyone else and make it off with gold. What irritates me is the continued whiny, slapstick comedy that Kurosawa had them perform. Every twenty minutes or so, Tahei or Matakishi would turn, whine, and look to either escape with the gold, or rape the princess. Then, should they proceed to get any distance away from Mifune's as the general, they would bicker and fight in the same greedy fashion. For the first forty minutes of the film, this is okay, but in a film that is around two and a half hours long, the continual repetition of this begins to grate on your nerves. Well, on my nerves. I found myself deeply wishing that Mifune would take out his knife and cut their throats and then continue on his way.
Without the peasants, the focus is Mifune's portrayal of the general Rokurota, who has sacrificed his sister to help a princess that, in some ways, he doesn't like, and who is leading her across borders while she pretends to be a mute. Duty comes first, but it's in his relationships with the enemy general that he duels and considers to be a friend, that we're shown a character with depth, unlike the peasants. It is Mifune, therefor, who holds the film together. The duel is a fine one, and his relationship with the enemy general just begs to be explored more, but, alas.
While the film is certainly lacking in its two main characters, and its plot of dodge the enemy, hide the princess (but she'll learn something here) while we cross their territory is simple, the Kurosawa style is still strong. When the enemy comes out of the mist after the Festival of Fire*, and Mifune's attack on the back of a horse than leads to his duel... all of these are filmed and pieced together with a steady and sure hand, as is the rest of the film.
Those two peasants, though... they needed to die.
* Yes, of course I wish he'd stop fucking around with them with each re release. Though that said, he did go partially to redeeming himself on the reissue of Star Wars: A New Hope with the Han Solo/Greedo scene. Total redemption would have been just to leave it as it was originally, since we all know Solo wasn't murdering Greedo, no more than he murders stormtroopers later, and when Jedi's pull out their lightsabers and cut people up. Haven't seen what he's done to the others yet, though I hear he's tipped the twist of the Empire Strikes Back, which doesn't sound like a good thing.
* That said, I've enjoyed both Episode 1 and 2. The people who say that they aren't in keeping with the rest of the films obviously haven't watched the original films in a while. Yes, neither hold up to Empire, but you know what: the Empire Strikes Back is the odd film out. In tone and dialogue and plot, it's not in keeping with any of the other films. Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett bought an entirely new sensibility to it with their script, and it's one that Lucas obviously felt the need to cut back for Jedi, because he returned as co-script writer. You can see this same sensibility from Kasdan in the first Indiana Jones film--which, btw, I've remember reading that the scene Spielberg hated the most, was where Indiana shoots the guy in the street, which is what makes the scene and defines Indiana. It's a definition he never reaches in the other films, I might add, and I'm sure if Spielberg could change it, as Lucas did with Han and Greedo, he would. This is because they're both right wing conservative nuts. Never forget that people. And in Spielberg's case, never forget that his intense dislike for Germans is nothing but dressed up racism.
* Admittedly, it might have been called something else. But it involved burning things.