Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress
Rating: *****
Origin: Japan, 1958
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Source: Amazon streaming video

The sound bite on The Hidden Fortress is that it’s the Kurosawa film that inspired Star Wars, but if you go into it expecting to see some kind of samurai cognate to the Skywalker saga, you’re going to be disappointed, and worse, you may overlook the very real pleasures this film has to offer. Yes, Hidden Fortress did inspire some aspects of George Lucas’s approach to Star Wars, but just put that aside and let this movie win you over on its own terms.

This is the director working firmly within the tropes of the “Chambara,” or historical swordplay film, but he can’t resist subverting those tropes even as he displays his mastery of them. Kurosawa does this from the very beginning: a bombastic march plays over the opening credits, dissolving onto a shot of a country road. But instead of a masterless samurai striding into a new adventure, staggering down the road are a couple of losers, two would-be warriors fleeing the aftermath of a battle. These peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki), are clown characters, greedy but feckless cowards who bicker constantly. But this pair provides the picture’s point of view, and we watch the actions of the samurai-class characters, heroic and not-so-heroic, through the eyes of these ordinary folk.

The two losers, lamenting their fate, are on the run after the Akizuki clan was defeated and nearly destroyed by the Yamana. Though they’d intended to fight for the Yamana, the pair are soon swept up with the fugitive Akizuki and pressed into forced-labor gangs digging through the ruins of the losing clan’s castle, seeking its hoard of gold. The Yamana samurai treat the workers like animals, and they rise up (with no help from Matashichi and Tahei) in a brilliantly-depicted night revolt in the ruins. (This is Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, and he uses the format’s scope and depth-of-field to great effect.) The clowns take the opportunity to escape, and soon revert to the status of fugitives starving in the countryside. They try to return to their province of Hayakawa, but the Yamana are guarding the border, and they are foiled. Desperate, they make their way into the mountains, and make a campfire to cook some stolen rice. But in the firewood, hidden in a thick branch, they unexpectedly discover a slim gold bar stamped with the Akizuki crest. Have they discovered a clue to the lost Akizuki hoard?

Indeed they have, and more than that, they discover its guardian, the Akizuki general Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), and the clan’s sole surviving leader, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), who’ve temporarily taken refuge in a mountaintop “hidden fortress.” Rokurota presses the clowns into service by exploiting their greed for the gold, but the Yamana are closing in, so the four, with the two samurai disguised as commoners, set out to try to get across the border to Hayakawa.

Now we are firmly in Chambara adventure territory, and Kurosawa alternates scenes of exciting samurai action with poignant interludes among the peasantry, where the disguised princess, who’s been raised in a castle, learns what life is like outside the samurai’s rigid duty-bound society. These scenes are wonderful, moving and sharply-drawn, plus we’re treated to the greatest samurai spear fight ever filmed, as Rokurota duels and defeats Hyoe Tadakoro (Susumu Fujita), a Yamana champion. Tension grows as the Yamana hunt the fugitives, and the movie picks up pace as it rushes toward its climax, which I won’t reveal, but it’s both exciting and satisfying. The film ends as it started, with the two peasants walking away from the deadly honor-driven world of Japan’s warrior class, headed home to their village at last.

Hercules

Hercules
Rating: ***
Origin: Italy, 1958
Director: Pietro Francisci
Source: GAIAM DVD

In the 1950s Hollywood was churning out big-budget biblical epics, widescreen extravaganzas that did quite well when exported to Europe. Italian producer Federico Teti wondered why these sword-and-sandal flicks should all be made in California when he could shoot them in actual Rome, so he hired director Pietro Francisci and American bodybuilder Steve Reeves to make Hercules.

And thus the Italian genre of “Peplum” movies (named after the brief tunics worn by the ancients) was born. It would dominate Italian film production until the mid-sixties, when the industry switched overnight to making so-called “Spaghetti Westerns.” Peplum films quickly fell into a formula, mostly cheesy low-budget wrestle-fests in which shirtless muscle men in ancient Rome, Greece, or Babylonia battle the minions of bosomy tyrannical queens wearing gauzy gowns, backed up by dungeons full of torturers and arenas full of beasts. Though Hercules established the pattern for these films, it didn’t set out to be cheesy; it aspired to compete with the Hollywood epics, had a substantial budget, a good cast, and decent production values. Its cheesiness was just an incidental result of the decision to lose the inward-looking finding-faith aspect of the biblical flicks and replace it with sheer, gaudy spectacle. And it worked: the film was a big hit on both sides of the pond, begetting the dozens of ever-cheesier imitations that immediately followed.

It helps that Steve Reeves can genuinely act, sort of. (He’s also handsome and big—really, really big. If any actor ever looked like he was born to play a demigod, it’s Steve Reeves.) And he’s surrounded by a cast of top-notch Italian actors overseen by a competent director. The story is a loose interpretation of the familiar tale of Jason and the Argonauts questing for the Golden Fleece, with a couple of the twelve labors of Hercules tacked on in front to get things moving. In this version Hercules gets to be the protagonist, and Jason, though heroic, is demoted to second fiddle. Herc also gets most of the romance when Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina, drop-dead gorgeous) of Iolcus falls for him, though her father is inconveniently the king who stole the throne from Jason’s father.

This Hercules is a straight-up demigod with superhuman strength, but though there’s a lot of talk about the gods none of the divines show their faces, and things stay pretty down-to-earth: when Herc fights a lion, or the Cretan bull, he’s pitted against an actual beast, and you can see Reeves working hard to defeat it. Occasionally there are minor magical shenanigans, which are always announced by a theremin sting that sounds like it came from Forbidden Planet. Hercules has come to the kingdom of Iolcus supposedly just to train their youths (Ulysses, Castor and Pollux, et al.) in the martial arts, but soon gets involved in dynastic politics and comes out in favor of Jason as the true heir. King Pelias decrees that Jason can prove he’s the heir only by recovering the Golden Fleece, and soon all the heroes are off to sea in the Argo, represented by a lovely full-sized sailing galley. Treachery, of course, sails with them.

After they lose all their cargo in a sudden storm, the Argo puts in to an island to re-provision, and everybody gets captured by the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women. Queen Antea tells Jason the Amazons suffer no men to live on their island, because they know all about male brutality and their unchecked desires, but Jason just tells her, “Not all men are alike!” He follows this with, “A woman is incomplete without a man,” and I guess that’s persuasive because soon all the Argonauts have Amazon girlfriends. But clever Ulysses learns that their sibyls have decreed that on a certain dawn all the men must be murdered, so he puts poppy seeds in the Amazons’ wine, and the men escape with a ship full of loot while the women are sleeping it off. Good thing not all men are alike!

From there it’s a short hop to Colchis, where they find the Golden Fleece, Jason defeats the one fantasy creature in the film, a really disappointing dino-dragon that looks like it’s made of chicken wire, dowels, and old carpeting, and then it’s back to Iolcus to install Jason on the throne. But the king’s traitor steals the fleece, Jason is declared an imposter, Hercules is dropped through a trap door into a dungeon, and Pelias orders his soldiers to attack the Argonauts. (This film, by the way, establishes the Peplum visual shorthand where the good guys who are fighting for justice and freedom are always shirtless, while the goons of the evil tyrant wear armor and helmets.) Things look bad until, with Princess Iole’s help, Hercules escapes and tears into the king’s helmeted goons, swinging a fifteen-foot iron chain from each hand. The final fight, an impressive finale, includes some thrilling feats of strength from the demigod: it wowed ‘em in 1958, and still looks pretty good sixty years later. Sneer at the Peplum genre if you must, but this film, which started the craze, is worth a look even today.