How ‘Star Wars’ Turned a Samurai Movie Into an Outer Space Epic

Hidden Fortress
Hidden Fortress | Toho Company

Film history is like a snake eternally consuming its own tail but always growing in length, with no foreseeable end to the cycle in sight. So when I say that one of America’s first true blockbusters was influenced by a Japanese period drama that in turn drew inspiration from the films of American western-director John Ford, it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.

Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958) is certainly a different film from the original Star Wars (1977), and not only because the characters speak in different languages. The similarities between the two are undeniable, and of course, Star Wars director George Lucas has plainly acknowledged the debt he owes to Kurosawa’s film about a couple of greedy peasants who become inadvertently involved with a disgraced princess and warrior trying to recapture the throne that rightfully belongs to them.

Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope
Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope | Lucasfilm

Lucas, like many of his contemporaries, was a film school graduate who drew upon influences from throughout film history and from throughout the world, unlike earlier generations of filmmakers, who were more likely to draw inspiration from novels and theater productions or rely purely on storytelling instinct. For Star Wars, he drew upon the old, low-budget serials like Flash Gordon he loved as a child — Lucas and his buddy Steven Spielberg paid more direct homage to adventure serials with Raiders of the Lost Ark and other Indiana Jones films — for the film’s then-unique sci-fi/fantasy blend of mysticism and space travel.

Now, Star Wars has become such a ubiquitous franchise that it’s easy to overlook the sometimes-bizarre storytelling choices evident in the first film of the original trilogy. The first act spends much of its time following R2-D2 and C-3PO’s bickering and capture in the lonely deserts of Tatooine. Lucas aped these sequences almost directly from Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa’s film chronicles the struggle for the throne and dominion over a Japanese kingdom through the eyes of two greedy peasants, while Lucas follows the battle for an intergalactic empire through the sensors of two junked droids. R2-D2’s motivations are opaque since he doesn’t speak, but C-3PO’s inconsequential preoccupation with etiquette sometimes mirrors the trivial, greedy concerns of Hidden Fortress’s two peasant characters.

Star Wars
Star Wars: A New Hope | Lucasfilm

Other parallels between the films are many but not quite so glaring. Star Wars uses the same wipe transitions as Hidden Fortress, for example. Both plots are episodic, following characters through multiple loosely-related setpieces and settings on the way to their goals. Lucas found an American equivalent to the swaggering samurai Toshiro Mifune in a young Harrison Ford, heavier on the charm but more roguish in his plain self-interest. Princess Leia has an even more obvious equal in the feisty Princess Yuki, who holds her head high even after being robbed of her throne. The firm stances and the lengthy, determined eye contact of Vader and Obi-Wan’s lightsaber battle recalls the spear battle in Hidden Fortress. The dangerous Mos Eisley mirrors the treacherous slums of Hidden Fortress.

Star Wars - A New Hope - medal ceremony
Star Wars: A New Hope | Lucasfilm

Both films end in a royal court with a sort of victory march. Shots of characters overlooking rocky facades and cliff-sides in Hidden Fortress evoke the same atmosphere as Tattooine’s orange canyons, and the spring that forms the center of the actual hidden fortress looks much like swampy Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. The costumes in both are striking and identifiable, each one unique and often robed in the Eastern style of dress but still so lived-in. Even the name Obi-Wan Kenobi sounds as though Lucas had made up his own Kurosawa character.

While the similarities are indeed numerous, it’s interesting to note the conflicting choices Lucas made in creating such an enormous accidental success. Amid all these parallels, the young hero Luke Skywalker is left without any equivalent. Although he’s a weak character in many ways, and Mark Hamill doesn’t seem well-equipped enough to headline a film of this scope, Luke resonates with audiences in the first Star Wars film, I think, in a way more masculine heroes don’t. He’s not a swashbuckling adventurer or warrior so much as he is a kid who wants to leave his home to see the world (or galaxy) and do something important. He isn’t a Japanese holdover — he’s pure Americana, a character who would feel at home in Lucas’s previous film, American Graffiti, about the frustrations of young baby boomers living in go-nowhere Modesto, California.

No one involved in this outer-space pet project had much faith it would succeed, let alone spawn two — soon to be three — separate but interconnected movie trilogies. So many factors had to come together at precisely the same moment in 1977 to propel this idiosyncratic adventure film toward its unprecedented success. And so much of that is due to the way Lucas was able to synthesize a host of influences — the swashbuckling world-hopping of Flash Gordon, the Eastern fashions and storytelling techniques of Hidden Fortress, even the minor frustrations and big dreams of his suburban upbringing as channeled through Luke Skywalker — into a whole that felt new and exciting.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jrindskopf

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