The Hidden Fortress may not be one of the most well known of Kurasawa’s films, but it is a wonderfully entertaining mix of adventure, comedy and drama. It opens with two bedraggled peasants wandering the countryside bemoaning their fate. This is Japan during its feudal period, and these two thought they would go into a clan war to make a fortune, but got there too late and were taken prisoner and forced to dig graves for the war dead. Now they are headed home penniless. But in a stroke of luck, they discover that there is a big reward for locating the defeated Akizuki clan’s Princess Yuki and the gold she took with her, and they set out to find her only to stumble upon a stick with a piece of gold inside. When they start looking for the rest of it they run into another man (Toshiro Mifune) who tricks them into joining forces. But he is not who they think he is. He is in fact the great General Rokurota Makabe who is guarding Princess Yuki and her gold.
The scheming peasants give him a great idea about how to sneak around the enemy to return to their kingdom, and soon they are all on the road with horses carrying bundles of gold filled wood. In order not to be caught Princess Yuki pretends to be mute, since her accent would give her away, even to the peasants, who are unaware of her status. And since the peasants have no allegiance to anyone, they soon decide to steal all the gold for themselves, only to alert the army to their presence and make any escape more difficult. They rejoin the Princess and the General and continue the journey in a cat and mouse game with the enemy, with the General displaying qualities you might have seen with Douglas Fairbanks or any of our modern super heroes. He rides like John Wayne, uses a sword like the best swashbuckler, and strikes fear in all who see him. Mifune is the man!
What makes The Hidden Fortress so entertaining is the mix of the noble and the greedy, the drama and the comedy. The peasants are constantly scheming to make a quick exit and live the high life, but are also key to the General and the Princess’s success in escaping from enemy territory. Strangely, the high born and the lowliest use each other to get what they want. It’s a road movie with great action sequences and a some nice social commentary, as well. I’d recommend it to fans of older action/adventure films or Kurowaswa flicks in general. It is very entertaining! (It was made in 1958 in Japanese in black & white.)