Hidden Fortress (1958)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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Hidden Fortress relates the efforts of a samurai to smuggle the daughter and heir of his lord out of her principality and into a neighboring fiefdom after his lord's armies have been routed by his enemies and his country occupied. This story is told from the perspective of two lowly former soldiers who happen to encounter the samurai while they are themselves trying to escape from the enemy army.

Akira Kurosawa has directed a number of genuinely lovely, fascinating films, and he has directed a few uninspired, ordinary movies as well. Hidden Fortress, sadly, belongs to the latter category. The film is by no means bad, but there is nothing that distinguishes it either. It is, for instance, visually pedestrian, and none of its characters are particularly intriguing. Nevertheless, even though it may not be infused with any great artistic merit, Hidden Fortress is still an engaging and frequently exciting film. It is, essentially, an adventure story, and the viewer who approaches it as such should be able to enjoy it.

In fact, the action sequences included in Hidden Fortress are consistently well choreographed, and the director does generally evoke the emotions appropriate to each scene. Tension is produced when the protagonists are hunted by their enemies. A sense of heroism is produced when they are fighting to preserve their lives. Sympathy is produced when the princess aids an unfortunate woman she encounters, and so on.

Unfortunately, the movie's characters, although they do serve as effective devices by means of which the story is unfolded, are hardly inspired creations. The samurai is stereotypically gruff and harsh. The two lowly soldiers are avaricious and comical. Only the princess is able, as an individual, to arouse the viewer's interest even to a limited degree. She is wilful and spoiled, but she also shows compassion for those she encounters and interest in their welfare, making her marginally more complex than are any of her companions.

As uninteresting as are most of the film's characters, they are not, however, its only weakness. The various comic elements included are even more consistently distracting. Admittedly, what is found to be funny at one time and place often is not seen as humorous at another, and so, perhaps, those elements of Hidden Fortress were enjoyable when the film was made, but they have not aged well.

Other elements of the production, as costume design, make-up, and the like are similarly dated, leaving little doubt that the movie was made in the 1950s. Because these elements are distracting, they do detract from the film's ability to draw the viewer into its world and engage him in the experience of watching it.

While it is not a great film, Hidden Fortress is enjoyable. It is an exciting, entertaining work. It simply is not more than that.

Review by Keith Allen

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