dir. Akira Kurosawa

STAR WARS (original cut)
dir. George Lucas

It was all down to luck. On Thursday a friend gave me a copy of what appears to be the most elaborate (on disc) DVD bootleg I’ve yet seen, a copy of the original cut of Star Wars apparently taken from an earlier laserdisc version of the film, pre-special edition. On Saturday, rummaging through used DVDs at a local store, I found the Critierion release of The Hidden Fortress, a film I knew about but hadn’t yet seen, and which I also knew was one of Lucas’s inspirations for his film — and lo and behold, he was interviewed on the disc as one of the bonus features. So I didn’t hesitate, and as I had a bit more time to kill on the weekend than I expected, I watched both discs, The Hidden Fortress first.

Saying something about a director and a film that’s had plenty to say about it is always initially disconcerting, but what the hey — suffice to say that yes, The Hidden Fortress is indeed ridiculously great. The use of widescreen (Kurosawa’s first feature in that form), the breathless flow of the film, the wide variety of editing choices applied, from quick cuts to moments of long, seemingly static contemplation, the simple but not stupid core story, the on-the-money casting (Mifune of course, but Misa Uehara as Princess Yukihime, Minoru Chiaki as Tahei and Kamatari Fujiwara as Matakishi make the film an ensemble piece even when the characters themselves are only a team by necessity), the list goes on. Striking in black and white, it might have been even more so in color but there’s no point in quibbling over shots like the princess and her general looking with anguish on the distant burning of their hiding place or their over-the-hilltop first sight of their final goal. The swirling of the fire festival, the charge of the prisoners down the staircase, these are moments that stand as fine honing of the collective art of filmmaking.

But it’s the beautiful venality of Tahei and Matakishi that makes the film the winner. For all the moments of reflection on the meaning of honor and the need to sacrifice in order to hold on to hope — no disquisitions thankfully, except perhaps the climactic confrontation scene in the border jail and even there it’s no sermon — it’s the two fish out of water, farmers turned soldiers for a lark, eternally bickering but still close friends, which get the first and last word. Lucas himself obviously transformed the types into C3PO and R2D2 for Star Wars but while there’s plenty to connect the two duos, especially in terms of humor and frustration with their situation, Tahei and Matakishi aren’t ‘good’ characters as such. They care about their situations to the extent that it benefits themselves; once they discover gold it’s all a question of how they can get all or part of it, and when it comes down to it at the end, they quite happily agree to turn in the princess and general for a reward. Rebuffed on that front, they slouch across the border to bemoan their fate — whereas a Hollywood variant would probably have them do something ‘heroic’ to rescue their comrades, Tahei and Matakishi shrug it all off. Everything turns out all right, of course, but that’s nothing to do with them, and if it had, little of their roles would have made sense.

Star Wars would have been a different and potentially quite interesting film if Lucas had taken that approach with the droids, but would it have been better? Probably not, but then again some films, some works of art, are pretty damned hard to view with a critical lens if you’ve lived in them near constantly for most of your life. I’d actually not seen it for a few years, since a little while before The Phantom Menace came out; it had been even longer since I’d seen the original version, so on the one hand knowing every line by heart, every sound practically, got balanced against a chance to see things with perhaps fresher eyes.

It’s weird to realize how many jokes and moments and references and more in Star Wars surely had to have passed me by when I was six and first watching it. I caught the basics, I caught the spectacle, I knew and soon focused in intensely on the story as familiarity set in. Time and then time again makes more of the film work even better for me than before, and seeing it in a self-contained form like the original cut — allusions to many things never directly shown or discussed, miniature episodes held together with a minimum of exposition, the absolutely flat out brilliant editing Lucas’s then wife Marcia helped oversee (it may be that her falling out and leaving Lucas was perhaps the greatest setback for the whole cycle, even more so than the break with the shrewd, thoughtful producer Gary Kurtz) — is almost a revelation.

I remember being intensely thrilled with the ending when I last saw it on a big screen when the special edition came out, as if I’d never seen it before, and once again on TV it worked, visual and sound and music and cuts wound up to the tightest pitch and then resolved in a moment. Closest thing to that I’ve seen in recent years was the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring, the audience cheering every time whenever Aragorn beheaded Lurtz in the final duel, but even then that was a mere minute or so sequence where the Death Star battle is nearly a quarter of an hour of build and release. Some friends of mine think that Lucas should have just stopped there and done other work, or even none at all, and let Star Wars stand on its own — I’d disagree for a number of reasons (the delicious agony I suffered for three years before, then after The Empire Strikes Back came out was worth it in the end, Ewoks or not), but it’s easy to see why they would say that after watching the original cut.

In his commentary for The Hidden Fortress, Lucas speaks with his usual straightforward-while-reserved tone about what he did and didn’t borrow for Star Wars. Sometimes he seems not to appreciate what is otherwise surely obvious — there’s when he weirdly suggests that Leia’s character wasn’t like Yukihime in that Leia was more a ‘stand and fight’ person, when it’s perfectly clear that had the character been in a different situation Yukihime would be fighting with the best of them — her hilarious frustration of the two farmers by means of tripping them up and slamming branches in their faces as they walk through the woods in open pursuit of her may be as close as it gets but had she been in Lucas’s world, she probably wouldn’t have been happy until she had killed all the Stormtroopers on the Death Star one by one.

But in the end Lucas’s point that it isn’t just Kurosawa that’s a source is well taken — the Joseph Campbell reference at the end of the interview may seem overfamiliar now but inasmuch as Kurosawa took inspiration from John Ford but not just Ford, so Lucas took further inspiration from both and even more, and so forth. The two films are related but not clones, both are individual hotwiring of settings and characters then translated in company with those working for their creators. And both are pretty damned great fun to watch.