Falling between the dark and brooding tragedy of "Throne of Blood" and Kurosawa's continuing infatuation with the samurai film in "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro", "The Hidden Fortress" effortlessly intertwines action, drama, and comedy in the story of a defeated general, Rokurota (Mifune), who is charged with guarding a princess as she flees to safety during the Japanese clan wars of the 16th century. Faced with having to escort the princess and her stockpile of gold alone, Rokurota enlists the help of two oafish peasants, Tahei (Chiaki) and Matakishi (Fujiwara).
A comic epic, "Hidden Fortress" focuses not on the high drama of the aristocrats' escape, but on the slapstick antics of the faint-hearted peasants as they whinge and moan their way through the countryside. Greedy and conniving, but far too spineless to stand up to Mifune's battle-hardened soldier, the peasants are spurred on only by their love of the gold.
Intercutting the comedy with action set-pieces (including a lengthy lance fight and an adrenalin pumping solo cavalry charge), Kurosawa even finds time to reflect on the different motives that drive the members of this disparate group.
While the peasants are motivated solely by avarice (trying to turn the princess in for a reward when things get tough), Mifune's general operates solely according to his code of honour. Both, it seems, are questionable - greed brings misery and blind duty forces Rokurota to make big sacrifices.
Confirming his status as one of the world's finest film makers, this new 35mm print of Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress" is not to be missed - it's both cracking entertainment and a wonderful piece of cinema.
In Japanese with English subtitles.
"The Hidden Fortress" is re-issued in London on Friday 1st February 2002.