The Movie: Kurosawa's epic feature, and inspiration for many other filmmakers, The Hidden Fortress is a spectacular film with a simple premise and extraordinary acting. Matashichi and Tahei are simple peasants who go to war for fame and fortune, but arrive late and are mistaken for war prisoners and sent to work in a prison camp. They work their way out and start their trek back home. The only problem is that the border is heavily guarded and they must take a very round-about route home.
Matashichi and Tahei provide the comic relief as they bicker between themselves and aren't the brightest peas in the pod. They end up becoming petty thieves on their way home, stealing rice and such, when they read a wanted sign for the princess. The bounty on her head is 10 gold pieces, with which both could comfortably live the rest of their lives. But do they need the reward? Not if their luck keeps up - as they are just about to hit the road, they discover a piece of gold hidden in a piece of wood and thus they set out to find every other piece of wood that might have gold in it in the nearby surroundings and eventually meet up with General Rokurota Makabe. Just as the general is about to dispatch with these two lowly, untrustworthy, and greedy peasants, they tell him their idea of how to cross the border, so he takes them with him and the princess relying on them to stay loyal with the promise of gold.
Weighing in at just over 2 1/4 hours, the film flies by thanks in part to the comedy, action, and drama that Kurosawa is able to pace just right. The story is simple - this group must find it's way back to their nation - but complex as they must face different obstacles and battle internal adversity. From start to finish, there's not one minute of downtime, and any true filmbuff will absolutely be entranced by this movie.
The Picture: This brilliantly clear new anamorphic transfer from the Criterion Collection is simply amazing. The film is over 40 years old and it is evident as there are still some flecks of dirt and scratches evident, but not nearly as many as I had expected. Pixelation is not evident at any times, nor are there any signs of artifacts. The black and white transfer looks amazing as the blacks are equally as dark as the whites are bright. The contrast between the two is great with no visible damage to the print.
The Sound: Presented in its original monaural audio, there's really no bells or whistles to be had. Also included is a Dolby Digital 3.0 audio track that features the original perspect-a-sound simulated stereo effects, presenting us with left, center, and right channels. The difference between the two (1.0 and 3.0) is slight, but noticeable at times. The 3.0 track is probably the way to go, but you'll be drawn into the film so much, you might not notice.
The Extras: There's really only one extra on this disc - the interview with George Lucas. While the interview really isn't that long (only about 8-9 minutes), it does give some insight into Kurosawa's directing and editing methods along with Lucas' inspiration for his own Star Wars.
I guess now is the time where I should throw in the obligatory trivia tidbit that George Lucas has publicly stated that he received much inspiration from The Hidden Fortress for his own Star Wars saga - both movies focus on 2 lowly characters, feature side-wipe transitions, and have a princess battling against an evil empire. Now you know (if you didn't already).
Conclusion: The Criterion Company has once again done a great job with a spectacular movie. The main feature on this disc is the movie - as it has been given a brilliantly beautiful anamorphic transfer. Both the audio and video shine, while the extras are almost non-existent. Except for the interview with Lucas, there's really nothing new here. While the interview was interesting, a full audio commentary by Lucas would have been awesome and an isolated score would have been much appreciated. Nonetheless, the movie is captivating with great acting and with the new transfer, you'll be engrossed and the movie itself is well worth the price of the disc.