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Was PHANTOM MENACE Lucas’ Second Attempt to Remake THE HIDDEN FORTRESS?

I was recently watching the new Criterion Blu-ray of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress — admittedly the first time since the Criterion DVD was released many years ago — and it occurred to me that Phantom Menace has a lot more in common with it than Star Wars: Episode IV.

George Lucas has always been open to the fact that narrative structure of Fortress — not the plot — inspired Star Wars.

Specifically, the film being told from the point of view of two lesser characters who are along for the ride: the greedy peasants.

In Star Wars they would become the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, but the film isn’t really told from their perspective.

They carry the movie until we meet Luke, and then it becomes his film.

Let me stop here and say that I find it strange that out of all of Kurosawa’s films, this is the one Lucas drew inspiration from.

It’s among Kurosawa’s weakest specifically because of how the story is told.

It feels like there are two movies going on at the same time, completely different in tone: the overdone slapstick antics of the peasants, and the more serious story of smuggling the princess behind enemy lines.

So much time is devoted to their baboonery that the film clocks in 10 minutes shy of 2.5 hours (compared to the much tighter scripted Yojimbo which is only 1:51 long). 20 minutes could easily be cutout without missing much.

Returning to Star Wars, Phantom Menace has a lot more in common with Fortress. The plots, for example, are pretty similar.

In both films a young princess is the leader of her people, she has to be transported through enemy territory, and she must pretend to be a peasant to hide her identity.

Along the way in both, one of the companions they pickup is a slave whose freedom they buy. And of course, in Phantom Menace, the uselessness and stupidity of Jar Jar Binks is far closer to the peasants in Fortress than the droids were in Star Wars (the droids, after all, do a lot more to help the heroes than Jar Jar — they would have died in the trash compactor if it wasn’t for them).

Rather than let go of the past, Lucas suffered from trying to remake Star Wars until he got it perfect.

Return of the Jedi is largely a remake of Star Wars in the sense that many of the scenes that he was unhappy with are redone with more money and better special effects. And throughout the Prequels there are also a number of scenes that are clearly second attempts of ones that were in the original trilogy.

So all of this time, was Phantom Menace part of Lucas’ desire to perfect what he thinks he got wrong with Star Wars — that it wasn’t enough like The Hidden Fortress?

I think this would explain everything with Jar Jar.

His outsized role in Phantom mirrors the peasants in Fortress. And that would mean Phantom Menace is supposed to be told from his point of view, and that’s he’s actually kind of the main character.

And it’s kind of a bizarre irony that many of the things wrong with Fortress Lucas repeated.

He’s either unaware of Fortress’s shortcomings, or he just delights in its excess.

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