Okay, follow along with me here. It’s well-known that George Lucas was a big Kurosawa fan during his formative years as a film-maker, and that he cites ‘The Hidden Fortress’ by Kurosawa as a key inspiration for ‘Star Wars’. Some have even described Lucas’ movie as a science-fiction remake of ‘The Hidden Fortress’, much the same way as ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is a Western remake of ‘Yojimbo’. Which leads me to wonder, what might have happened if Lucas had been inspired by a different Kurosawa film? What if it wasn’t ‘The Hidden Fortress’ that shaped the direction of his classic film?
The Seven Samurai: Tatooine moisture farmer Luke Skywalker stumbles upon information that his insignificant homeworld is about to become the crux in the Empire’s plan to destroy the Rebellion. Princess Leia of Alderaan, a key figure in the Rebellion, is coming to this distant world to exchange vital information with Rebel spies; little does she know that the Empire has already learned of her mission, and has set a trap for her with a hidden garrison of Imperial troops…a garrison led by the Emperor’s personal enforcer, Darth Vader. Skywalker longs to help the princess, but he’s only one man, and an untrained fighter at that; he needs help if he’s going to save her. So he recruits a rag-tag band to help him: An exiled Jedi Knight named Ben Kenobi, a smuggler with a heart of gold named Han Solo, a bestial Wookie named Chewbacca, a grizzled bounty hunter named Boba Fett, and a Rebel pilot named Wedge Antilles. The six of them rescue the princess from the initial ambush; and together, the seven of them retreat into the Tatooine desert, where they use Ben’s knowledge of the terrain to slowly winnow away the Empire’s advantage of numbers. In the end, although Ben and Boba die in battle, Leia succeeds in her mission and (possibly) begins the end of the Empire.
Yojimbo: In the distant galactic backwater of Mos Eisley, Ben Kenobi (a former Jedi Knight who fled to the Galactic Rim after the fall of his order) becomes embroiled in the middle of a war between rival gang lords Jabba the Hutt and Xizor. He hires himself out first to one, then the other, playing both sides against the middle while he secretly works to clean up “the most wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The end features him dueling against Jabba’s top enforcer, Boba Fett. (The scary thing is, this requires only minimal changes to fit into continuity…)
Rashomon: In the aftermath of the death of Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi at the hands of Sith Lord Darth Vader, we see differing interpretations of the event from Vader, Kenobi, Leia, and finally the droid duo of C-3P0 and R2-D2. In the end, though we see many versions of the final battle between the two, the truth remains elusive and unknowable.
The Lower Depths: Owen Lars and his wife, Beru, run a small flophouse on Tatooine for scoundrels down on their luck. Among them is Han Solo, a smuggler and thief, and Ben Kenobi, a mysterious wise old man with a troubled past. Han is having an affair with Beru, but his growing friendship with Beru’s nephew Luke makes him consider breaking it off. At the same time, his admiration for Ben makes him think about finding a better life. When he discovers that Owen and Beru beat Luke, he breaks into their house to defend his young friend, only to wind up inadvertently killing Owen. Beru claims that he did it to continue their affair, which ends his friendship with Luke, and Ben flees when Imperial stormtroopers come to arrest the smuggler. In the end, Beru is arrested as well, leaving Luke without guidance and support.
Ran: Emperor Palpatine’s ambitious plan for his succession backfires on him when he delegates power to three of his most senior advisors, Grand Moff Tarkin, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and his apprentice and “son” created through Jedi magic, Darth Vader. Vader questions the wisdom of splitting the Empire between so many ambitious men, and is disowned and banished along with his droids. But Vader is proven right when Tarkin and Thrawn go to war over the Empire, and both of them try to put the Emperor out of the way as a potential obstacle; with his Royal Guard slaughtered, the insane Palpatine is left to wander the countryside. There he is discovered by R2D2 and C3Po, two of Vader’s droids that have remained loyal to the Emperor. They take refuge in a peasant’s hut on the swamp world of Dagobah, only to find it occupied by Yoda, Palpatine’s old Jedi foe who he had ordered to be blinded.
Vader discovers what happened to Palpatine and gathers an army to find him; this is viewed as an attempt at conquest by Tarkin and Thrawn, who send their own armies to stop him. In the final battle, the three armies weaken each other to the point where the Rebel Alliance is able to overthrow them; it’s revealed, in the end, that this was the ultimate goal of Tarkin’s wife, Mon Mothma. Tarkin kills Mothma, but is himself killed when Rebel ships blow up his Star Destroyer. Vader finds Palpatine, but is killed by Boba Fett, an assassin sent after him by Tarkin before his death. Overcome with grief, Palpatine dies, marking the end of the Empire. The film ends with a shot of Yoda, blind and alone on Dagobah, the only survivor of the film’s events.
(And by the way, before anyone thinks to comment on it, yes, I know ‘Ran’ came out after the trilogy was finished. If I can postulate an alternate universe where Lucas based ‘Star Wars’ on other movies, I can postulate one where he did it a decade later.)