George Lucas looked to several sources for inspiration when he was writing the script for the first Star Wars film. Flash Gordon was one of the stories he pillaged ideas from but he’s gone on record as saying that the main basis for Star Wars: A New Hope was the 1958 Samurai action film The Hidden Fortress, directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors in film history. Both Lucas and his mentor Francis Ford Coppola are huge admirers of Kurosawa, and Lucas has often spoken with great respect about his work. Not surprisingly, Lucas took a lot of inspiration from Kurosawa when working on his magnum opus.
The Hidden Fortress is set in Feudal Japan, during a war between two powerful clans. Two peasants (the comedy relief characters) are captured after being mistaken for soldiers but soon escape during a prisoner uprising. The two peasants—one tall, one short—squabble and split-up in the desert, but are captured and reunited as prisoners. They are forced to dig for gold. Meanwhile, the Akizuki Clan is going broke from the war and need an infusion of money so they send the feisty young Princess Yuki and the experienced, formidable Samurai General Makabe to retrieve some gold from the legendary hidden fortress; which happens to be exactly where the two peasants are digging.
With the enemy having overrun the territory around the hidden fortress, the Princess and the General have to sneak the gold back across the border to the head of the Akizuki Clan. En route, they make a deal with the two peasants because the duo has important local geographic knowledge. The peasants reluctantly join them on their mission, in exchange for a promised reward. On the way home, they get some help from an enigmatic woman who they rescue from a slave trader and who becomes loyal to the Princess.
The travelers are hunted by the forces of rival General Tadokoro who wants the gold for his own master. Makabe and Tadokoro have some history and settle their dispute in single combat, with Makabe defeating Tadokoro. After a series of adventures and narrow escapes, the group gets back to the safety of the Akizuki Clan where the Princess oversees a ceremony and hands out rewards to those who aided her on her mission.
The similarities to Star Wars are all there: the two peasants are R2D2 and C3P0. Gen. Makabe is Ben Kenobi. Tadokoro is Vader (who switches to the good guy’s side at the end, much as Vader did in Return of the Jedi) and their battle is reminiscent of the Obi- Wan/Vader fight in Star Wars. The fire festival is sort of like the Mos Isley scene. The woman/escaped slave is like Han Solo fleeing from Jabba the Hutt. The Samurai are the Jedi. Both films end with an awards ceremony.
One big difference is that in the Hidden Fortress, the characters of Luke and Leia are combined into one person. In Star Wars, the Princess sets off on a mission to save her planet and sends R2 to get help from Obi-Wan, which leads to Luke following R2 to Obi-Wan and becoming his sidekick as he tries to bring the valuable info back to the rebels. In the Hidden Fortress, Yuki serves both purposes; she is the Princess on a mission to retrieve something that will save her people, and she is also the young traveler leaving home for the first time and learning about the world from the General who guides her. Lucas split her in half to make the siblings Luke and Leia.
Another thing that Lucas took for Star Wars is the “worms eye view” style of narrative, where we (the viewer) see the action from the point of view of the lowest and least powerful characters of the film. In the Hidden Fortress, it’s the two peasants Tahei and Matashichi. In Star Wars, it’s R2D2 and C3P0.
Also, many people don’t know that in the original script for Star Wars, Leia was not sent out looking for the plans to Death Star, but rather to retrieve some valuable objects called the Kyber Crystals, which were similar to the gold in the Hidden Temple. The Kyber Crystals were written out of the final script but Lucas got the idea of that from Kurosawa.
Gen. Makabe was played in the Hidden Temple by the great Toshiro Mifune, who appeared in many Kurasawa films. Fun fact: George Lucas originally wanted Mifune to play Ben/Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars but that didn’t work out. (Of course, you can’t complain about getting the incredible Alec Guinness as a substitute.)
Obviously, there are many differences between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars, and so Star Wars can’t be considered a real remake, but there are numerous aspects of the film that Lucas admits he adapted when writing Star Wars (the first draft of the script was much closer to the Hidden Temple than the final version). That being the case, every Star Wars fan ought to thank Kurosawa, Toho Pictures (yes, the same people who gave us Godzilla were also behind the film that inspired Star Wars) and everyone involved in the making of the Hidden Fortress for inadvertently helping to create the great sci-fi franchise we love.