People say there’s nothing new under the sun. While I don’t completely buy into that (mainly because I don’t like the idea that original thought has been totally extinguished) there are thousands of years of recorded history from before I was even born, and the idea that someone else might have thought of something before my lifetime isn’t too far-fetched. Either way, it’s just plain fact that our creative output comes complete with telling signs that we were influenced by the creative output of others that came before us.
While we all might not end up as blatant as de Palma “borrowing” (quite liberally) from Hitchcock, our work still serves as a showcase for the works we idolize. It’s widely acknowledged that George Lucas found inspiration for parts of Star Wars in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, but it’s perhaps gone unnoticed that a line can easily be drawn from Kurasawa and Star Wars straight through to Michael Roskam‘s Oscar nominated film, Bullhead.
Roskam himself pointed out the connection in the press materials for Bullhead, saying “you know, in The Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa, you have two low-lifes… or actually it’s like R2D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars. They also help push the plot. Because of the mechanics’ stupidity, they actually create the circumstances that lead to the downfall of the main characters.” In The Hidden Fortress, peasants Matashichi and Tahei have become caught up on a war in which they have no stake. Mistaken for members of the losing party, they are stripped of their arms and forced to dig graves for the dead. The film opens on them walking through the desert arguing with each other. It is the scene that is most closely paralleled in Star Wars when R2D2 and C-3PO find themselves stranded on Tatooine, a desert planet, arguing about their situation and ultimately splitting up, just like the peasants decide to do. While Bullhead doesn’t share this specific scene, the mechanics David and Christian, the Filippini cousins, are the same types of characters as the peasants and the droids.
The peasants and the droids serve two important functions in their respective films; they provide comic relief and despite their bumbling ways, they drive the plot forward. For example, in The Hidden Fortress, the peasants’ constant bickering and greed is clearly meant to provide a few laughs. Unbeknownst to them, they end up saving their own skins when they meet the General and outline their plan to avoid a dangerous border crossing by first heading south into less heavily guarded territory and coming up on the other side of the border in safer lands. Despite the fact that they’re obviously idiots, they’ve stumbled upon a decent plan, one which the General will use to try to smuggle the Princess to safety.
Similarly, in Star Wars, the droids’ provide many funny moments often break the tension in tough scenes. But they also serve as a catalyst for the plot when Princess Leia hides the plans for the Death Star in R2D2’s memory system. The Empire is chasing them down while the Rebellion is desperate to see the plans delivered to Leia’s father on Alderaan. Moments like these continue in Empire and Jedi.
Likewise, the mechanics in Bullhead are goofy, funny characters the provide needed comic relief in a dense, dark, emotionally weighty and difficult film. They are greedy like Matashichi and Tahei, though their bickering is more good-natured like R2 and 3P0. But like both of those duos, they are directly responsible for the outcome of the story. After stealing a car for some Flemish gentleman to use, they pull the fancy rims off and sell them, replacing them with plain black ones. The Flemish guys return and task them with the car’s disposal. But when one of them notices a bullet hole in the side panel and recalls the news report of a police officer who was shot to death that night, they manage to put two and two together despite their rather low intelligence level. They quite quickly figure out they have to get the original rims back from the guy they sold them to, which leads to a string of decisions that will spell doom for several characters.
The fine folks over at Drafthouse Films have provided us with a clip featuring the mechanics, better known as “The Walloons,” which we’ve embedded below, showcasing the results once they switch the rims back.
Bullhead was easily my favorite film from last year’s Fantastic Fest. Belgium selected it over a new film by the Dardennes to be its official entry to the Academy Awards, where it has since secured a well-deserved nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It draws clear influences from films like Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress but uses those influences to craft a unique, wholly engrossing film.
Bullhead will hit theaters in limited release this Friday, February 17th.