The Duel [大決鬥] (1971)
AKA Duel of the Iron Fists, Duel of the Iron Fist, Duel of the Shaolin Fist
Starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, Yue Wai, Wang Ping, Chuen Yuen, Ku Feng, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Yeung Chi Hing, Hung Lau, Wong Ching Ho, Hoh Ban, Lee Wan Chung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Lau Gong, Chiu Hung, Yau Ming
Directed by Chang Cheh
The Duel is an incredible martial arts motion picture. It might not be the type of movie that will convince non-martial arts fans of the greatness of the genre, but it will definitely delight and entertain those already in love. The Duel features so much flat-out awesome action, while also telling a very succinct and morally charged revenge tale, it’s truly one of Chang Cheh’s best films. I’m tempted to say that The New One-Armed Swordsman is a better movie, but The Duel is clearly the more awesome of the two. There is never a dull moment in The Duel, and whenever you think there might be, a whole host of henchmen sneak around the corner and assault our heroes. It’s simply a joy to behold.
The basic story of The Duel is centered around a family. When the patriarch is murdered in a public place, the elder brothers send younger brother Ren Jie (Ti Lung) away so that he can take the fall for the crime. He vows to find the killer when he returns, but before his time away is up a bunch of henchmen show up to murder him. The funny thing is: he recognizes their leader as one of his family members. This sets Ren Jie on a path of retribution, uncovering a thick web of intrigue and betrayal. Also along for the ride is The Rambler (David Chiang), a hired fighter that helped Ren Jie’s family take out a rival family during the film’s incredible opening sequence.
The first time these two fighters meet is also the moment that the title drops on-screen, accompanied by the thunderous music of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, otherwise known as “the 2001 music.” It’s bold of Chang Cheh to use such iconic music here, just three years after 2001: A Space Odyssey made it its own, but its use here is absolutely perfect. It immediately clues in the audience that the duel of the title will come of a rivalry between Ti Lung and David Chiang, two of the biggest stars in Hong Kong at the time. This was huge, as these two had appeared in many movies together, but they had never been pitted against each other. And of course, Chang Cheh doesn’t make the titular duel an average, simple fight between a good guy and a bad guy. He laces it with thick, bittersweet bonds of brotherhood; the martial arts fan in me was crying out for the fight to start, but the film’s emotional ride made me dread its inevitability. It’s truly ingeniously crafted in that way, and that right there is exactly why Chang Cheh was the top director at the Shaw Studios. Just the fact that two of the biggest stars in Hong Kong at the time were fighting each other was a big deal, but Chang makes it even more momentous with Also sprach Zarathustra! Brilliant!
More people die in the first 25 minutes of The Duel than in most entire film trilogies. Instead of feeling gratuitous or numbing, though, every moment of violence is amazingly realized and incredibly entertaining. Just about every fight is of the “one vs. many” variety, which is usually an excuse for less-than-stellar choreography to make concessions for the fact that 20 dudes are fighting at once on-screen. But in The Duel that’s not the case, as despite the number of combatants on-screen each shot is focused, exciting and expertly choreographed and edited together. This is truly a culmination of Hong Kong choreography up to this point, and here it reaches its boiling point. The action was handled by Yuen Cheung-Yan & Tang Chia, previously responsible together for the Chang Cheh films Have Sword, Will Travel, Vengeance! & King Eagle, but The Duel far outshines those previous collaborations.
For the first time in this Shaw Brothers series, I have seen this film before. I saw it in the theater, paired with Sun Chung’s The Avenging Eagle, at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. But despite what that might sound like, the experience was less than ideal. The print was a dubbed US release print (so somewhat edited), and faded to the point of being almost completely red (except for one reel that was near perfect). I already have a hard time watching dubbed movies, but the fact that the audience was laughing AT the movie because of its poor dubbing added to my disgruntled tone. It was also quite late at night, and I’m a notorious sleeper during movies that I watch too late. So even though I have seen this one before, I feel like this was really the first time I had truly seen the film. The first thing I noticed, and continued to notice throughout, was how incredibly colorful the film is! It’s really well-shot and has a wide color palette, but all that was lost in a wash of scarlet fade in the theatrical print I saw.
What really sets The Duel apart is its two lead characters. Ti Lung’s Ren Jie is loyal and dedicated to a fault. The film opens with Ren Jie in a tattoo parlor, having a large butterfly tattooed onto his chest in honor of his undying dedication to his girlfriend. Once he sets his mind on something, he follows that course with an unwavering passion. Even later in the film, when he discovers his girlfriend working at a brothel, he calls her his wife and fights to the best of his abilities to get them both out of danger. Nothing can persuade him away from his dedication.
David Chiang’s Rambler character is an opposite type of guy, working without passion and farming his services out to the highest bidder. Even in the final battle, as Ren Jie seeks his ultimate revenge, Chiang strolls around smoking a cigarette, waiting for the dust to settle. The two men understand the other’s motives, and neither man seeks to change the other. They accept each for what he is, so when certain things come together that dictate they must fight each other, they accept it as a natural occurrence. They don’t like it, but they know they must do what is necessary. The film explores these characters’ curious relationship of mutual respect in-between the stellar fights, and this is what really elevates The Duel beyond a simple fight film.
Not only is The Duel incredibly exciting, quickly paced and fun, it’s also very fresh feeling as the modern setting allows for an almost completely new grouping of sets that make their début. The violence is also punctuated with some truly impressive sprays of blood, but it’s the underlying story of brotherhood and friendship that ultimately makes The Duel the success it is. If you’re a big martial arts fan and you haven’t seen this, definitely add it to the list. You won’t be disappointed.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Teddy Yip Wing-Cho’s The Eunuch! I have no idea what to expect, but anyone who knows Hong Kong films knows that eunuchs always bring the awesome. Hopefully The Eunuch continues the trend!