Just about a year ago, I finished the first phase of my Shaw Brothers project, AKA the 1960s, and I posted a Top 10 list for the period. And as promised on that post, roughly one year later I have finished “Phase 2″ (1970–1971) and have put together another list of 10 films for those who don’t want to waste time watching all of the films from the period. This list was culled from 39 eligible films, and it was a lot harder this time around. The films are getting much better overall, so even though I limited this list to only two years, I had a number of quality films on the list to consider. As I did last time, I’ve included links to Amazon and Netflix for easy access by those intrigued enough to check some of these out. This time I’ve also added links to DDDHouse.com for films available through them. The availability is all current as of the posting of this list.
OK, enough jibber jabber, let’s get to the list!
#10 The Swift Knight (1971)
Directed by Cheng Chang Ho
Reviewed April 12, 2013
This 10th spot was the only one on this list that I didn’t fill quickly. The others were all easy shoe-ins, but for this final spot in the list there were a few very good ones that I could have gone with. I ultimately chose The Swift Knight for a couple of reasons. The first is that the film is one that tries to blend genre thrills with artful intent, something somewhat rare and precious in the Shaw Brothers films (although a good many of the films on this list do the same). The second is that it’s a ridiculous amount of fun. Fantastic fights and a thrilling story combine to make for a really outstanding film. Definitely worth your time. The Swift Knight is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which is not currently available from Amazon, but if you check that link from time to time it might come up for sale. But don’t fret, the film is currently available from reputable HK retailer DDDHouse.com.
#9 The Deadly Duo (1971)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed June 21, 2013
The Deadly Duo isn’t your average martial arts film in that its focus is somewhere other than tightly choreographed martial arts battles between colorful combatants. Those elements definitely exist but they are sidelined in favor of a more straightforward action film. It’s odd that the film still works so well as a martial arts film, and sad that many non-Chang Cheh films don’t even have fights that match the ones seen here, and the ones in The Deadly Duo feel like an afterthought at times. It’s a worthwhile watch just to see a different take on the classic martial arts tale, and it also features Bolo Yeung in a small villain role. The Deadly Duo is available from Amazon for purchase on DVD & Blu-ray and for streaming rental or purchase. The film is also available for rental at Netflix.
#8 The Heroic Ones (1970)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed September 28, 2012
I remember writing in my review of this one that it’s clear who the “A-Team” of the Shaw Brothers was, because everything about The Heroic Ones is big, broad and expertly produced. A much larger-scale film than Chang Cheh had made previously, The Heroic Ones tells a story about the 13 princes of a Barbarian king, and how they attempt to kill the rebel leader who has taken over the capital city of Chang’an. Featuring a lengthy escape sequence with Ti Lung battling his way out of the rebel compound, the film also delivers some thrilling action sequences. The Heroic Ones was also the first film to really use the Chinese spear as a major weapon, which isn’t that big of a deal these days, but I have a feeling it resonated pretty well with Chinese audiences of the day, as the film was #4 in the 1970 HK box office for Chinese films. The Heroic Ones is available at Amazon for purchase on DVD & Blu-ray, and for rental at Netflix.
#7 The Chinese Boxer (1970)
Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu
Reviewed July 12, 2012
Jimmy Wang Yu was the genre’s first major male star, but later audiences tend to rag on him quite a bit. Their concerns are not without good reason — he’s a fairly unconvincing screen fighter, and it’s admittedly hard to go back to his style of screen-fu after becoming accustomed to just about anyone that came after him. That all being said, The Chinese Boxer is a fantastic film and its importance to the genre is undeniable. The first true hand-to-hand kung fu film of the modern era, The Chinese Boxer not only introduced the world to a new subgenre of martial arts film, it also introduced many of the subgenre’s tropes and conventions and helped pave the way to Bruce Lee’s debut in The Big Boss. So clear your mind of expectations and enjoy The Chinese Boxer for what it is: the beginning of a fantastic subgenre of martial arts films, which eventually rose to such popularity that this subgenre overtook the entire genre. It should also be noted that it was the #1 Chinese film at the HK box office in 1970. The Chinese Boxer is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which can be purchased via Amazon if you have the correct hardware to play it.
#6 The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970)
Directed by Cheng Kang
Reviewed September 14, 2012
I love wuxia films that feature crazy feats of martial strength and ability, and The Twelve Gold Medallions has one of my all-time favorites. Yueh Hua reaches his hands into a vat of boiling oil to retrieve some frying breads, and he does so completely unscathed. The film is just as awesome as this moment, weaving a thrilling wuxia tale out of expertly shot action sequences and a load of fun characters. The story is a bit lacking, but it more than makes up for it with everything else. Even as a step down from Cheng Kang’s previous film, Killers Five, The Twelve Gold Medallions is a fantastically fun wuxia film. The Twelve Gold Medallions is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which can be purchased via Amazon if you have the correct hardware to play it. The film is also available from reputable HK retailer DDDHouse.com.
#5 Duel for Gold (1971)
Directed by Chor Yuen
Reviewed June 7, 2013
Duel for Gold marks the debut of legendary director Chor Yuen under the Shaw Brothers label, and he didn’t waste any time getting down to business. Duel for Gold takes a standard wuxia story of bandits stealing gold and turns it upside-down by structuring the film atypically and giving us something to ponder while we see the initial scenes that lay the film’s groundwork. It’s clichéd these days to start your film at the end and then work back to it, but in Duel for Gold it works exceptionally well to differentiate itself from the Shaw Brothers pack. Duel for Gold is a film that excites as much intellectually as it does viscerally. Duel for Gold is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which can be purchased via Amazon if you have the correct hardware to play it. The film is also available from reputable HK retailer DDDHouse.com.
#4 Brothers Five (1970)
Directed by Lo Wei
Reviewed July 27, 2012
Brothers Five was one of the earliest films in this phase of my project, but it never left my mind the entire time. The thrilling choreography from Sammo Hung and Simon Chui Yee-Ang became a high-water mark that I measured other films against, and its incredible end battle remains one of the best fights of the era. This is the type of early Shaw Brothers film that I feel can transcend its age and appeal to any martial arts fan. Like many Lo Wei films, it is a bit too long, but its strengths are so great that this is ultimately a minor concern. Brothers Five is available at Amazon for purchase by itself on DVD & Blu-ray, and in a four-film DVD box set along with Brave Archer and His Mate, Holy Flame of the Martial World & Journey of the Doomed. The film is also available for rental at Netflix.
#3 Vengeance! (1970)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed September 7, 2012
Vengeance! changed the game for martial arts cinema, taking the fights out of ancient period pieces and moving the action to the 1920s Early Republic period of Chinese history. This film’s setting, along with certain elements of The Chinese Boxer, are what brought the genre forward for Bruce Lee to completely break it open. Without these two films, and specifically Vengeance!, we quite possibly would have seen a very different Bruce Lee on-screen. Vengeance! also lives up to its title with hard-hitting, brutal violence as David Chiang does his best to seek vengeance for the murder of his brother played by Ti Lung. The film is also notable as the first Shaw Brothers film for later star Chen Kwan-Tai, who appears in a very small role as a guard. I’d say this one is so good that it would excite even non-martial arts fans, but unfortunately it’s fairly hard to come by at this point. Vengeance! is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which doesn’t even have a page at Amazon. I did find the VCD listing, but it’s also not available and this is too good of a film to watch at VCD quality anyway (although, it’d do just fine if that’s the only way you could see it). In any case, someone needs to pick this up for a Region 1 release, and given the film’s quality and historical relevance I’d love to see Criterion do something special with it. (And if you’d like to see that happen, be sure to email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
#2 The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed January 25, 2013
These days, remakes are not met with enthusiasm and excitement, but if they were all as awesome and inspired as The New One-Armed Swordsman, I think they would be. While not specifically a remake in the strictest sense, The New One-Armed Swordsman is more of a re-imagining, a reboot of the series that tells the story of a completely different one-armed fighter and his struggles with those that would do evil in his land. The one-armed characters are so distinct from each other that after leaving the Shaw Brothers, both one-armed swordsmen (Jimmy Wang Yu and David Chiang) got together and made an independent movie called One-Armed Swordsmen. But never mind what happened after, The New One-Armed Swordsman is an incredibly fun piece of martial arts cinema, and it’s easily my favorite of the three one-armed films that Chang Cheh made. The New One-Armed Swordsman is currently available on a HK Blu-ray (Asia and the US are the same Blu-ray region, y’all) through Amazon or DDDHouse.com. The film is also available in a Region 3, three-film DVD box set with the previous two awesome One-Armed Swordsman films, both at DDDHouse.com and Amazon.
#1 The Duel (1971)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed March 1, 2013
The Duel isn’t just the best film of this period of the Shaw Brothers, it’s easily my favorite film from the entire review series so far. Consistently entertaining and badass, The Duel throws tons of expertly choreographed martial arts sequences at you over the course of its runtime. The titular duel is a legendary battle, made even more impressive by watching the Shaw films in chronological order. I used to think it was just another cool, bloody ending like many of Chang Cheh’s films. Seeing it in context made me realize the significance of Ti Lung battling David Chiang; it wasn’t just any two fighters pitted against each other, it was the two biggest stars in Hong Kong at the time, and they had always, always been fighting together on the same side. And even here, they aren’t exactly enemies, which laces the duel with a level of emotional distress and anguish never before seen in the genre. The Duel is not just a great motion picture for its time, it’s one for all time. The Duel is available at Amazon for purchase on DVD.
So there you have it, folks! What do you Shaw fans think? Did I get it right? Is your favorite from this era placed too low, or omitted altogether? Sound off in the comments below, which are always open and accepting your thoughts!
As I did last time, I debated with myself whether I should add some Honorable Mentions. With all the great films, it seemed like a shame to let some of them fall under the radar. Ultimately, I came to the same decision and have not included any extras. If anyone’s curious what was just shy of making my list, just let me know and I’ll drop it into the comments. Thanks for reading!
See you in about a year or so when I complete Phase 3 and can bring you the list for 1972-1973!