The Wild Bunch (1969)

wildbunch_2Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Alfonso Arau

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Expectations: High. It’s The Wild Bunch.

fourstar


When I was a teenager I loved The Wild Bunch because it was bloody and violent in ways that I had never seen in a classic western. This violence — and the way it was edited — would forever change the course of American cinema. Re-watching the film in my 30s, I am struck by how the violence is never presented as entertainment. It is instead meant to affect the viewer, and while 45 years of violent, bloody filmmaking have definitely softened its impact a bit, it’s still incredibly brutal and hard to watch at times. The violence also makes the film feel a lot more modern than its contemporaries, which I’m sure is a huge reason why this film has continued to resonate with audiences over the years.

On the surface, The Wild Bunch is about a gang of bandits who are looking to make one last score before getting out of the game. On their tail is the calm, mild-mannered Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who was once a trusted member of the outlaw group. It’s a rather simple and often-used story, but The Wild Bunch never feels simple or clichéd. One of the first images on-screen shows a group of children huddled around a colony of red ants attacking a small group of scorpions. This image is not only striking, but it is representative of the rest of the film and the struggles of the main character Pike (not to mention our own fascination with watching violent struggles).

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Shark! (1969)

shark_1Shark! (1969)
AKA Caine, Man-Eater

Starring Burt Reynolds, Arthur Kennedy, Silvia Pinal, Barry Sullivan, Enrique Lucero, Carlos Barry, Manuel Alvarado, José Chávez, Francisco Reiguera, Emilia Stuart, José Marco

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: The lowest.

twostar


Shark!, the film which Sam Fuller was so displeased with that he disowned it and tried to get the producers to remove his name from it. Around the fringes of the film, there are shreds of Fuller’s usual style and forceful direction, but overall it just doesn’t have that Fuller spark. Shark! is a great example of how editing can completely cripple a film, as Fuller delivered his final cut to the producers only to have it re-cut without his knowledge into the lifeless, slow film before us. Shark! feels disjointed, sloppy and without purpose for a good amount of its runtime, things that Fuller’s previous films just don’t set you up to expect from him.

In my review for The Naked Kiss, I mentioned that it was a film that could have never been made within the studio system. While this is impressive nowadays, the controversial nature of the film also made it nearly impossible for Fuller to get financing for his future films, so he spent a lot of his time after The Naked Kiss unsuccessfully trying to get pictures off the ground. Eventually, this led Fuller to get desperate and take the shady deal that led to the production of Shark! In between the two films, Fuller had made a few episodes of the TV show Iron Horse, but he found this work so boring and uninteresting that he could barely even remember doing it in his autobiography. This disinterest surely contributed to Fuller’s acceptance of the Shark! deal, which was originally a two-film contract that dissolved after the debacle of Shark!

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Have Sword, Will Travel (1969)

Have Sword Will Travel [保鏢] (1969)
AKA The Bodyguard

Starring Ti Lung, Li Ching, David Chiang, Cheng Miu, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching Ho, Ku Feng, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Lau Gong, Hung Lau, Chan Sing, Wong Chung, Cheng Lui, Cheng Kang-Yeh

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Very high? The first martial arts film by Chang Cheh with Ti Lung and David Chang? This should be spectacular.


Oh man, this one might be a long one. I think I took more notes for this one than I ever have for any previous review. Have Sword, Will Travel is the first martial arts film to feature the duo of Ti Lung and David Chiang, and boy what a film to kick off their wuxia careers. Chang Cheh’s previous martial arts film was The Invincible Fist, and while this film doesn’t quite reach those heights, it comes damn close.

Written by noted martial arts scribe Ni Kuang (who had previously written The One-Armed Swordsman and The Invincible Fist for Chang Cheh), Have Sword, Will Travel is yet another example of the man’s stunning writing ability. No one looks to this genre for quality writing (in fact, most people regularly lambaste it for its shitty writing), but they clearly haven’t experienced a great Ni Kuang script.

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The Golden Sword (1969)

The Golden Sword [龍門金劍] (1969)

Starring Kao Yuen, Cheng Pei Pei, Wang Lai, Kao Pao-Shu, Lo Wei, Wong Chung-Shun, Yeung Chi Hing, Alice Au Yin-Ching, Lee Pang-Fei, Goo Man-Chung, Ng Wai, Lee Kwan, Go Ming, Law Hon, Ku Feng, James Tin Jun

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Optimistic. Lo Wei usually delivers something entertaining and different with his films.


I talk a lot about Chang Cheh’s prolific output of films, but Lo Wei was no slouch himself. The Golden Sword was Lo Wei’s third film released in 1969, and it is, at least for me, by far his best. Where Dragon Swamp and Raw Courage were both fun in their own ways, they feel like films that are just shy of realizing their true potential. The Golden Sword is Lo Wei finally putting all the pieces together to form a fun and vigorous wuxia film; I always knew he had it in him.

Two masked riders arrive at the Golden Sword Lodge and give the man of the house, played by Lo Wei, a small box. Upon seeing it, he gets on one of their horses and rides off into the night. Seven years and one awesome credits sequence later, the new chief of the clan is being appointed as they’ve all pretty much given up on finding Lo Wei. All except for his son, played by Kao Yuen, who decides he’ll venture out on his own to search for his lost father. Having scoured all the obvious places and local lands, Kao Yuen continues his quest in a snowy, mountainous region rarely seen in Shaw Brothers films, and here he meets Cheng Pei Pei disguised as a beggar. The fun begins here and really doesn’t let up until the standard Shaw Brothers “THE END” comes on-screen.

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The Swordmates (1969)

The Swordmates [燕娘] (1969)

Starring Chin Ping, Chung Wa, Wong Chung-Shun, Wang Hsieh, Yeung Chi Hing, Chiu Hung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Law Hon, Wong Ching-Wan, Chiu Sam-Yin, Wong Ching Ho, Cheng Lui, Gai Yuen, Lau Kong, Tong Tin-Hei, Lee Sau Kei

Directed by Chang Ying & Pan Fan

Expectations: Not much. Looks like a standard wuxia.


The Swordmates is a film riddled with flaws and reasons to write it off with simple indifference. Thankfully, the film is also filled with as many exciting fights as it is flaws, so despite being a rather average and clichéd film, it manages to entertain pretty well as long as you don’t have any expectations to mitigate. A plot to overthrow the emperor is the basis for the action here, with the plans hidden in the base of a statue of the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guan Yin. The good guys have it, the bad guys want it. Of course, it changes hands a couple of times. This is pretty much the extent of the plot in the film, but for some reason it was still giving me massive trouble trying to follow it. Part of this was probably my fault, but some of the blame definitely falls on the storytelling.

The statue begins the film in the hands of the good guys, who are trying to take it to the capital. Then it gets stolen by the bad guys, but these bad guys are clueless and don’t know what the statue is or what it contains. So while I knew that they were the bad guys, I kept wondering if they were also the ones trying to overthrow the emperor, or if that was actually the good guys looking for a righteous revolution. You never know which faction will try to overthrow the emperor in these films, but rest assured there’s usually someone trying. In any case, I was definitely overthinking this one.

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Raw Courage (1969)

Raw Courage [虎膽] (1969)
AKA Tiger’s Courage

Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua, Ng Fung, Lo Wei, Tien Feng, Poon Oi-Lun, Yeung Chi Hing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Lee Kwan, Tong Jing, Lee Sau Kei, Go Ming, Goo Man-Chung, Hung Lau, Yee Kwan

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Moderate. I have a bad feeling about this one.


My bad feelings were all for naught, as Lo Wei’s Raw Courage is a fun, rollicking little wuxia film. It’s not something that will create genre fans, nor is it anything truly substantial, but it is fantastic entertainment. Raw Courage tells the story of an emperor besieged by an army who entrusts his child to Lo Wei and his Black Dragon Clan. In virtually every other Shaw Brothers film from this period involving a baby, there’d be a twenty year jump in time and we’d pick up the story with the young martial artist out looking to find their destiny or avenge their fallen parents/master. In Raw Courage, the baby actually stays a baby as Cheng Pei-Pei and Ng Fung quickly find themselves in charge of taking the infant prince across the country to meet up with the White Dragon Clan. If trying to transport a baby through enemy checkpoints sounds like a good time, then Raw Courage is your barrel of monkeys.

There’s nothing too special about Raw Courage, other than its ability to rise above the standard wuxia storytelling and remain exciting and interesting throughout. There are loads of problems that contribute to the film being less than it should be, but honestly I only noticed after the film was over because I was having such a fun time with it. One of the major flaws is that the villains, while plentiful, aren’t nearly well-defined enough to make for compelling adversaries to our heroes. Tien Feng plays their leader, but basically sleepwalks through a role where his primary task is to walk from one place to another and say, “After them!” It’s hard to blame him. The villain introduced later in the film, a man with a blue-gray face known only as Old Monster, is awesome and really deserved more screen time too. It’s crazy villains like this that would later populate all kinds of wild and fantastic Hong Kong films, so I’m willing to forgive this one a bit just for including him.

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Vengeance is a Golden Blade (1969)

Vengeance is a Golden Blade [飛燕金刀] (1969)

Starring Chin Ping, Yueh Hua, Tang Ching, Kao Pao Shu, Goo Man-Chung, Pang Pang, Lee Pang-Fei, Chiu Hung, Law Hon, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wong Ching Ho, Hao Li-Jen, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. You can’t go wrong with that title, right?


The reason I made it a point to go through the Shaw Brothers films chronologically is because I knew that there was no way that one week I could review some early misstep like King Cat, followed by something akin to heaven like Five Element Ninjas, only to return to the slow-paced, melodrama of the late 60s. Sometimes I do venture outside of the era though, and this time specifically I had seen Merantau, Flash Point and The Raid all in between the last Shaw Brothers picture and this. I’m a professional though, so I didn’t let it undermine the experience of watching Vengeance is a Golden Blade, but it did shine a brilliant spotlight on just how underwhelming an experience it was.

Vengeance is a Golden Blade starts out as another in the long tradition of “the most badass sword” movies, such as The Sword of Swords, The Thundering Sword, etc. The masterpiece sword here is the Golden Dragon Sword, and it is pretty badass, slicing clean through every bit of metal swung its way. The intrigue involves the sword being stolen by a grave enemy, the hero being crippled and eighteen years passing before anyone gets down to any real vengeance. This is where the film gains its true star in Chin Ping, and, to a lesser extent, her childhood friend Yueh Hua. While this might sound like a great setup for a classic swordplay film, Vengeance is a Golden Blade is only merely average. It does tell an interesting story filled with twisty turns and devious betrayals, but for the most part it’s all pretty standard fare.

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