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.
Next we’re introduced to David Chiang’s character, a poor wandering swordsman with nothing much to his name besides his incredible skills and his trusty horse. He too has a run-in with the bandits when he tries to stay the night in the temple they’ve holed up in, and he is promptly turned away (but not before he demonstrates his impressive sword work). The bandits are intrigued with his prowess, but they have bigger things to worry about, such as the huge shipment of silver that will soon be passing their way.
Ti Lung and Li Ching, among others, are to guard this shipment of silver, but don’t get too excited for a rollicking film about caravans getting ambushed by hundreds of hidden bandits. That happens, but it’s the action set piece for the climax of the film, and everything leading up to it is almost entirely devoted to character building and tension. While this might put off fans of later martial arts cinema, this creates a wuxia film that is actually a quality film on all levels and is therefore more accessible to fans outside the genre. As such, I think this would be a great place to dip your toes into the work of Chang Cheh, and the fact that it is readily available in the US via Netflix or Amazon adds to its allure.
Have Sword, Will Travel features slow motion much more than any previous Shaw Brothers film. It’s not to the level of later films such as Sun Chung’s The Avenging Eagle, but you can definitely see the groundwork for it in this film. I’d guess the budget was higher on this film than previous films, because this much slow motion eats up film like crazy. Nearly every moment of intense violence is filmed in slow motion, so all those wonderful blasts of red blood that usually go by incredibly fast during the action scenes play out in glorious detail. It’s never more apparent than in one specific character’s demise, not only because of the blood but because this is a character we care about, and it’s truly heart-wrenching to watch his demise drawn out in slow motion. Not to mention that we are subjected to two specific, bloody scenes involving this character, one imagined and one in reality.
It’s such a revelation to see this film in the context of the time it was made, with its two leads emerging as the second wave of martial arts stars, infinitely more interesting than the initial group of stars. As I’ve said in previous reviews, I was never a “Ti Lung/David Chiang as a duo” fan, but I get it now. I totally get it. It took soldiering through all the bad wuxia films to truly appreciate what they brought to the genre, and that is exactly why I embarked on this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers films. I would have enjoyed this film moderately well if I had randomly seen it, but in the context of the time it was made it is an absolute revelation. During the finale, the themes built up over the course of the film come to beautiful fruition and deliver a stunning, action-packed, heart-wrenching final act. I can’t guarantee your journey will be as revelatory without all the preceding films, but I can’t imagine any martial arts fan not enjoying this one. It’s also fitting that this is the final 1960s Shaw film, and the first to truly display Chang Cheh’s trademark heroic bloodshed in its full glory. A definite must watch for martial arts fans.
Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films, it’s another from Chang Cheh, and the first of the 1970s, The Wandering Swordsman! But before that there will be a Top 10 of the 1960s list!