Downhill They Ride [山賊] (1966)
AKA The Highjackers
Starring Pat Ting Hung, Paul Chang Chung, Wong Chung-Shun, Man Ling, Ou Wei, Wang Hsieh, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Zhang De-Liang, Shum Lo, Ma Ying, Got Siu-Bo
Directed by Pan Lei
First things first: I was led to believe that Downhill They Ride was an early martial arts film from the Shaw studio, but instead it’s more of a drama with a lot of horses and guns. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make for some twisted expectations. On top of that, it is the first film in my small effort to mop-up some early, previously unavailable martial arts titles for my “I’m never going to finish this” chronological Shaw Brothers review series, so there’s part of me that wished I knew what it was beforehand so I could have just moved on to the next film.
Downhill They Ride may boast a screenplay from martial arts maestro King Hu, but this carries none of the usual gravitas or intense drama typical of his films. Perhaps it was on the page and director Pan Lei didn’t translate it, but I’m more of the mind that King Hu was simply still honing his skills. But considering that Downhill They Ride released only two months prior to Hu’s landmark martial arts film Come Drink With Me, that probably isn’t the case either. Whatever the truth is, I’d say that fans of King Hu’s work should definitely view this film as a stepping stone instead of a lost gem.
The story is not much more than a simple variation on the well-used Seven Samurai formula. C’mon recite it with me: A village under assault from bandits receives help from some skilled outsiders. In the case of Downhill They Ride, there are only two outsiders, but no matter what the number is it’s still the same basic story. This kind of thing happens all the time in genre films, sure, but if the film can’t distinguish itself enough, it just fades away like a faint echo of a much better film. Sadly, that’s an apt description of Downhill They Ride, although I do have to say that it’s interesting to see a Chinese take on both the Seven Samurai tale and the classic western genre. Martial arts films and westerns definitely share a lot of common themes and roots, but rarely do they come as close to a full-fledged western as Downhill They Ride does.
Besides being somewhat slow, what really sinks the film is the lack of any charismatic characters. The two guys filling in for the seven samurai (Paul Chang Chung & Wong Chung-Shun) barely even register as heroes. There is some intrigue involving them and the suspicious manner in how they acquired their horses, but after waiting an hour for a pay off the one that comes is ridiculously anti-climactic, to the point of being resolved with a single line of dialogue. Sigh. The villagers are largely forgettable too, although the lead actress (Pat Ting Hung) is easily the most likable character and Paul Wei Ping-Ao does some great work as the shifty town merchant. But the characters I’ll likely remember as time goes on are the bumbling duo who man the town’s watch tower and warning bell. They have some great comedy between them, and later in the film when everything gets more serious theirs is one relationship that feels complete and comes full-circle.
The one thing that I’m thankful to Downhill They Ride for is that it reminded me how established the Shaw Studio already was in 1966. At that point they’d been a working studio for over 40 years, so just like their American counterparts they were a fairly well-oiled production house. It makes sense when you step back and consider their entire legacy, but their martial arts output — or even just their ’70s & ’80s output overall — is so strong that I’m often blind to anything else they’ve done. The location shooting in Downhill They Ride, as well as the sets, are excellent examples of ’60s Chinese filmmaking, so even if the story is rote there is something worthwhile here for film historians. Having been firmly established as a production company with a reputation for quality allowed the Shaw studio to easily shift production towards martial arts themed films (which would eventually lead to the films that formed the foundation of what we think of as martial arts films).
Fans of the Shaw Brothers mid-’60s output will most likely find more of interest here than I did, but make no mistake that the only fighting you’ll find in Downhill They Ride is done with words or guns. The words aren’t especially snappy, nor is the gunplay more than wildly firing in the opponent’s general direction (with one or two shots having insane, pinpoint accuracy). It’s not a bad movie, but with such a well-used story as its basis, I know there is the potential for a much better movie here.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: the mop-up continues with Hsih Chun’s 1968 wuxia The Enchanted Chamber! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later… but probably later 🙁 )