Wrath of the Sword [怒劍狂刀] (1970)
Starring Tang Ching, Shu Pei-Pei, Sek Kin, Chiang Nan, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Yip Ching, Lan Wei-Lieh, Wu Ma
Directed by Wu Ma
Expectations: Fairly high.
I had high hopes that Wrath of the Sword would be some kind of unsung hidden gem of martial arts cinema. Instead, as the film went on it only became more apparent why Wrath of the Sword wasn’t well known. It’s not a horrible movie — it does entertain — but it has little in the way of originality or flair. Wrath of the Sword simply exists, and for martial arts fans these days, when hundreds upon hundreds of films are readily available, that is definitely not enough. Evidently it wasn’t enough in 1970 either, though, as the film tanked at the box office. Placed into context against the Shaw catalog, Wrath of the Sword came out in-between Vengeance! and The Twelve Gold Medallions, a place that no film would want to be, let alone a mediocre one.
As you might guess, Wrath of the Sword tells an uninspired story told better in many similar wuxia films. The film opens with the massacre of the Bai family, but one descendant remains: Bai Ying (Shu Pei-Pei), and she’s out for vengeance. For unexplained reasons a mysterious swordsman, Yu Qing-Hua (Tang Ching), seems intent on helping Bai Ying on her mission, but as he points out to her, she doesn’t even know who her enemies are. Good thing those evil bastards aren’t shy at all, ambushing Bai Ying whenever the opportunity presents itself.
With so little story, the action and the choreography has to step up and carry the film. Unfortunately, while there are quite a lot of fights throughout the film, they just aren’t up to the challenge. The best moments come when the camera is placed far away from the battle, allowing the stuntmen to go nuts and sell it like only stuntmen can. But many of the fights seem extended simply to make the film feature-length, so instead of each moment moving the action forward it’s just a revolving series of swinging swords. Nothing unique or thrilling about that! I’m sure this is why Wrath of the Sword was Wu Ma’s only film as an action choreographer.
That said, there are some fantastic moments of our wuxia heroes performing fun wuxia feats. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jump from a container full of chopsticks on a table, but the most memorable and impressive feat comes later in the film (but still in the inn). Upper-level henchman Tso Zhi-Da (Wu Ma) is doing his best to intimidate Bai Ying with his martial skills, but she easily turns the tables on him. First he offers her a drink by throwing a cup full of wine to her from across the room. But this is child’s play for Bai Ying; she catches the cup in her mouth and drinks it down in one smooth motion. The scene continues through more of these impressive feats until Bai Ying has resolutely proved her dominance.
Wrath of the Sword isn’t a Shaw Brothers film, but it features so many Shaw players both behind and in front of the camera that it could easily be mistaken for a lower-tier Shaw effort. It even has all the same ripped off Ennio Morricone and James Bond music cues, too! But Wrath of the Sword is noticeably more low-budget than the average Shaw film, especially so in the set construction. There’s a castle that’s pretty clearly just a flimsy one-sided facade on a mountaintop, and a bridge that literally starts falling apart mid-fight. (A guy is knocked into the banister, and instead of just that section breaking, the entire banister along the length of the bridge falls with him.) These instances of low-budget filmmaking don’t really hurt Wrath of the Sword, but they do make me appreciate the well-made, beautiful Shaw sets even more than i already do.
Prior to making Wrath of the Sword, Wu Ma was an assistant director on five Chang Cheh films (Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, The Singing Thief, The Invincible Fist, Dead End, and The Wandering Swordsman). He would go on to direct 48 other films, including a whole bunch of co-directing work with Chang Cheh, so clearly he had better films than Wrath of the Sword ahead of him. I’d say you could easily avoid this one — it’s not hard, this one is quite rare — and see some of those later films instead.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: the mop-up continues with Chang Tseng-Chai’s rare first film for the Shaw Brothers: 1971’s Redbeard! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)