All Men Are Brothers [蕩寇誌] (1975)
AKA Seven Soldiers of Kung Fu, Seven Blows of the Dragon II, Seven Kung Fu Assassins

Starring David Chiang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Danny Lee, Wang Kuang-Yu, Yue Fung, Ti Lung, Chu Mu, Tin Ching, Tung Lam, Chen Feng-Chen, Bolo Yeung, Lau Gong, Wong Ching, Chang Yang, Betty Chung, Ku Feng, Tetsuro Tamba, Chin Feng, Chen Wo-Fu, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan

Directed by Chang Cheh & Wu Ma

Expectations: Super high! A sequel to one of my all-time favorite Shaw films? Yes, please!

The Water Margin is one of my all-time favorite Shaw Brothers films (along with all of Shaw’s other films based on the classic Chinese novel —  Delightful Forest, Pursuit, and to a lesser extent The Amorous Lotus Pan and Chang’s segment in Trilogy of Swordsmanship), so All Men Are Brothers had a lot to live up to. The key to my immense affection for each film lies in how they all carry their own style and are therefore able to stand on their own in companionship with the other films, like the 108 Liang Shan bandits themselves. All Men Are Brothers is another very welcome addition to this lineup, taking its own path along the way to dramatizing a section of the illustrious book.

All of the previous films dealt with chapters from either the beginning or the middle of the book, but All Men Are Brothers seeks to tell the end of the tale. It takes material mostly from Chapters 90–100 (out of 100 total chapters), which deal with the redemption of the outlaws through their struggle to defeat the rebellious Fang La and his generals. A couple of flashbacks tell earlier tales to provide some character depth, and the film opens with Yan Qing’s procurement of the bandits’ pardon from the emperor (which is detailed in Chapter 81), but the film is mostly concerned with bringing everything to a close.

While none of this specifically matters to your enjoyment of the film, it does speak to the immense task of adapting The Water Margin to film. It is a massive book with literally hundreds of distinct characters, so to have whittled it down into a manageable series of films is impressive. Skimming through the chapters adapted is an interesting experience as well, since the novel only vaguely resembles what we know as a novel these days. It tells a story, but it does so without guiding us through every emotion and occurrence that befalls our heroes. One line in the book could translate to an entire scene in some cases, and in many instances there are wide gaps that need to be filled if the movie is to make any sense. Specifically, battles are very briefly covered, where in All Men Are Brothers (and martial arts films in general) so much of the intrigue and suspense comes through the situations that deliver the action.

With All Men Are Brothers, Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang prove once again why they were such a skilled and formidable screenwriting duo. Writing is so often an unsung job in kung fu films, but their work here, which keeps the spirit of the novel alive even when they must go forth on their own, is nothing short of brilliant. In addition, the amount of details from the novel that are worked in is equally impressive, too. All Men Are Brothers could work on its own, but it is immeasurably more impressive after viewing all the Shaw Brothers Water Margin films, as each previous tale provides back story that informs and enriches the overall experience.

All Men Are Brothers stands alone in the series as the film that sees the bandits cohesive and on the offensive, a benefit of adapting the novel’s final chapters. All of the prior films dealt with how various characters came to be affiliated with the Liang Shan bandits, but All Men Are Brothers is the story of how together they reclaimed their place as righteous men fighting for the good of their country. As such, it’s a film absolutely filled to the brim with action, intrigue and thrills. I love every one of the films in this series, but All Men Are Brothers is easily the most flat-out fun.

The plentiful action is once again choreographed by the four-man team responsible for The Water Margin: Lau Kar-Leung, Tang Chia, Lau Kar-Wing and Chan Chuen. They do exceptional work in the film, making each battle unique and entertaining in its own right. They also do an outstanding job at incorporating some incredible fountains of blood and gore into the proceedings. By no other metric than my internal “Gore Meter,” I honestly think that All Men Are Brothers is the goriest Shaw Brothers film up to this point. It’s really something to behold (provided you enjoy Shaw gore).

It’s also apparently what held the film from release for two–three years, as I was recently informed by a reader of the site that the censors’ crackdown on gore forced the delay. Hahaha, I can see why! I don’t know if the final film was edited in any way to secure its eventual release, but if so then it REALLY must have been something else in terms of gore, because the released version is absolutely brimming with gore and blood. I did see mention in other reviews that certain scenes of violence were tinted red during the original release (similar to Heroes Two), but thankfully this imposition is not represented in Celestial’s remastered edition.

Given what I know of Chang Cheh’s co-directed films, it is fairly safe to assume that All Men Are Brothers was entirely (or almost entirely) directed by Wu Ma. It bears the pseudo-Chang Cheh style used by his proteges (Pao Hsueh-Li and Wu Ma), which I generally describe as the style of the Chang Cheh of a few years prior (like 1970-1971) without a specific artistic intent. Looking at The Water Margin, Chang Cheh’s aesthetics were at a different place at the time of this film’s production (most likely 1972), and his films are generally more emotionally involved, artistically bold (with touches like the anachronistic music) and “epic” (for lack of a better word). But Wu Ma’s style is perfectly suited to this men-on-a-mission tale involving the Liang Shan bandits, and I honestly couldn’t think of a single thing that could’ve been better about it. It’s a more straight forward style of film, but it works perfectly for the story being told.

As you can probably tell, I liked All Men Are Brothers quite a lot. It’s a perfect sequel to The Water Margin that moves to its own rhythm, delivering an experience previously untouched upon in the Shaw adaptations of Outlaws of the Marsh. My only complaint is that they didn’t make more!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Lady of the Law from directors Shen Chiang and Stanley Siu Wing! See ya then!