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The Naval Commandos (1977)

The Naval Commandos [海軍突擊隊] (1977)

Starring Lau Wing, Chi Kuan-Chun, David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Shih Szu, Ti Lung, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Chiang Sheng, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Lu Feng, An Ping, Woo Kei, Shan Mao, Lee Sau-Kei, Chu Jing, Kwok San-Hing, Lam Fai-Wong, David Tang Wei

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Pao Hsueh-Li, Wu Ma, and Liu Wei-Bin)

Expectations: Pretty high.

The Naval Commandos was one of the last movies Chang Cheh made in Taiwan before returning to the Shaw studio in Hong Kong. It was produced in cooperation with Taiwan’s Central Film Company, and like 7-Man Army, the Taiwanese military assisted with the filming by providing vehicles and other tools of war to make the film realistic. This is evident throughout the film, but it is the most prominent during the film’s introduction and frame story. It depicts a training exercise simulating the many pieces involved in a successful beachfront invasion (similar to the D-Day invasion shown in Saving Private Ryan or The Big Red One). It works beautifully to set the stage for the wartime action drama to follow, as well as serving as a large-scale display of power for the Taiwanese military.

This introduction is great, and it perfectly frames the film, but the film’s primary story is far more interesting. Many years prior during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when the Chinese Navy was less advanced, the Japanese cruiser Izumo (referenced as Izuma in the subtitles) was docked in Japanese-controlled Shanghai in preparation for further attack on China. The Chinese Navy had nothing that could stand up to the Izumo in direct battle, so it is decided that a small group of men aboard a torpedo boat will try to perform a sneak attack disguised as a fishing boat. Getting there is not so easy, though, as there is a huge field of mines to be crossed and Japanese patrols to elude. It is a valiant plan in theory, but unfortunately it is derailed before it even has a chance of success. The men arrive in Shanghai, undeterred and focused on finding a new method of sinking the Izumo.

Like many of Chang Cheh’s films, The Naval Commandos is a work of historical fiction. In the case of this film, though, it seems like the purpose is more to show the Chinese spirit than to relate a dramatic version of real events. It’s more of a revisionist fantasy that shows what might have been, while willfully ignoring the facts of certain aspects of the story (like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). The circumstances of the Izumo and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai are definitely true, though, and numerous attempts were made by the Chinese military to sink the Izumo (including at least one made by a torpedo boat). The section of the story centered around Liang Guan Qin (Ti Lung), captain of the Ning Hai light cruiser, also seems to be true to life from what I researched. In any case, it’s a solid mixture of real and fantasy that succeeds at both relaying knowledge of the era and entertaining the audience, just like a good work of historical fiction should.

Beyond that, the most interesting facet of the movie is its huge cast of Shaw Brothers favorites old and new. The torpedo boat is captained by Chi Kuan-Chun, and he’s brings Lau Wing, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, and future Venom mob members Phillip Kwok, Chiang Sheng, and Lu Feng along for the ride. Kwok was featured in many of the previous Chang’s Film Co. films, but The Naval Commandos marks the first prominent roles for Chiang and Lu. Lo Meng even shows up in a henchman role, leaving out only Sun Chien of the main Venom cast (who came on-board with Chinatown Kid). Anyway, when these men reach Shanghai they meet up with David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng and Shih Szu. The Shaw star power is ridiculously strong here, and it makes the film so much fun for fans of the studio.

The Naval Commandos is a bit light on action, especially martial action, but this isn’t a bad thing with this particular film. The story is always moving and engaging, built on the fraught tensions between the occupying Japanese and the oppressed Chinese. The best part of this is the animosity between the soldiers and the Chinese in Shanghai. In simple terms, it allows for Chi Kuan-Chun to fight Fu Sheng a couple of times. It’s easily the highlight of the film’s martial action, and a real treat for Shaw fans to see Fu Sheng in something of an antagonist role. In terms of the film, though, I’d have to give the nod to the rousing finale as the film’s highest point. The Naval Commandos ends with a wonderful blend of tension, drama, and action (both martial and not) that brings everything the film has built to a perfect, cathartic conclusion.

As always, I’m interested in which director worked on which section of the film, but Chang Cheh’s memoir offers nothing in the way of clarity. The film’s on-screen credits list Pao Hsueh-Li, Wu Ma, and Liu Wei-Bin as “Joint Directors,” while in the memoir they are billed as Executing Directors. In the terms of the memoir, that usually means that Chang Cheh oversaw the film in a producer-like role, while the other directors were actually on-set getting the footage. I find it hard to believe that Chang Cheh completely sat this one out, though, as it is a strong film that easily sits within the top-end of his work of this era. On the other hand, it’s structured in such a way that would allow multiple directors to work simultaneously, so it’s entirely possible that Chang Cheh simply pulled everything together and put a bow on it. In any case, the result is a great film, and in terms of Chang’s war movies, I’d place it above 7-Man Army but just below Boxer Rebellion.

If you love the Shaw Brothers and wartime films, The Naval Commandos is a must see. It’s probably worthwhile even if you’re not specifically into war movies, but that would be for you to decide since I’m a fan of both 🙂 .

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chor Yuen’s Jade Tiger! See ya then!

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