Shaw Brothers, the great Hong Kong studios, produced lots of sword fighting movies (wu xia pian) during the late 1960s & 1970s. Wondering what are some of the most important titles to watch? Here we go!
COME DRINK WITH ME (1966)
A clear invitation to enter the world of martial arts! Directed by King Hu, it’s one of the wu xia pian that actually commercially launched the genre, that proved the audience wanted-enjoyed to see sword fights!
The main character Golden Swallow, played by the young Cheng Pei-pei, brings a feminine touch to the film: the fight scenes have a sense of lightness & poetry, it almost looks like ballet – in a really intriguing-Chinese way. And overall, it alternates light comedy and serious/profound drama. For your information, in 1971, the lead actress will star as a troubled heroine who completely lost her innocence, in what was supposed to be her last wu xia film, The Lady Hermit.
THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967)
The film that defined what is a real movie “wu xia” hero, what it takes become one, and why martial arts matter. Through the basic revenge story of a young arrogant man who lost everything and will have to learn to overcome his fears to achieve his vengeance.
In other words, it’s the well-known hero’s journey set in feudal China. It’s a more masculine, down-to-earth and serious take on the genre, as it includes some violent dramatic scenes. Which is not surprising coming from director Chang Cheh – he’s known for that! One of the best written wu xia pian — you might also want to check out The New One-Armed Swordsman, directed in 1971, it’s pure entertainment.
THE SWORD OF SWORDS (1968)
Once the genre had established its mythology – the troubled hero, the power of the sword, the revenge plot – it was just a matter of time before someone decided to destruct it, with violence! That’s what The Sword of Swords is all about.
It takes the very symbol of the genre, the actor Jimmy Wang (see previous film), and humiliates him in every way possible. Does it sound a little bit cynical? Yet, the film is a call for modesty & entertainment, adding some surprisingly nice tribute to Japanese heroes such as the Lone Wolf, or the blind masseur Zatoichi.
THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968)
By now, you should have understood that many sword-fighting films produced by the Shaw Brothers were simple revenge stories. So, what’s up with The Bells of Death?
First of all, the film offers an interesting & fun step-by-step structure, that keeps the story fresh by bringinging new and original ideas. Secondly, the film is the perfect example of how the genre was influenced by Japanese sword-fighting flicks.
Because it was a major inspiration for Hong Kong filmmakers, it helped them learn how to make these films. For example, the fights here are really down-to-earth, no jumping in the air or things like that, and they also have this sense of danger with momentum & tension… One could say, the fight scenes are a little stiff, and focus on the essential.
THE MAGIC BLADE (1976)
In the 1970s, after several years of intensive production, wu xia films were starting to bore the audience. The trend was coming to an end, the new box office hits were kung fu films. Bruce Lee was soon to become an international icon.
And yet in 1976 comes The Magic Blade, one of the few attempts to revive sword fight movies at that time. Besides the astonishing visuals from director Chu Yuan (it’s beautiful!), the film is profoundly nihilist, and it’s clearly inspired by Italian westerns – the main character is the man without name, with an intriguing blade instead of guns.
THE BASTARD SWORDSMAN (1982)
The glorious 1980s, the beauty of special effects, craziness is everywhere. In the final years of the studio, some really WTF films are produced, with the idea to create incredible entertaining shows, to push the limits as far as possible.
And so here comes The Bastard Swordsman. A sword fighting film delivering non-stop crazy ideas, it’s kitsch with loud colors and fights taking advantage of special effects to be awesome, surprising. It feels like, the genre may be dead, or outdated, so suddenly everything becomes okay.
# Available on US DVD