The One-Armed Swordsman Review
Search any movies or retail site for “The One Armed Swordsman” and you’ll likely be inundated with instant indications of the 1970 kung fu flick’s success; from sequels and spin-offs to remakes, it proved a rich vein of material for Shaw Bros studios. It also marked a turn in the general direction of martial arts cinema, away from the earlier, more weapons based action, to fists. Despite its name, The One Armed Swordsman has little swordplay compared to the films it spawned, and even littler still involving the central protagonist until the final reel. It was amongst the first of the true tortured souls kung fu epics with flawed characters and slightly messy conclusions; overly melodramatic and arguably lacking in bite by today’s standards, long time Shaw Bros director Chang Cheh brought the story of a crippled fighter to screen, and with it helped launch the fisticuffs-stardom of lead Jimmy Wang.
Wang plays Fang Gang (or Kang or any one of several variants seen in subtitles down the years), a talented martial artist who is now in the care of his master after his late father, a servant for the master Qi Ru-feng, was killed trying to protect his Sifu during a robbery. Qi’s only child, his daughter Pei, along with two other students also share the school/residence and are under his tutelage. Gang is shown to be a simple soul, cutting wood in his old clothes, scared to get the refinery of his kung fu attire dirty. This general air of aloofness is read as contempt by the other students, they see Gang’s willingness to do such jobs as a veiled attempt to paint himself as a martyr and with it gain the master’s affections at their own expense.
This tangled web of childish jealousy leads to one of the swiftest and least convincing arm severances you’ll likely see. The pair of students are shown to be weak in skill and merely under the guidance of master Qi in his renowned Golden Sword technique as a favour to their parents, both of whom are wealthy and friends of Qi. This was often a standard, the rich student who could never learn the real ways of martial arts because they lacked the true heart to find the essence of the movements imparted, they could hear the words and go through the motions but they’d never possess a soul that could fit the pieces together and attain mastery of the techniques; in basic terms, the de facto cinema staple of the wealthy not triumphing in comparison to the commoners. From Willy Wonka to Billy Elliot, everyone loves a spit and sawdust type coming good.
Because of the unrest his presence causes Gang leaves the school, but not before saying his goodbyes to his fellow students, who have already challenged him to a fight. Not being the type to just run out and be seen as a coward he turns up in the middle of a snowy forest (or a smallish set with shredded polystyrene bits if you wish to be harsh) to say cheerio and give them all a slap if needs be. In a show of arrogance he laughs a little too heartily at their attempts to knock him down a peg or two and unfortunately makes the mistake of chortling at the slightly unbalanced Pei. Rule number one, never snort when a woman lands on her backside and you’re within earshot. He bends to check she’s alright and, in a fit of rage that would comparably make Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest look like a lady slow to anger and perfect marriage material, Pei lops off his arm. It is later explained, and it’s pretty clear to pick up, that Pei in fact liked Gang (what would she do if she disliked him?) and this fight was akin to a boy pulling on a girl’s pigtails to get noticed. Well, she sure got his attention, as he wanders off, leaving a trail of Dolmio sauce in the snow, the three students’ first thoughts childishly turn to not wishing to get in trouble and agree not to let their master know, in a conversation that may as well have included the line “don’t tell my dad, he’ll kill me”.
Gang is saved, falling from a bridge onto the boat of a female farmer; during which time Qi arrives, slaps a student and follows the bloodtrail to the point of Gang’s fall, seeing it points to an icy grave in the freezing river they all assume him to be dead. For a kung fu film The One Armed Swordsman spends a fair degree of time on the set-up. The long looks, the melodramatic pauses in the delivery of lines, all are surprisingly effective and the time passes remarkably quickly without a sword even being unsheathed. When he awakes, with the most perfect stubble you’ll see outside of a poncy ad for male moisturiser, Gang goes suitably nuts, for want of a better word, at the realisation his sword arm is gone (and being male the possibility to scratch his bum and pick his nose at the same time). Xiaoman, the farmer living in a house with a field her mother left her, tends to him and nurses him back to health; the linear lines for a simple love story are clearly being well established. Cue some bullies, Gang getting a few backhanders and his sudden overwhelming sense of a loss of masculinity and Xiaoman comes up with one of the handiest “look what I found lying around” plot objects in cinema history. She just so happens to still have the book her father died trying to protect, a kung fu tome showing special sword techniques and which her mother threw on a fire upon her father’s death. It was burnt, so all that remains is the left handed auxiliary moves, for want of a better phrase: that was handy.
During this time, Qi is gathering all his disciples so that, on his 55th birthday, he can choose his successor and retire from the martial world. Obviously things can’t go smoothly, a long time adversary “Long Armed Devil” is seeking to get revenge for having been bested in a duel and wishes to eradicate the Golden Sword style completely. For much of the middle section of the film this forms the main kung fu action, as Long Armed Devil and his junior bother Smiling Tiger Cheng Tianshou (the best kung fu flicks always had names even rapstars would consider ludicrous) hunt down the disciples travelling to the birthday celebrations. They are armed in their murderous endeavour with a specially created secret weapon, designed solely to counter and negate the Golden Sword style. The fights are staccato, take place in fairly tight spaces and rarely show any flair, but they are bloody considering the era they were made in and serve their purpose to aggrandise the baddie; and in that regard Long Armed Devil doesn’t disappoint! Always shot from behind, the spikes holstered on his back that he throws to skewer his victims like human kebabs tower over his head, and when needed he produces a mean looking bullwhip that snaps with unerring accuracy.
It’s a shame then, that by the final reel, and the reveal of his face, that the moment can’t live up to the atmospheric build-up. All the threads meet up at this point, Gang has fallen for Xiaoman, having rediscovered his martial arts mojo, but in the process has also made promises not to follow a path of bloodshed and duels. He has found the perfect weapon, both in terms of practicality and symbolism, his father’s broken sword, smashed in the fight in which he was killed. The metaphor of a weapon that’s incomplete mirroring a man who is as such is arguably simplistic but damn it, it works. When you see Gang draw the Golden Sword he still carries from his time with master Qi, you feel a bit let down, you want to see the broken sword, the one that carries with it his heartache and anger, but also his most deadly techniques thanks to Xiaoman’s “handy” book. The emphasis was placed less on the choreography of the fights and more on the process that brought them to be and the meaning behind them – now this isn’t King Lear, but it still remains effective in all its goals in that respect. The duality of the snowy, emotionally cold martial arts school and the bloodshed it brought with it, is perfectly counterbalanced by the simplistic farmers’ life shown as Gang first wakes up sans limb; a Disney-escue scene of sunshine and nature, geese gently floating down the stream by Xiaoman’s humble abode. The quasi love triangle of confused feelings between Pei, Gang and Xiaoman doesn’t really take off but it adds to the general air of emotional confusion that has helped raise the protagonist as a great example of how to draw out a somewhat more complex figure from the simplicity of the heroic storylines the industry was pumping out.
It may lack the more elaborate and cutting swordplay that several of the sequels and spin-offs can boast, but it still has an iconic central protagonist portrayed by Jimmy Wang, the eponymous tortured soul, torn between two lives and desperate to do right. Kitsch but classic.