|One armed characters in pop culture. There was the one who murdered Dr Richard Kimble's wife in The Fugitive (TV and movie), there was the mysterious chap in Twin Peaks (again, TV and movie), and perhaps more pertinently, there was Spencer Tracy who utilised his martial arts training in the nineteen-fifties cult favourite Bad Day at Black Rock. But even more pertinently than that, there was 1967's The One Armed Swordsman, a Hong Kong swordplay actioner that happened to launch a certain Jimmy Wang Yu to stardom, playing a character who retains his fighting spirit despite being relieved of the titular limb partway through the story.
Wuxia was all the rage in Hong Kong cinema at the time, but when Yu wanted to branch out on his own away from the mighty but constricting Shaw Brothers and move to the new rival Golden Harvest, he had particular ideas of how to proceed. He had already enjoyed a major hit with Chinese Boxer in 1970, the film that helped kick off the kung fu craze of the decade that Bruce Lee would become the most visible proponent of before his untimely demise, but Yu had a premise that could not lose. His hero, named after himself, would have all the combat prowess of Chinese Boxer, and lack the limb of The One Armed Swordsman - how could it fail?
Well, the answer was, it couldn't, and with One Armed Boxer he had another blockbuster on his hands. Hand. Anyway, this success caused him to be the chief rival to Bruce Lee in the early part of the seventies, especially if you listened to Yu himself, who was not backward about coming forward, notably when exercising his preference for self-mythologising. The thing was, although he is mostly remembered by those who are already vintage martial arts movie fans and few others, at one point he was a genuine international superstar of the style, and even after Bruce's death he was plugging away with his own vehicles, well into the eighties, assisted by those who felt they owed a past debt to him.
Certainly his technique was less studied, less graceful than Lee's, his ability being more of a brawler than a keenly applied fighting method, with wide, swinging, haymaker punches a speciality - just right for a character who has lost one of his arms. He was assuredly exciting to watch, and as he was often in charge of writing his own scripts and directing his own combat, he was as bloody as Japan's Sonny Chiba in this era, possibly a more apt rival for comparison than Bruce Lee had been. Obviously at one point in One Armed Boxer our protagonist will be separated from his arm, but there was plenty more gore and bloodletting to be seen throughout the course of the plot.
Indeed, so focused on giving the audience all the spectacle they could want, Yu was delivering a film that was around ninety percent fighting and ten percent exposition, the latter necessary but patently not what anybody here was interested in. It all begins with a misunderstanding built on a heavy grudge as two rival kung fu schools are brought into conflict when Yu stands up to the other guys - the baddies - when they throw their weight around once too often, the classic action convention of the hero sticking up for the disadvantaged against the bullies. Before you know it, the rival dojo has sent its best men over to give the nice dojo a seeing to with their fists and feet, though the nice leader won't allow it.
Therefore the evil leader (Yeh Tien) of the Hook Gang, so-called because they fight dirty with sharp hooks, squares off against Yu's master (Ma Kei) and it does not end well, because before anyone is aware what is happening, the Hooks have hired a rogues' gallery from across the East, including a Japanese judo expert, Tiawanese brothers in violence, a browned-up Indian yogi (whose speciality must be seen to be believed), and a remarkable man in black (Wong Fei-lung) who sports fangs not unlike Count Dracula. He is the big end of level boss, to use the gamer parlance, that fans would be rubbing their hands together in anticipation for the big showdown between him and Yu. Especially when he manages to divorce our hero's right arm from the rest of his body.
With one karate chop, too - no blades at all are involved. This triggers Yu's training to become skilled at one armed boxing, led by a kindly sage and his daughter (Hsin Tang) who build him up to a superhumanly positive representative of the disabled. There was many a martial arts flick that portrayed the extreme rough and tumble as a means to an end, to right wrongs and preserve the status quo, or engineer a new one, yet with this the message was more, isn't fighting brilliant?! Jimmy's macho masochism, which sees him endure unimaginable agonies because it makes him a more manly man, was near-comical in its faith in the power of unbridled masculinity, so over the top that you could both understand why his films have a continued appeal, and also why, for a while, he was such a big celebrity. No, it was not sensible, it barely made any physical sense, but One Armed Boxer was more or less action and nothing but for an hour and a half, exactly what his followers wanted.
[Eureka release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:
Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling | Limited Edition reversible poster featuring new and original artwork | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a new restoration of the original film elements (worldwide debut of this restoration on home video) | Original Mandarin and English audio options | Optional English Subtitles | Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) | Stills Gallery | Original trailer | Limited-Edition Collector's Booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver and archival writing.]