Simply put, the Shaw Brothers defined and finalized the modern action movie. From their early epics to their later works, they combined a love for the flashy and flamboyant with a dedication to the fabled and the familiar. They then turned over their projects to directors who imposed their own outsized vision on the components. The results are some of the greatest movies of all times - not just martial arts masterworks, but films of fascinating scope and execution. You can start to see some of their eventual brilliance in the provocative, problematic The Sword of Swords. Here is a film that promises to highlight the country defeating power of the title element, but then circumvents said idea for the simple story of the most put-upon kung-fu student on the planet. As it dives between intentions, as it thwarts expectations by failing to fully realize them, we see clear hints at the sensational Shaw specialties to come. While not a bad film by any far stretch of the imagination, this is not a classic. It's more like an initial claim to fame.
It took ten years to make, utilizing the best metals in all of China. With it, armies are undefeatable and dynasties are made - or destroyed. Currently in the possession of Master Mui Lingchuen and his house, there are many, including marauding barbarian hordes, who want its power for their very own. It is the Sword of Swords. In failing health, the Master calls upon his head student, Fang Shishiung, to hold a competition for the cherished item. The old man is convinced that Fifth Brother Lin Jenshiau will win it. Little does he know that his favored eldest disciple is actually working for the hateful Shang clan. Shishiung has been plotting to deceive the group and take the sword as his own. When Jenshiau wins, however, it means personal defeat. From then on, it's the entire cosmos versus our reluctant hero as he tries to keep the fabled item from falling into the wrong hands. It's a Herculean task, and it becomes obvious that Jenshiau may not be up to it.
It's a shame that The Sword of Swords is not better. It has an inherently interesting premise (just think of this piece of metal as the feudal Chinese version of the Ark of the Covenant and you see why so many want to wield it) and the cinematic scope to back it up. It presents almost everything a genre effort like this thrives on - unspeakably evil villains, a wayward hero, a complex coming of age, and a flashy finale loaded with death and personal destruction. Where the movie fails, however, is in the maudlin, melodramatic flourishes contained within the turn-heavy narrative. Once our hero becomes targeted to take up the title weapon's unwieldy mantle, he is forced through a literal hell of haphazard traumas. He loses family members, his wife, his children...even his eyesight. He becomes a tragic figure by scripted desire, each element of his downfall as preplanned as a producer's tax returns. It's hard to fault Jimmy Wang Yu for working with what he's given, but with his constant harried hound dog expression, it's as if his character anticipates each trauma trained in his direction, and simply sits back and takes it. By the end, we are unsure if he can even defend his own puny honor.
Because it is so top heavy, because it is so much about how Lin Jenshiau must put up with a series of callous cosmic travails, the rest of The Sword of Swords stumbles. The villainous characters are effective, if ultimately meaningless. Fate is dealing blows to our hero that no blade-wielding baddie can match. Even our chief scoundrel comes across as unimpressive when faced with the wrath of a pissed off cosmos. Of course, this being a Shaw Brothers production, the angst often recedes so that characters can fight among the trees, burn the elderly alive, and hack and slash their way through a subplot. The action here is indeed enlightened, if a little less flashy than the films to come. Remember, this is 1968, with the Brothers pushing the boundaries of what can and could be shown onscreen. There is an ample amount of blood, as well as sequences of sheer sadistic brutality. But then director Cheng Kang betrays his abuse by stepping back and going for the mind instead of the throat. This means more of actor Wang Yu looking lost and over emoting. Like the characters within, the various elements of The Sword of Swords are constantly clashing with each other.
By the end, the movie starts to feel overlong and a bit padded. We wonder why there are so many scenes of family disgrace and dishonor, and why Jenshiau is always just out of frame where destiny steps in to destroy yet another aspect of his life. As for the action, it is well staged but staggered too far apart to be fully appreciated. After the opening contest between the students, there is a long portion where little happens. Then Jenshiau defends his honor. Then more problematic pacing. For those used to the Hong Kong genre being nothing more than overdone choreography on top of more planned out playtime, the simple structures here will seem a tad underwhelming. We want more backflips and aerial derrring-do, not prolonged moments of personal trauma. Some may see this as a more well rounded approach to the overall narrative, but the lack of internal drive deadens some of The Sword of Swords impact. While it may not be fair to complain about the film's lack of constant chaos, it's an innate element in the genre that keeps this particular film from being an outright classic. Instead, it's just very good.
Presenting the legendary Shaw Scope format in all its vibrant design, the transfer of The Sword of Swords is quite good. The colors are bright and the attention to detail rather consistent. There are moments when a kind of softness overtakes the visuals, but aside from that, the movie looks newly mastered. Even with the occasional cinematic slip, the 2.35:1 picture popping with the kind of panache that old prints of the title can't compete with.
The Dolby Digital Mono track, in the original Cantonese, is excellent, not too overmodulated, not too thin or tinny. The new English subtitles are easy to read and removable, and the overall aural aspects of the release are very good indeed.
Unless you consider a group of "coming soon" trailers any type of bonus feature, this DVD contains no real added content. Just the ads, and that's it.
More epic than chaotic, more interested in its internal story than its outward combat charms, The Sword of Swords is still an excellent primer on what the Shaws do/did best. The movie has a magic all its own, a weird sort of hypnotic power that helps us past the problematic story and character elements. Earning a solid Recommended rating, it can't compare with the company's later works - but then again, what can. Shaw Brothers studio set a benchmark of Hong Kong moviemaking that even in a 2011 timeframe is hard to match. Purists will be pleased with the considered combination of mythos and mayhem. Others will want more swordplay and be done with it. Together, they argue for the impact these movies, and their makers, have over the artform.