Now re-issued on DVD, the excellently titled “Beach of the War Gods” was originally released way back in 1973 and is likely to be of particular interest to martial arts fans for having been written and directed by the “One Armed Swordsman” himself, Jimmy Wang Yu. The film was made after he had left the Shaw Brothers studio behind, and whilst it certainly sticks to the fine traditions of the form, it does see Wang stretching his creative wings a little in terms of camera work and choreography.
Apparently based upon real life historical events, the film is set during the late Ming dynasty and follows Wang as Hsiao Feng, a lone sword-slinger who turns up in a small coastal village on the southern Chinese coast that is under threat from Japanese raiders. Wasting no time in getting involved, the righteous hero is soon pitting his steel against the evil invaders. Seeking to build an army of resistance fighters, he travels the nearby countryside recruiting similarly minded patriots before heading for the expected climatic showdown.
In terms of plot and structure, “Beach of the War Gods” is very much in line with Shaw Brothers productions of the time, following the usual formula to the letter, right down to the usual motley gang of gimmicky heroes, which include a knife thrower, spearman, shield wielder, and a enthusiastic brawler. Of course, this is by no means a bad thing, and the film certainly ticks all the right boxes as a piece of classic martial arts cinema, with the Japanese making for good villains as always and with Wang managing to drum up a good sense of gallantry and two-fisted bravery. The film is a very nationalistic and patriotic affair, and is markedly even more anti-Japanese than others of the same period, with all of the Chinese character being only too keen to lay down their lives in the name of killing their enemies, and with plenty of dialogue along the lines of ‘I can’t wait to use those Japanese for shooting practice’.
Somewhat more of a surprise is the fact that the film is a pretty serious affair and is far more mature than might have been expected. Wang takes his time in building up to the action, spending the first forty-five minutes or so mainly just developing the characters and setting the scene for the coming battle. This is well handled, never sacrificing pace or excitement, and he does a good job of gradually notching up the kind of tension rarely seen in the genre. Interestingly, the film also spend a fair amount of time focusing on schemes and tactics, and this gives it a more serious feel and a certain believable historical flair, both of which help it to stand out from the hordes of other similarly themed efforts around at the time.
When the action does finally come, after around an hour of the running time, the film really takes off, and is all the more effective for the taut build up. The last half hour or so is taken up with one long, drawn out mass sword battle which is excellently choreographed and which stands as one of the most thrilling martial arts sequences of any film from the period. Wang’s camera work is far more fluid than that of most Shaw Brothers productions, making great use of the nice looking sets and with some innovative shots and judicious use of slow motion that really add to the impact and excitement. The bodies literally pile up in the streets as the scene goes on, never allowing the viewer to pause for breath and thankfully not stopping for any of the usual elongated noble death speeches as a surprising number of the heroes meet their maker. It certainly helps that the star himself is on top form, and although the role of Hsiao Feng isn’t exactly a mile away from many of his other iconic characters, he does imbue him with a reasonable amount of heart and humanity.
All of this adds up to make “Beach of the War Gods” a real gem for martial arts fans and a film which definitely deserves to be better known. Thrilling and with just about enough maturity to mark it as being more than a simple brawler, the film is a well crafted piece of genre cinema which arguably stands as one of Wang’s very best works.
Yu Wang (director) / Yu Wang (screenplay)
CAST: Han Hsieh
Fei Lung … Hashimoto
Yu Wang … Hsia Feng
Yung Sheng Wang