“The 14 Amazons” is a 1972 Shaw Brothers classic, directed by Cheng Gang, who also made the likes of “The Sword of Swords” and “Flying Guillotine 2” for the famous studio. Although perhaps not as well known in the West as other Shaw genre films, “The 14 Amazons” was a huge success in its day, being one of the top domestic box office earners of the year, and winning multiple awards for acting and directing. With a lavish budget and huge cast of extras for battle scenes, it is certainly one of the better looking films of the period, and has the feel of a genuine epic, not to mention being action packed enough to remain exciting and thrilling more than thirty years after its initial release.
Although the film is packaged as being some kind of feminist romp, it is in fact another tale of the famous Yang family. Set during a time of skirmishes between China and Mongolia, the Yangs heroically defend the border, until Minister Wang Ching (Cheng Miu, in many Shaw Brothers productions, including “The Water Margin”), a traitorous politician betrays them to the invading hordes, leading to the death of General Yeh and his seven sons.
Every bit as determined to protect their country as the men, the Yang women rise up to take their men’s place, led by the general’s wife, She Tai Chun (Lisa Lu Yan, also in “The Empress Dowager”) and thirteen other widowed women. Despite the protestations of Wang Ching, the women take up arms, engaging the invaders in a series of battles before striking deep into the enemy’s ranks in an effort to drive them from Chinese soil.
“The 14 Amazons” is not feminist in the traditional cinematic sense, which generally requires women to be assaulted before they fight back. Here, the gender of the characters is far less important than the fact that they are of the Yang family, and embody its noble spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of a greater cause. The film is far from exploitative, and its characters are very much fighters first and women second, barely wasting time with grieving. Also, their quest is not for vengeance, but in the name of their country.
As such, the film is imbued with a great sense of heroism and adventure, and though the plot is made up of little more than a series of battles before the traditional showdown, it keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. This is hampered initially by the fact that there is a bewilderingly large cast of characters, which despite the fact that all are identified when they first appear, are hard to keep track of. Indeed, apart from their names, there is very little to tell the warrior women apart, with little time invested in character development, and with all clad in similar attire. Fortunately, the viewer becomes more familiar with them as things progress, if only due to their being killed off at regular intervals.
The film is packed with action, both with large scale engagements and martial arts duels, and moves along at a rapid pace, pausing only for scenes of tactical discussion. There is a fair amount of blood, most of it bright red, with plenty of decapitations and limb chopping, especially during the final scenes. However, there is no hint of sadism, and the gore is laid on cheerfully enough, being spilt with the best of intentions.
Cheng’s direction has a flair for the epic, allowing for some sweeping panoramic battle scenes and nicely capturing the glorious scenery. He does include some scenes which border on the wacky, including a human pyramid bridge building sequence, which at times gives the film the feel of a fantasy adventure rather than a slice of historical drama. However, this sits well with the overall atmosphere of daring heroics, and helps make for what is a rousing viewing experience. “The 14 Amazons” should certainly appeal to any Shaw Brothers fans, or anyone who enjoys period set action, and deserves to be far better known than it is.
Gang Cheng, Shao-yung Tung (director) / Shao-yung Tung (screenplay)
CAST: Shen Chan ….
James Nam …. 2nd prince
Betty Ting Pei