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The pirate themed swashbuckler, though a perennial Hollywood favourite has been rather neglected in Hong Kong cinema, with only a handful of films such as Jackie Chan’s “Project A” tackling the genre. Helping to right this wrong is the re-release of the 1973 Shaw Brothers classic “The Pirate”, a film so epic it took three of the studio’s top directors to bring it to the screen in the form of the legendary Chang Cheh, Pao Hsueh Li, and Wu Ma (an actor as well as helmer who later became a mainstay of the Hong Kong ghost genre in the 1980s, appearing in the likes of “Mr Vampire” and “A Chinese Ghost Story”, in which he stole the show with his raucous Taoist rap scene). Actually, although the idea of having multiple directors may sound like a recipe for incoherent disaster, it was common enough practice for the studio, and the three had worked together before on several other projects, including the 1972 masterpiece “The Water Margin”.
The film is based upon the exploits of a real life 18th century Chinese pirate called Cheung Po Tsai, who apparently lorded over a massive fleet of 600 ships which sailed the South China Sea at the time, and who was recently the inspiration for Chow Yun Fat’s character in the international blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End”. Here, he is played in rather more respectful fashion by studio star Ti Lung (who made a name for himself in the likes of “The Sentimental Swordsman” and countless other wuxia films before turning to action in the 1980s with John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow”) who cuts a fine Errol Flynn style figure as he rights wrongs and cuts the corrupt down to size. Unfortunately, the noble pirate finds himself in a bit of a scrape when he attracts the attentions of a nasty merchant called Xiang and his equally mean sister who are both keen to collect the bounty on his head. Making matters worse are an escaped pirate called Hun Er Dao who captures Cheung’s ship whilst he is on land, and an undercover Qing official (played by David Chiang, another studio star who had been in such hits as “Vengeance” and “Boxer from Shantung”) who seems determined to bring him to justice, despite the growing respect he feels for his righteous quarry.
“The Pirate” starts in fine fashion with a spectacular sea battle which features ships firing cannons at each other before men swarm the decks to engage in fierce swordplay. Unfortunately, the film is mainly set on land after this, though there is plenty of action, giving both Ti Lung and David Chiang lots of chances to show off their skills, naturally including a duel between the two which proves to be one of the most honourable and polite sparring matches ever. The best scene comes towards the end with a thrilling and bloody mass beach brawl which decimates the cast and goes on for a good ten minutes, leaving the surf strewn with corpses. Not only the top scene in the film, this expertly choreographed rumble is arguably one of the most magnificent and exciting from any Shaw Brothers production of the period.
Although the actual plot is pretty simple and predictable stuff, basically following Cheung from one daring escapade to another and revolving around the usual clichés such as mistaken identity and scheming villains, the seaside scenery is quite spectacular and makes for a nice chance from the usual sets, giving the film a pleasantly different feel to other studio productions of the time. Both of the lead actors are on fine form and seem to be having fun with the material, making their characters likeable and helping to inject a real sense of two fisted fun into the proceedings. The three directors combine their talents well, and the film flows slickly between action scenes, being fast moving and exciting throughout.
“The Pirate” does stand out amongst other Shaw Brothers productions of the period, offering something a little different to the usual martial arts tales with its nautical theme and good natured swashbuckling. Well made and featuring charismatic turns from two of the studio’s biggest stars, it should appeal not only to Shaw Brothers aficionados, but to all fans of the pirate film.
Cheh Chang, Hsueh Li Pao, Ma Wu (director) / Kuang Ni (screenplay)
CAST: Lung Ti … Chang Pao Tsai
David Chiang … Hu Yi
Ching Tien … Chiang Yu Lun
Feng Yu … Erh Ku Nai-nai
Mei Sheng Fan … Hua Erh Tao
Man-Tzu Yuan … Hai Tang
Dean Shek … Pai Lun Po