Title: The Flying Guillotine (1975)
Director: Meng Hua Ho
In the world of Kung Fu movies, there is no more infamous a weapon than the deadly Flying Guillotine. For those who don’t know what the hell a Flying Guillotine is, it is this ancient Chinese weapon that you throw through the air like a Frisbee; it falls over your victims head like a hat, then you pull the chain and the blades inside of the contraption decapitate your opponent. When you pull the chain towards you, it brings back your enemies head inside. The interesting thing about the Flying Guillotine is that its origins are firmly rooted in reality! I always thought that the Flying Guillotine was a made up weapon for the movies, but no, as it turns out this weapon was used by a Chinese emperor called Yongzheng during the Qing Dynasty. There are no pictures or artistic representations of the weapon, but the weapon is described in ancient manuscripts, and from these descriptions comes the weapon we see in the film, which has gone on to become one of the most recognizable weapons in the Kung Fu Movie world. The Flying Guillotine was the first film to bring this ancient weapon to life. How was it?
On this film we meet Emperor Yung Cheng, a political leader who is systematically eliminating any one who opposes the government. You don’t like what the government is doing? You think they are abusing the people? Stealing money from them? Well, if you say even one word against the Emperor, he will have you killed. That’s how he rolls. But he is presented by a conundrum: won’t the government look bad if everyone knows that they are killing people left and right? Shouldn’t these killings be done in a more discreet manner? So in order to avoid being seen in a bad light by his people, the Emperor decides he will instead send assassins to kill the opposing rebels. He has one of his men design a new weapon for the assassins to use called The Flying Guillotine! With it, you can decapitate an enemy from 100 feet away! But learning how to master this new weapon takes time, so the Emperor has 12 of his best men trained in the use of the Flying Guillotine. He wants them to master the weapon so they can serve as assassins for him. Will they go forward with the Emperors wishes of killing innocent people simply because they think differently than he does?
Interesting thing about this movie is that even though it was the first Flying Guillotine movie, it is not as well known as others that came after it, like Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) for example, which is a more renowned film. I guess the limited availability on DVD is what hindered folks from knowing more about the first Flying Guillotine film. But, anyways, thanks to the folks at Celestial Films and their “Dragon Dynasty” label, we are finally getting all these old Kung Fu movies on dvd and I’m having a blast finally getting to see all these Shaw Bros. Kung Fu Classics. The cool thing about this film is that it presents us with the origin of the weapon. We get to see how it was conceived by its creator, how he came up with the idea. We see the weapons first prototype, and we see the first batch of soldiers that were especially trained to become masters of this weapon. I thought this was the most interesting aspect of the film because in other movies, they don’t show any of this, the weapon simply exists and that’s it, but not on this one.
By the way, this movie is very much centered on the weapon itself; you kind of get the feeling that the weapon is the star of the show, almost like a character! In fact, this film is a little different than most Shaw Brothers Kung Fu Films because it doesn’t focus so much on elaborately choreographed Kung Fu fights, in fact, the fights are rather slow when compared to other Shaw Brothers Kung Fu flicks. Though we do get a couple of Kung Fu fights on this film, they don’t take center stage, which is left for the Flying Guillotine and its wielders. Whenever this film is on, it’s because somebody is decapitating somebody with the Flying Guillotine, these are the scenes that really make this film special. I mean, I kept rewinding the film whenever there was some Flying Guillotine action going on! So just be ready for a film that isn’t as action packed as other Shaw Bros. movies; you won’t see that many Kung Fu fights, instead the film focuses more on character development and story, which was actually interesting.
Speaking of the films themes, this one was very subversive, as are many Chinese period films. The Emperor creates a small army of soldiers who become masters of the flying guillotine, but they don’t exactly know why they are being trained. They simply know they must master this weapon because the Emperor commands it. But when they receive their first mission, and they see that they were trained to become killers for the Emperor, some of them confront an emotional conundrum. Should we kill innocents for the government? I thought this was so interesting, because I ask myself the same questions whenever I see brainwashed cops hitting university students. Don’t these cops have any humanity in them? I’m sure they question themselves and the orders they are given, but they simply ignore these thoughts, because they are programmed to do so. And so, this is where our rebel hero emerges in The Flying Guillotine. The hero of the film has to deal with this moral dilemma, yet decides he wants out! So then the film turns into the government hunting down Ma Teng, the rebel. It reminded me in some ways of Shogun Assassin (1980) because that one is also about a soldier of the government who is deemed too dangerous to let live. It also reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and even The Return of the One Armed Swordsman (1969), both films about ex gunslingers/sword masters that decide to retire so they can live the quiet, simple life in the country; only to be asked to use their abilities one last time. On The Flying Guillotine the hero has to turn his back on the country life and his family so he can face the evil Emperor and his gang of assassins.
All in all, I’d say that The Flying Guillotine is a well made film. It has one really good thing about it, many of the scenes where shot in actual locations. In other words: fake looking claustrophobic sets where kept to a minimum. This is something I greatly appreciated because if there is something I absolutely hate about some Shaw Brothers movies is seeing that fake sky in the background, which is obviously a painting. But not on The Flying Guillotine, which as it turns out is one of the most beautifully shot Shaw Brothers movies, at least in my opinion. It isn’t as action packed and it’s a film that is more story oriented than most Kung Fu flicks, but it more than makes up for it whenever the flying guillotine comes into play! A total of 25 heads are decapitated on this film alone! The last 20 minutes of this film are pure DYNO-mite! After having seen this one, I have to say that Jimmy Wang’s Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) is still my favorite of these Flying Guillotine movies simply because it has a bit more entertainment value. I’m looking forward to seeing The Flying Guillotine II (1978) from what I hear about that one, it’s supposed to be more action packed then the first one. Expect a review for that one soon!
Rating: 4 out of 5