Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Flying Guillotine (1975)

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   


venoms5 said...

Nicely energetic write up, Fran. This movie was a massive success in America back in the 70s and I'd say is just as, if not far more well known than Wang Yu's rip off. It's almost always discussed in books about 70s exploitation when HK martial arts films are mentioned.

I first saw it on television in the mid 1980s and it kinda scared the hell out of me, lol. The Shaw Brothers movies got the widest degree of exposure in America not just in theaters, but on television with several packages sold to American TV throughout the 1980s and into the 90s.

I've come across a number of folks at work or out in public who have asked me about the film and usually the one scene that sticks out in peoples minds is the bit where the dog gets decapitated.

The TV print--which was virtually uncut--was on bootleg VHS for years before the HK DVD came out back in 2004 or '05.

The reason the Wang Yu flick gets a lot of mention is because of its preponderance of action and ridiculous situations.

Franco Macabro said...

Jimmy Wang's Master of the Flying Guillotine is the better known film of the two, though the importance and quality of The Flying Guillotine is of course to be noted. The budget was vastly lower for Master, while Flying Guillotine was a more elaborate production.

I think thats part of what gives Master of the Flying Guillotine it's charm, it feels like a horror movie, and actually so does Flying Guillotine at times, a lot of scenes are in the dark, at night, there is even a scene that takes place in the middle of a stormy night. I remember seeing Master of the Flying Guillotine and thinking it felt like I was watching a Friday the 13th movie!

The Flying Guillotine will probably get more exposure now thanks to these Dragon Dynasty DVD's which are awesome! So many Kung Fu movies to choose from, so little money!

That scene where the dog gets decapitated...that was insane! My favorite scene was when the goverment oficials finally find him and he picks up the Flying Guillotine again after having abandoned it for a while, to live a quiet life. It was a great sequence because the bad guys forgot how good he was at using that weapon!

Actually, I was looking through your blog because I wanted to know your opinion on a film called The Five Masters, I believe it's a Chang Cheh film, which I was about to purchase the other day. I didnt know if it would be worth it or not.

venoms5 said...

Possibly in another country the Wang Yu movie was better known at that time, but not in America where the original had a long life in theaters and on television. The Wang Yu flick only came into the "mainstream" within the last few years when it was released on DVD by Pathfinder. Still, these movies will never enjoy the success they had in the 1970s. At the time, they were unlike anything people had seen before. Nowadays, the only folks these releases cater to are the oldschool fans and a scant number of casual and or curious and potential new followers.

Also of note, a few weeks ago on Discovery Channel they had a documentary about this weapon and they had what looked like an exact replica of the weapon in the original. I missed the bulk of it, but caught the last 15 or 20 minutes. By the way, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE took about a year to complete. It began production in early 1974.

Do you mean FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974) aka FIVE MASTERS OF DEATH? It's not my favorite of CC's Shaolin cycle, but it's a huge favorite with fans. CC had a lot of problems getting that film completed. It's cheap enough, I'd say pick it up. It does have a lot of action in it, though, and a story that would be cloned hundreds of times over.

Franco Macabro said...

That's too bad that these movies dont have the popularity they used to have, I mean they are great fun. I mean, I just saw Shaolin (reviewed a couple of days ago actually) and I thought to myself man, these movies are good enough to be released theatrically! Somebody should have the guts to bring them back to theaters.

Thanks for the info on Five Shaolin Masters, yeah, thats the one I was curious about, hey if it's Chang Che, it shouldnt be all that bad. I was curious about this one as well: Mad Monkey Kung Fu, the cover makes it look like a fun movie!

Thanks for the info Brian!

venoms5 said...

You mean the new SHAOLIN movie? Andy Lau is in that, I think. I really don't know a whole lot about the newer movies. Yeah, I agree, the newer ones do look good, don't they? Sadly, since they're foreign films with actors most nobody will recognize, it's not a viable move to release them, at least here in America. That CROUCHING TIGER movie was just a fluke, it seems, not to mention it isn't really a martial arts film, anyways. Still, it made over a 100 million at the US box office. A few others followed, but failed to ignite the BO like that one did. The irony is that a lot of Chinese hate that movie, lol. I forget the exact reason.

I don't know, I see it as some kind of cinematic racism. Which is probably why I have a love hate relationship with QTs KILL BILL movies. Mainstream folks like that because it's modern and has actors they recognize. They also remember those oldschool kung fu flicks and remember why they're constantly made fun of ie the bad dubbing, etc. His film(s) did nothing but perpetuate the notion those foreign films are all mediocre movies with bad lip syncing and zero production values. Most people don't realize our movies would play like that, too, when dubbed into a foreign language.

Take Jackie Chan for instance. The man tried to break into the American market multiple times before finally (sort of) doing it with that awful RUMBLE IN THE BRONX movie. It wasn't a huge success, but it made some money. From there, each of his movies made progressively less and less despite all the studio tampering to make them more accessible to US audiences. But lo and behold as soon as Chan is paired with an American guy in an American movie, he's got a monster hit on his hands.

As you well know, when JAWS hit, it changed everything and when STAR WARS came along, audiences expected more out of their movies. Just as the western died out, so did the HK kung fu flick. Since Shaw was a great businessman, he was able to sell several dozen of his movies to American television networks when the major theatrical market dried up and the only places you could catch them in theaters were on the big city strips and drive ins across the country. Occasionally, some of them would wiggle their way into a big theater for a weekend. We used to get these free tickets for them every once in a while when I was in school.

MAD MONKEY I saw at the drive in. A lot of fans like it. I like it, it's just not a favorite of mine. It's considered a classic of the genre and the choreography is amazing. It was a major hit on the drive in circuit back in the day. It's among the most widely seen right up there with GUILLOTINE, FIVE VENOMS and FIVE MASTERS OF DEATH among others.

Franco Macabro said...

I liked that short period of time in which martial arts movies where being released again. Hero, House of Flying Daggers...

In my opinion, QT has a genuine love for those movies, I never got the vibe that he was making fun of Kung Fu Movies with the KILL BILL films. To me he is filtering the Martial Arts film through the point of view of an American, who grew up watching these movies with bad dubbing on television. But there's no doubt QT loves Kung Fu. I love the KILL BILL films to death, I mean that scene in House of Blue Leaves...thats the stuff dreams are made of!

Though Rumble in the Bronx is a fun movie, a lot of people dont consider it great, as you say, its not one of his best. Still, many people didnt know who Chan was until they saw Rumble in the Bronx, I have to admit, I include myself. It was only after they started to bring his movies to the theater that I became familiar with him. After that I got a craving for all things Chan, and I rented any Jackie Chan movie I could. I remember seeing MR. NICE GUY and OPERATION CONDOR in theaters, as well as LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER, which to me is one of Chan's best.
Chan enjoyed lot's of popularity during those days, I remember many of his films appearing on video after Rumble in the Bronx.

Your talking about the Rush Hour films, which are pretty funny, I mean they aint masterpieces or anything, but they are fast and fun in my book.

Sadly, outside of Chan's American Rush Hour and Shanghai Knights films...everything else he has done in America sucks. The Tuxedo? The Medallion? These are bad films when compared to others his done in China. I agree, there is some form of racism, or maybe being afraid of what they dont know, something foreign which in terms is really called, Xenophobia! It's people being afraid to accept another culture.

Thanks for recommending MAD MONKEY, I'll be watching it soon. I remember in my Master of the Flying Guillotine, we talked about The Flying Guillotine and I'm happy I finally got to buy it, I'm itching to watch part 2.

Unknown said...

Thank you


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