POSTED JULY 15, 2007
July 15, 2007

ONE ARMED LEGACY : How Wang Yu single-handedly created an icon.

Though he made his name as a martial arts hero, Jimmy Wang Yu had only a cursory martial arts background. A former water polo player, the hot-headed Shanghai native was more familiar with rough house street fighting than stylized kung fu training. After signing a contract with the Shaw Brothers studio, Wang was cast in a number of relatively unspectacular swordplay epics until, in 1967, director Chang Cheh redefined Wang’s image with One-Armed Swordsman. It could be argued that, once he got out of the pool and onto the screen, Wang was usually better off with one arm than two…

The concept of a maimed martial arts hero was not entirely original. It was probably inspired by the 1955 thriller Bad Day At Black Rock, in which Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed WW2 veteran skilled in jujitsu. Also, two years before One-Armed Swordsman, James Coburn played a one-armed Indian tracker in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, and participated in a knife fight sequence that was cut from the finished film.

The title of Wang Yu’s breakthrough film, Duk Bei Dao, translates as ‘Single Arm Knife’. In true Chang Cheh fashion, the One-Armed Swordsman’s protagonist suffers his unkindest cut because of a woman, and must then regain his honour because of a debt he owes the brotherhood of the martial arts world. Action directors Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia pulled out all the stops to create a believably lethal fighting style for their single handed hero. Wang Yu sneered, hopped and chopped his way through the film, and the rest is history.

Besides being a huge commercial success, One Armed Swordsman made its mark on the Hong Kong entertainment industry in an unexpected way. Singer Jacky Cheung received his distinctive facial scar when his cousin, imitating a Wang Yu one-armed swordplay routine, accidentally cut him with a kitchen knife.

Wang Yu shot a sequel, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, in 1969, but subsequently decamped for Golden Harvest, earning the enduring ire of Sir Run Run Shaw. Harvest had been formed by Shaw’s defecting former production head, Raymond Chow. According to legend, Shaw’s legal action against Wang Yu was hampered by the fact that the original copy of his contract was found to be missing from the studio files!

Nevertheless, Shaw’s wrath meant that Wang Yu was unable to shoot in Hong Kong many years, relocating to Taiwan where he established his own production base. It was there that he shot 1971’s The One-Armed Boxer, which breathed new life into the mythology of the one-armed action hero.

At Shaw Brothers, Chang Cheh had cast the young David Chiang in a small role in Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman. Two years later, he inherited the Wang Yu role in The New One-Armed Swordsman. (This was actually the first One-Armed Swordsman film I saw, back when Warner Bros released it on VHS in the UK.)

In his Taiwanese exile, Wang Yu, seeing a buck to be made, hired Chiang to star opposite him in One Armed SwordsMEN, on which both Shaw Brothers armless idols shared both starring and directorial credit. Wang further revived his original One-Armed Swordsman character for One Armed Against Nine Killers and One Armed Chivalry Against One Armed Chivalry.

Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman sees Asia’s most famous disabled swordsmen cross blades. It’s said that two endings were shot, with each hero (Wang Yu and Shintaro Katsu) winning the final duel in his respective market.

Wang reprised his One Armed Boxer role in Master Of The Flying Guillotine, which saw Wang take on the same kind of rogue’s gallery that the One Armed Boxer had confronted. The film earned a new lease of life, and American cult status, when, in 2002, it was picked up for a limited US theatrical release.

Over the ensuing years, various remake concepts were posited. Donnie Yen told me how veteran Shaws director Lau Kar-leung had been planning to cast him as the character. In this version, the one-armed hero’s missing limb would be replaced by several weird and wonderful martial arts weapons. Sadly, the project never found financing.

One that did was 1983’s One-Armed Executioner, made by Filipino director Bobby A. Suarez, with Franci Guerrero as the Wang Yu character. (Suarez is currently developing The Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong, starring my old friend, and fluent Tagalog speaker, Gary Daniels.)

In 1994, I was visiting the Golden Harvest studio when I came across one of the company’s employees, a former TV child star, painstakingly watching a pirated Malaysian videotape of the original One-Armed Swordsman. He explained that Tsui Hark was preparing his own take on a one-armed swordplay hero, and he was checking to see what story elements were unique to the original film to avoid a potential lawsuit from Shaw Brothers.

The resulting film, The Blade, is regarded by many as Tsui’s masterpiece. It’s definitely sees the finest hour of Chiu Man-chuk (aka Zhou Wing Zhou or Vincent Zhou), the mainland-born martial arts star groomed by Tsui after Jet Lee had, temporarily, abandoned him. Not simply a flop, it was actively reviled by the Hong Kong audience. Blade was reappraised when it was released in Europe. Sadly, it’s one of the latter-day Harvest titles that remain stuck in the vault of a major Hollywood studio. We’d love to wrest it free for a Dragon Dynasty release.

Today, several official and unofficial remakes are mooted. Donnie Yen has made no secret of the fact that he would still love to play the character. During the earlier years of Celestial, there was talk about Jet Li incarnating a new One Armed Swordsman. Thai director Wisit Sasantieng (Tears Of The Black Tiger) has a script called Armful in development. A radical reworking of the character, the project, originated by a Singaporean company, has been around for at least four years already, and at one time had Andy Lau attached to star.

Celestial Pictures is apparently preparing its own Korean-based remake, though details are still tightly under wraps, and there’s even been an animated version of the One-Armed Swordsman developed by a Thai company.

It seems only a matter of time before a swordplay character who (literally) single-handedly created a cult will return to the jade screen.


When the Return of the One-Armed Swordsman we be for sale in dvd?
-, Florida | 2007-07-29 14:50:52
I recently managed to acquire a copy of Jimmy Wang Yu's The One Armed Boxer and have to say that it was one of the funniest films I've ever seen!,especially the scene with the Indian fighter as budgetry constraints somewhat limited makeup effects for this character (hint: he wasn't portrayed by a real Indian)
- Gav, UK | 2007-07-25 04:14:05
Great Blog ! It gave me some more insight into one of my favorite martial arts actors, Jimmy Wang Yu. Though the one armed concept is alive again Jimmy and David Chiang did it Firstly and Foremostly the best !
- Turhan Gushiniere, Jackson, Mississippi | 2007-07-24 14:51:06
Hi Bey, Will any DD titles be released on Region two formats? If so, WHEN!!!!!!!!???? Cheers mate!
- jas, london | 2007-08-21 10:56:12


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