9 September 2001 | BrianDanaCamp
THE DUEL: Landmark Hong Kong martial arts/crime film
THE DUEL (aka DUEL OF THE IRON FIST, 1971) is a straight-out gangster film, with lots of kung fu-style knife fights, involving large numbers of combatants, sprinkled throughout the story. Set in the early 20th century, it has dark, atmospheric studio sets creating an almost film noir background against which the formulaic gangster story plays out.
Directed by Chang Cheh, it features his favorite star pair, Ti Lung and David Chiang. Ti plays a gang member who is forced into exile after a restaurant rumble in which his father, the gang boss, is killed. When he comes back after a year, he finds that the gang has joined forces with the rivals who had his father killed and finds himself under attack. David plays 'the Rover,' a mysterious knife fighter whose loyalties are not too clear until he reveals a surprising secret at the end.
There are many dramatic moments as Ti gradually links up with sympathetic former gang members who side with him as he seeks revenge. One of them is his half-brother, now a drunkard, who is played by Ku Feng, normally a villain in these films. The Rover shows up to help out even though Ti doesn't entirely trust him. Ti seeks out 'Butterfly,' his old girlfriend, only to find she's now a prostitute working for his enemies. He makes a bold rescue attempt with tragic results.
The film was released in the U.S. in an English-dubbed version titled DUEL OF THE IRON FIST in 1973 as part of the first wave of kung fu films to hit western shores following the success of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (aka KING BOXER). Despite the "Iron Fist" employed in that title, there's barely a fist in sight throughout the film, although the abundant knife fights are expertly staged, with Ti and David clasping their blades with the point down and rushing fearlessly into the attacking hordes, slashing and swinging with utter abandon. The staging of the fights is similar to the swordfights seen in Japanese Samurai and Yakuza films, particularly in shots where the camera tracks Ti as he proceeds down a corridor or balcony, slashing and dispatching each man in a line of opponents. The whole tone of the film, in fact, is closer to that of a Yakuza (gangster) film than it is to Chang Cheh's usual kung fu films. There's also a Sergio Leone-like feel to the proceedings, with at least one scene recalling A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. It also has thematic and stylistic similarities to the Hollywood gangster epic, THE GODFATHER, which was made a year later. Despite all these influences and foreshadowing it remains a stunning departure from the Hong Kong action films of its time.
A cut version of this title was released on tape in the U.S. as DUEL OF THE SHAOLIN FIST. It's missing an 11-minute scene at the beginning, including the first big fight of the film, and at the end lops off the film's final three minutes.
ADDENDUM (11/15/08): Since I did the above review, I've acquired and watched the restored, remastered Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD of this film, under its original title, THE DUEL. It's great to see this film's beautiful widescreen cinematography in its full glory. The colors and scenes are quite a bit brighter than in the VHS tape versions I had access to, so I don't know if I'd make such a big deal about the "film noir" aspect in a new review. Overall, the film just gets better upon re-viewing, especially now that it's widescreen and in its original language, Mandarin, with subtitles. The film's running time is 105 minutes, longer than both tape versions I had. Also, the subtitles give the nickname of David Chiang's character as "the Rambler," not "the Rover." The DVD contains the film's original trailer, which includes a line that erroneously brands this film as a sequel to VENGEANCE (1970), an earlier martial arts crime film from the same director and featuring the same two stars, but with no related plot elements.