5 October 2016 | BrianDanaCamp
Above-average swordplay adventure from Golden Harvest
THE BLADE SPARES NONE (1971) is a pleasant surprise, a cut above the usual Golden Harvest costume adventure, i.e. the ones that didn't star Angela Mao or Jimmy Wang Yu. The star here is Nora Miao, an attractive star who was never much of a screen fighter but benefits from the expert fight direction provided by Sammo Hung and Han Ying Chieh and the excellent work of her on-screen fighting partners James Tien and Patrick Tse Yin. In addition, the film boasts better-than-usual production design and cinematography. In scene after scene, I was impressed with how good the film looked.
The plot has to do with a well-appointed noble, Prince Kuei (Paul Chang), who hires four "knights" to lead a band of marauders to plunder rich villages. One of the knights is a young swordswoman, Miss Ho (Nora Miao), who has an ulterior motive in joining the Prince's entourage, seeking out the notorious bandit "Devil's Claw," who once wielded a sword marked with blood-red notches to signify the number of his victims. When she encounters a young swordsman named Tang (Patrick Tse Yin) carrying that sword, her curiosity is aroused and she makes sure to cross paths with Tang and his companion, Brother Chen (James Tien). Eventually, they realize they're after the same target and join forces against the Prince and his army of killers, knowing it will lead them to the current whereabouts of "Devil's Claw."
There are lots of great setpieces, starting with Miss Ho's pre-credits slaughter of a number of bandits and continuing right after the credits with a sequence wherein Miss Ho auditions for the Prince by taking on opponents in duels to the death high atop a narrow platform set up in the Prince's courtyard. She bills herself as "the Blade that Spares None," thus justifying the fatal blows she delivers to each opponent. It's pretty amusing to see her opponents leap tall bounds to ascend to the platform, about four stories high, only to fall off so unceremoniously after the duels. Poor Brother Chen announces his challenge and then recants, but is forced by the Prince's men to timidly climb up the damned thing. Putting on a comical cowardly front, he manages to get away in one piece by leaping off the platform to avoid Miss Ho's sword thrust, landing deftly on his feet and fleeing, one of two men in the entire film to survive a bout with her. Later on, when Miss Ho first confronts the two swordsmen, Tang and Chen, on her own, they don't yet trust each other and have an atmospheric swordfight in the rain which ends in a draw. There is also a lengthy and dramatic flashback that explains Tang's need for vengeance against Devil's Claw and how he acquired the sword.
Later, after Miss Ho and the two swordsmen have joined forces, they sneak up on the Prince's gang in a fog-shrouded forest, recreated on a soundstage set, and methodically whittle away their numbers in a series of sneak attacks. It's not easy to stage frenzied action like this in such small constricted spaces, but the action directors create an intricate and clever scene. There are then two sprawling battles in much larger spaces, Prince Kuei's palace, where the three protagonists fight large numbers of the Prince's men, and the treasure cave behind a waterfall and its impressive stone drawbridge, where the Prince has stored the stolen plunder and where the final showdown takes place.
The film is consistently exciting and the storyline engaging throughout. Miss Miao carries herself with dignity and bearing and is outfitted in some gorgeous swordswoman fashions. The other actors, including Tien, Tse and Chang, handle their share of the action with vigor and aplomb. Interestingly, the cast includes three character actors borrowed from Shaw Bros., Feng Yi, Chiang Nan and Lee Yun Chung, who play the other three knights alongside Miss Ho in the Prince's band of hired fighters. These men usually played meddling court officials and authority figures, but here they're fitted out for full action roles, something they didn't get to do much at Shaw Bros. It's quite a change of pace for them and they clearly relish the opportunity.
The set design is quite beautiful throughout, particularly the lavishly appointed interiors of Prince Kuei's palace, with its abundance of artwork on the walls and partitions. The outdoor platform where Miss Ho battles opponents to show off her skills to Prince Kuei offers an intriguing variation on an idea used in many later kung fu films, e.g. RING OF DEATH. The set built for the treasure cave with its own waterfall and cleverly hidden stone drawbridge is also quite imaginative. The music consists largely of cues lifted from John Barry's score for the sixth James Bond film, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.
The director, Teddy Yip Wing-Cho, also directed two exemplary costume adventures for Shaw Bros., THE EUNUCH (1971) and BLACK TAVERN (1972), and two later kung fu films that I enjoyed, SLEEPING FIST (1979) and THE THUNDERING MANTIS (1980). I've reviewed BLACK TAVERN and SLEEPING FIST here and recommend them with equal enthusiasm.
NOTE: The Fortune Star DVD edition of this film is missing English subtitles for two scenes, the pre-credits sequence and an important scene later in the film when Miss Ho has a falling-out with her companions. Don't let that discourage you.