Militant Eagle (1978)
Director: Chien Chin, Hsia Hsu and Li Chia Chih
Writers: Chang Hsin Yi
Starring: Pai Ying, Barry Wai and Siu Gam

The Plot: After winning a successful battle, a high ranking official (Barry Wai) decides to bypass a very honorable raise in order to head home and look after his family. Without a specialty other than fighting, this once-great fighter must become a wandering entertainer. After being run out of town for not paying a cruel tax by the local authorities, this former warrior finds himself at odds with the local government who are pushing around a city full of honorable people. Also joining Barry Wai in this defiance are a pair of local martial artists. The first is a strong and good-hearted swordswoman (Nancy Yen), who simply wants to see the right thing done. The other is a strong butcher (Sit Hon), who defied the local officials (who were taxing small businesses, despite there being a decree stating that local offices should suspend taxation) and watched as his entire family was killed. Will these three be enough to take on the local government and their militia?

The Review
When it comes time to discuss seventies-era martial arts cinema, the landscape is obviously dominated by films produced under the Shaw Bros. umbrella. While this is most assuredly understandable, as the Shaws forever changed the kung fu film’s identity, there are also numerous classic films that were produced independently of any larger studios. Militant Eagle is one of many smaller productions from Taiwan made during this era, and it has survived via a fairly decent release through Warner Brothers, if you can believe that. The production is about on par for what one expects from a kung fu film made during this period, but it neither falls by the wayside of mediocrity nor does it excel in terms of originality. The movie thankfully never drives itself to being purely bland, but it most assuredly remains a hard film to pick apart for its stylish qualities. If you can say anything about the movie that separates it from the pack, you would have to say that the movie does manage to produce an aura of class around it due to its excellent production and the broad mix of swordplay and hand to hand combat.

I have mentioned it already, but how strange is it to see Warner Bros. releasing such an obscure series of martial arts films? Shown in widescreen, the movies featured on this “4 Film Favorites” pack are given a little more respect than distributors normally give to such low budget affairs. Movies of this sort, without recognizable star names behind the camera or in front of it, are usually reserved for tiny companies who look to re-release their own 9th generation dub of a particular movie. Such things are usually “OK” with the core audience, but it is nice to see something different. However, I ask others to not grow too excited just yet. If you’re familiar with the Celestial presentations that the Shaw films have received, then this will serve as a severe step back. However, we here on Varied Celluloid are usually very open minded when it comes to the quality of picture we find in our old school kung fu films. For those of us who have been around long enough, we can remember the days of VHS, and even the low budget scans of these VHS dupes on DVD. In the past, the only thing that really mattered for genre-fans were the movies themselves. Most of the time picture quality was simply not an option when it came to tracking these films down, however, in the modern market place viewers have so many more options. I would simply remind viewers that quality is nice, but inevitably it should all be about the quality of the film.

When I really started to sit down and look at Militant Eagle in order to write my review, I found myself thinking back on it quizzically. Although the plot synopsis does not prove to be the most intellectually difficult to understand, the editing and the characters do make it fairly difficult to navigate. Featuring an assortment of similarly dressed characters with obtuse motivations, Militant Eagle proves to be an exorcize when it comes to keeping track of all the pieces. This is unfortunate, because the basic fundamental bits that make up the plot are certainly very intriguing. After all, it is a neat thing to run into a period-driven martial arts film that isn’t focused on the evil Ching. With as much history as China has, it seems odd to find so many movies using the same villains over, and over, again. With Militant Eagle the villains are no less greedy, but they seem like a local enemy rather than a invading force. This, along with the combination of wuxia and traditional hand-to-hand kung fu choreography, helps create a movie that can’t help but raise its head slightly above the mediocrity that this genre can sometimes perpetuate.

Credited, via the IMDB, with three different directors for the film, Militant Eagle is surprisingly consistent in all regards. While projects that normally do such a thing would seem to have a sense of battling factions, it seems that everything ties together quite tightly within this project. The better aspects of the movie, as is so often the case with these movies, are when the fight sequences take our mind off of the seemingly convoluted plot. Martial arts actor Wai Hung Ho steps up to deliver the fight choreography for the movie, and he does a admirable job. Although this was not a job that he would return to often, he is very solid here, certainly in consideration of the the allotment of talent that he was given. The fight scenes certainly vary in their levels of excitement, but when you have Barry Wai in the front it usually turns out for the better. Also in the midst of the film is Siu Gam, who looks to be massive in comparison to the majority of the cast. His giant club certainly proves to be menacing, but he as a performer comes across as sluggish at times. This slow pace of his does ultimately prove to be his undoing as a performer, and he becomes a bit hard to take serious towards the end. Still, his size and morbid facial expression make him the most memorable villain throughout the majority of the picture. He is, after all, one of the few cast members who has a “different” look to him. I found myself not too fond of Sit Hon’s (who plays the butcher character) performance during the fight scenes as well, I must admit. Although you could say that he delivers the same “unpretty” style of performance that martial arts legends such as Jimmy Wang Yu and Sonny Chiba had, but unfortunately Sit Hon doesn’t have the same athletic speed or balletic qualities that those performers used in order to make such a ugly style work. However, both Barry Wai and Ling Yun manage to carry the production as far as fight choreography goes.

The Conclusion
Militant Eagle is not a great movie. Not by a longshot. However, I did find myself thoroughly entertained by it. Even if the plot teeters on the verge of boredom, there is enough action and charismatic performances throughout the movie to put it over the edge. When combined with the three other titles available on the Warner Bros. disc, you really can’t go wrong. I give it a three out of five.