Just re-watched the Shaw Brothers Marco Polo movie for the umpteenth time and it never fails to entertain. Around this period, the Shaw Brothers had Chang Cheh spearheading many of the classics and this was no exception. This movie served as a vehicle for pushing the Lizard, Kuo Chui, into the spotlight while acting as another feather in the cap for the pairing of Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun.
This movie is a small period piece involving Richard Harrison as Marco Polo, who visits China and learns about its culture. He meets up with Kublai Khan’s side and becomes his informant. In his early meeting with Khan, he witnesses the barbaric strength of the Tartars/Mongols and earns a team of Gordon Liu, Wang Lung-Wei and Leung Kar-Yan.
After an unsuccessful attack against Khan’s life at his palace by a pair of rebels (one of which was a cameo by Carter Wong), Khan orders Marco Polo to search the countryside to find other rebels. Wong barely survives the assault but is critically injured despite his “pugilism/iron bell” technique, which makes him immune to many weapons and blows. He returns to his wife and kid brother with the mongols following him.
The kid brother and Carter Wong are killed and his wife is taken hostage by Marco Polo, who spares her life against the blood lust of another soldier. As they begin to return with the woman, they encounter a group of four peddlers, Carter Wong’s sworn brothers (Fu Sheng, Kuo Chui, Chi Kuan-Chun and Bruce Tong). The wife suggests that they can sell their rice at her village, which makes Fu Sheng slightly suspicious about her identity.
At an inn, the group stops over for the night and have dinner. Fu Sheng spies on the mongols and realizes that the woman might be Carter Wong’s widow. So the group decides to rescue her. Their attempt to rescue her fail and they flee from the inn. However, Marco Polo, being a devious foreigner, gives them the wife as bait so that they can eventually learn where other rebels might be hiding.
The group travel to a small, secluded and odd village where the widow is from and meet her father who assigns them each particular jobs. Each member meet an ancient teacher (including the village elder/father, who, himself, is a master of pugilism). However, to avoid suspicion, they cannot train during the day and must visit their masters at night.
The training is arduous where each must endure hardships to build up their unique abilities. Fu Sheng learns the iron palm technique through first cooking strange beans that make his arms and hands itch. Chi Kuan-Chun improves his pugilism through bending bamboo poles around his body. Bruce Tong learns inner strength through Tai Chi and Kuo Chui practices light skill in pools filled with feces.
While the four continue to practice their kung fu skills, Marco Polo decides to pay the village a visit as he is determined to uncover their plot and find the widow. The village elder plays innocent even allowing Marco Polo to slice him to disprove his pugilistic abilities. He gives Marco Polo a tour and shows that the four brothers merely are doing regular jobs. Still, the village seems odd without normal tools and women but again the elder explains that it is their custom.
After returning to the tartars, Marco Polo orders an attack but he wants further proof of the village’s complicity and thus plans a secret visit. This time his hunch proves correct as he witnesses the unbelievable inhuman skills of the four men. Just as he continues sneaking around the village, he witnesses the widow commit suicide and fails to save her in time.
The elder confronts Marco Polo and they have a philosophical discussion on why the rebels choose to continue battling against the tartars/mongols. Essentially, the elder says that their conviction and generations will eventually beat them back.
Marco Polo is then held prisoner although he now knows that his decision to side with the mongols has been false and he decides to help the village. He advises each of the four kung fu masters how to push back against the incoming mongol invasion and admits that he plans to leave Khan after this affair is complete.
In the morning, the mongols invade while Marco Polo is taken away from the village by Chi Kuan-Chun. The other three stay behind the empty village as a diversion to allow the remaining villagers to flee to safety and hell breaks loose.
Eventually, Kuo Chui is victorious over Wang Lung-Wei’s wrestling technique, Fu Sheng over comes Beardy with the iron palm, Bruce Tong literally takes down the town in defeating the outside army (but dies in the process) while Chi Kuan-Chun kills Gordon Liu and fights off the other part of the mongol army.
However, Chi Kuan-Chun is mortally wounded during his fight but Marco Polo offers his hand in respect before the warrior perishes. Fu Sheng and Kuo Chui catch up with Marco Polo as the other villagers appear and the pair rejoin them.
So this movie is a slightly more unusual kung fu movie in that a few of the techniques border on the fantastic, namely with pugilism/iron bell and the tai chi forms. But I think these were picked to demonstrate the wild stories of Marco Polo’s adventures in China in witnessing the fantastic.
That said, I thought the training aspect of these techniques was quite amusing and almost believable for what they set to accomplish. Fu Sheng’s usage of iron filings/beans that made his hands itch was used to help him wear down a stone wheel. I think this was done because the jagged stone would help temper the itchiness while slowly building up his callous. In turn, he would be able to have very hard palms capable of splitting wood.
Chi Kuan-Chun’s bamboo training looked very painful but it’s something one could see being used to harden up the skin. Combined with the ointment that the elder gave him, he would be able to take large hits as he was later seen practicing against a spiked club.
Bruce Tong’s inner spirit was kinda meh. I get the idea but I don’t think it gelled. In the end, he was fighting fast and furiously while using weapons as opposed to the methodical movements he displayed as he learned tai chi. The only aspect of “inner strength” used was just him being able to pull out and wield large stones against his enemies.
Finally, Kuo Chui’s light technique was more about him jumping around like a goof in vat of poop. He managed to get a few lines in but his training sequences for the most part were pretty sterile. Even his fight scene with Wang Lung-Wei wasn’t memorable, although he did manage to survive along with Fu Sheng. But it was his big push to stardom here.
The other really notable part was seeing Gordon Liu in a very rare villain role. He had a few others (7 Man Army comes to mind) but we get to see him go full out as a non-bald headed dual sword wielding tumbler type. Also, he had the chance to fight Chi Kuan-Chun 1-in-1, which was pretty cool.
From a historical point of view, most of the Marco Polo parts were just used as the subplot to help motivate the fight scenes. The costumes were nice and the hair style was a rare one, where it would resurface in the Magnificent Wanderers (wonder if this was done at the same time?)
The end fight scenes themselves are a bit dull outside of Bruce Tong’s bout against the mongols. Honestly, the parts where he destroys the town walls were the best scenes in the movie just for the sheer destruction. Like to me it was so outrageous and made him look like a god.
Yet this movie felt frustrating. It had the signature Chang Cheh tragedy where some of the heroes died. But their deaths felt unnecessary. Like Bruce Tong died because the number of soldiers never ended. And the only way the mongols could beat him (and Chi Kuan-Chun for that matter) is cheating through getting some archers out. It’s like a really shitty kung fu device where you know the martial artists stand no chance once the director breaks out the archers en masse.
Similarly, Chi Kuan-Chun’s character seemed like an idiot is in his fight after defeating Gordon Liu. Whenever the archers shot at him, he let himself be exposed. And he knew that the arrows would fly in so how hard could it be to not use his weapon proof arms to hide his weak spot?
Unlike the Five Shaolin Mastes, Marco Polo’s plot felt plodding at times, especially in the middle. While the training sequences are novel, they don’t seem very practical and not entirely motivating if part of the goal is to inspire others to practice kung fu.
Also, the primary message in the movie seems universal in many of Chang Cheh’s period pieces. Mongols/Tartars/Qings bad. Shaolin/Mings good. There’s a weird blind, nationalistic loyalty and jingoism in Chang Cheh’s movies at times. While you can admire the courage of the patriots, you have to admit that their is a stupidity as well in their beliefs.
Basically, the elder’s message about how generation after generation the rebels would continue to fight the mongols is almost like the definition of insanity. The fact that the elders survive while two of the young men perish shows the senseless sacrifices being made for what can be interpreted as a hopeless cause.
There is a small amount of reprieve though from Marco Polo when he denounces the China’s belief system in “wanting the impossible.” In many ways, Marco Polo is portrayed as the smartest person in the film but his role is not that of a teacher here.
Overall, a fun movie to watch especially for the intriguing kung fu techniques. Lots of good fight scenes but a bit plodding. Also, you get to see Gordon Liu as a bad guy for once!