24 Jun THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) REVIEW
By Will Kouf of Silver Emulsion Films
Contrary to many Chang Cheh films from this mid-’70s period, The Savage Five is not focused on kung fu. Martial arts are present and integral to the story, but those looking for unforgettable hand-to-hand battles will be better served by other films such as Heroes Two, Five Shaolin Masters, or any number of favorites.
The Savage Five works instead because it presents an intense and emotional variation on The Seven Samurai if the bandits never left the town, and the heroes had to rise from the ranks of the oppressed townspeople. This is oversimplifying it, but it’s probably the quickest way to describe the film’s dynamics. The character-driven story may be somewhat familiar in broad strokes, but it is far more interesting and less derivative than my description may sound. It’s a small-scale film, well-executed, and all the more potent for its movement away from the typical Chang Cheh style.
The “savage five” of the title are surprisingly not-so-savage when we meet them. Chen Deng (David Chiang) is a petty thief who, regardless of his crimes, is still liked around town. With the charming Chiang channeling a less exaggerated version of his wonderful Rambler character from The Duel, it’s understandable. Ma Dao (Chen Kuan-Tai) is a stoic, silent woodsman, and even though we don’t learn much more about him, Chen’s nuanced performance gives a life and moral resonance to his actions. He only speaks a few times, but his face speaks volumes. Wei Min Hui (Danny Lee) is a dashing and handsome silversmith, while Fang Yi Fei (Ti Lung) is a drunk who spends his days practicing kung fu with Wei. Neither of them seem terribly focused or serious about the practice; it is merely a fun diversion for their free time. The fifth man is Yao Guang (Wong Chung), a traveling acrobat and arguably the most skilled of the group. Unfortunately for everyone, he’s also laid up with a sickness that leaves him without much fighting ability or strength. The bandits they’re up against are also well-drawn, but in a shallower manner. They’re fantastic, ruthless villains that you love to hate, and as such, they are perfect characters to push our heroes and allow us to learn more about their motivations and abilities in the face of danger.
This struggle to find the courage to act makes up most of The Savage Five, and it feels unique for a kung fu movie to tackle such a topic through not a single character, but an entire town. Most of the townspeople are fearful and unable to muster the courage to fight back, despite the fact that only 12 bandits are holding them hostage. The film opens with a large group of the townspeople harassing Chen Deng for stealing a chicken, but as the film reveals, they are able to do this because they aren’t actually afraid of Chen. They know him and they like him, so tying him to a tree is merely an act to feed their egos into believing that they are capable men in these types of “dangerous” situations.
When it comes down to it, though, only five men and one resolute woman, San Niang (Wong Bing-Bing), stand up to the bandits. Of these characters, only Wong Chung’s acrobat is anything close to a traditional kung fu movie hero. But he’s not a famed swordsman or fighter, he’s a performer. Our heroes aren’t accustomed to this sort of thing, and they don’t relish the opportunity to pit their skills against the bandits in life or death situations. They must be driven to fight, and to persevere when their first attempts at rebellion are thwarted. They must be strategic and clever, as the bandits are more powerful, more experienced, and hold a distinct advantage.
Shaw Brothers films routinely used music from other films, with a lot coming from Euro Westerns and James Bond movies, but in The Savage Five, the chosen cues are implemented so well it seems as if they were written directly for the film. Ennio Morricone tracks from Death Rides a Horse and The Return of Ringo strike the perfect tone, and Chang Cheh matches the pieces beat for beat with his images. Chang does wonders in The Savage Five to craft wonderful scenes of tense drama, but the music really brings all the pieces together. There are few things I love more about movies than when the images and music intertwine to create a greater whole, and The Savage Five does this exceptionally well.
The Savage Five is yet another in a large group of fantastic films from director Chang Cheh, populated with compelling characters who are brought to life through exceptionally well-acted performances. If you’re looking for something a little different from the traditional kung fu film, The Savage Five is an excellent choice. Highly recommended.
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