THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN is a hit wuxia classic from Taiwan that stars Tien Peng and Polly Shang-kwan. It’s a quality actioner with an artful presentation, well received at the time of release, which established filmmaker Joseph Kuo as a major force in the world of martial arts cinema alongside contemporaries Chang Cheh and King Hu. It was the first of many martial arts films from the director of kung fu classics THE 18 BRONZEMEN and SEVEN GRANDMASTERS.
A young swordsman (Tien Peng) out to avenge the death of his family 18 years ago at the hands of several highly skilled fighters is nearly killed during an attack and rescued by swordswoman Flying Swallow (Polly Shang-kwan), the daughter of his chief adversary. He must choose between his desire for vengeance and indebtedness to his new friend. Meanwhile, his rival, Black Dragon (Chiang Nan), patiently awaits the outcome to challenge Tien in a duel to determine who will be the “swordsman of all swordsmen.”
According to the original English credits, the film was adapted from a novel by “Chiang Bin Han.” I wasn’t able to link that name to any well known wuxia author and I’m not surprised. (If anyone knows who the author is, please comment below.) The plot within the adapted screenplay by Su Tien-yung is extremely common. There were dozens of wuxia films released around the same time that dealt with the theme of a young swordsman or swordswoman seeking revenge for the death of a loved one, usually a parent. It is arguably the most common plot device in the entire wuxia genre apart from the constant struggle between swordsmen to be recognized as the best of the best, which also happens to be the primary subplot and title reference for THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN.
While unoriginal and at times overly dramatic, the plot remains engaging thanks largely to Joseph Kuo’s strong handling of the material coupled with sweeping cinematography from Lin Tsan-ting. The pair use exceptional lighting, wide overhead shots, tracked panning that follow the action, and striking set and outdoor imagery with bold use of color and poetic composition. It is a far cry from the homely old wuxia films with fixed camera placement and drab settings. At the time, this style could only be likened to King Hu’s previously released wuxia masterpiece DRAGON INN. Incidentally, both films were produced by Taiwan’s Union Film Co.
Kuo and Lin worked together again to equally great success on the wuxia classic THE MATCHLESS CONQUEROR (1971). Kuo shot several wuxia classics in between before switching to the kung fu genre with TRIANGULAR DUEL (1972) following the mammoth success of Bruce Lee and FIST OF FURY. He went on to make many successful kung fu movies, although nothing quite as polished as THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN.
As was common at the time, the female lead received top billing regardless of how prominent her role was. In this case, Polly Shang-kwan was making her second feature film appearance after debuting in DRAGON INN. Despite her billing, she only has a relatively small supporting role and few action scenes. This was remedied in years to come as she gradually became one of the top female kung fu stars of the 1970s. What may be especially disappointing for fans of Shang-kwan is her reserved performance. She had yet to discover the delightfully impish screen persona that dominated her performances in films like BACK ALLEY PRINCESS. Shang-kuan’s hair style in this film deserves special mention. It’s an oddly shaped and carefully constructed bouffant, a broad style of stacked hair very popular in developed countries in the 1960s and a common sight to see worn by Hong Kong and Taiwan’s leading wuxia ladies at the time.
The star is Tien Peng, a prolific Taiwanese actor, also in his second performance after DRAGON INN. He was frequently paired with Shang-kwan and presumably for lack of real fighting ability was more often cast off to a supporting role. In this film he performs well enough for the less-demanding swordplay action and initially wields an unusual sword that is decorative and colorful but stocky and ungainly compared with the elegant design of the longer and thinner traditional Chinese broadsword, also featured in the film.
The choreography in THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN is competent for the era and probably more remarkable for its dramatic presentation than for any screen-fighting skill. King Hu had established a new style of shooting swordplay action in COME DRINK WITH ME two years prior that relied on the director’s artistic presentation more than anything and the action in this film follows that trend.
Fight movements tend to be direct with emphasis on killing blows rather than sparring. This was the beginning of a brief era in wuxia film history that was heavily influenced by Japanese chambara films. Dramatic posturing leads into quick strikes that are direct and efficient. Blood flows freely and body counts are high. There is some exaggerated action to remind us that we are watching wuxia and not chambara. For instance, Tien pins one of his adversaries to a tree with a thrown sword while Shang-kwan’s character has a trademark move where she throws her sword sheath into the air and kills several attackers with her sword before raising her weapon into the air to perfectly catch the sheath. There is some very noticeable undercranking to speed up action movements.
For its time, THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN put a fresh visual spin on the wuxia genre. Although not quite as iconic or strong on star power, it holds up very well beside DRAGON INN and Chang Cheh’s early wuxia films including THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN and HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL. It’s also one of Joseph Kuo’s best films overall and is indication of what he might have been able to achieve with his latter kung fu movies had he had similarly high-grade production standards to work with. This film is most definitely worth tracking down by fans of classic wuxia for its general entertainment value and is essential viewing for anyone looking to undercover one of the best swordplay films to come out of Taiwan that wasn’t directed by King Hu.
Genre: Wuxia • Joseph Kuo • Polly Shang-kwan • revenge • swordplay • teahouse fight • The Swordsman of all Swordsmen (1968) • Tien Peng