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A righteous clan’s effort to seek out and destroy the powerful Thundering Sword turns into a tragedy as a fierce, yet impulsive beauty falls in love with the leading clansman, mistakenly poisons his brother and only makes matters worse in an attempt to make amends.

Long before Jet Li and Donnie Yen crossed swords in Hero or Michelle Yeoh schooled Zhang Ziyi in their kinetic duel in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the wuxia genre was little more than a soap opera with swords. That began to change when Chang Cheh ditched the love story and ushered in macho heroics, increased violence and Lau Kar-leung’s realistic kung fu to the fore in 1970.

Shaw Brother’s The Thundering Sword belongs to the older, vintage era of swordplay and as such it has not aged well. It’s a weepy romantic saga in the Romeo and Juliet tradition with stagy art direction, stiff action choreography and over-acting. The film relies more on long-winded, dramatic angst than on thrills or fanciful effects. Although the film is a disappointment, Cheng Pei-pei’s screen presence is undeniable and her violent killing spree early on is entertaining.

The story is trademark wuxia material complete with a notorious weapon that everyone wants, plot twists, and competing clans each with their own heroes specializing in various methods of killing. Chang Yi makes his leading debut as hero Yu Chien-wan, who along with his martial brother Chiang Kwun-yuan (Lo Lieh), are charged with finding and destroying the infamous Thundering Sword in order to keep other clans from fighting over it. Chiang finds the sword, but So Jiau-jiau (Cheng Pei-pei), Chief of the notorious Caterpillar House of Wu Du Clan buries three poisonous darts in his chest and runs off with the sword. Her success in securing the sword is soured when she discovers that she has wounded the brother of Yu, a man So has only met once, yet has fallen in love with. She attempts to fix the situation by hiring Yue’s Security Escort service to take the wounded man to Baiyun Temple for treatment. But the escort is waylaid by yet another clan looking for the sword and Chiang is wounded more severely. Believing the escort service to be responsible, So cuts down the entire company in a murderous rampage. Chiang stumbles upon the scene and gets blamed for the massacre. Not knowing the truth, Chiang courts So and the two seek marriage against the wishes of both their masters. So hopes to keep the whole mess she has created hidden, but accusations against Chiang and the jealousy of a spurned woman (Shu Pooi-pooi) forces her to face judgment.

The melodramatic excess of the story and hammy acting is pounded home by a shifting score of overstated orchestral riffs. With this and other elements, the film often verges on falling into unintentional self-parody. The film’s bloodiest action sequence has Cheng Pei-pei cutting down a roomful of hapless escort servicemen. We actually see her imbed a sword blade into one unlucky fellow’s forehead. Viewers may wonder why a similar scene in The Big Boss where Bruce Lee plants a saw blade into an attacker’s head never made the final cut while the scene in The Thundering Sword did. After this scene ends, Cheng alone and smiling breaks into a song with lyrics rising to the likes of, “rousing soft ripples in my heart.” It doesn’t make any sense. Had the film maintained this action level, I wouldn’t have cared much, but by the second half the whole thing gets mired in mushy daytime fluff right up to the excessively drawn out ending.

As much as I enjoy delving into martial arts film history, The Thundering Sword left me cold. Cheng Pei-pei, stern and sensual, is always a delight to see in an action role, but ends up a victim of the clunky script. The Chinese Opera-trained Chang Yi shows little of the presence or physical skill he would command in his many superior kung fu movie roles and Lo Lieh is wasted in a small dramatic role. Anyone who enjoys pre-’70s wuxia movies will find some value here, but there are better examples of the genre, specifically Come Drink With Me.

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