The Valiant Ones (1975)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-11-11
“The Valiant Ones” is an exciting story of how a small group of dedicated and deadly patriots defeated a much larger gang of Japanese pirates who protected by traitorous members of the Chinese court. It meets most of the criteria of an epic, tale which recount a narrative of great national or ethnic importance, a tale that can be legendary, historical or a combination of both; is beautifully shot using mountain and seaside locations and the action choreography and execution is quite good for its time. While at first it seems to be almost all action the characters come alive to us through as they engage in battle, defining themselves by what they do more than by what they say. The men (and one woman) who General Yu Da You brings together as his mobile fighting force are courageous, gallant, generous with their friends and implacable with their enemies. Preternaturally skillful with sword, spear and fist, they stand against incredibly high odds, outnumbered in every battle. General Yu and his band are the people you want on your side in a fight.

We see this in the very first battle when they are attacked by a much larger force. First they stop the immediate probing attacks, then find out the headquarters and communications center for the main body of the approaching brigands, then lure them into an ambush using a ruse and making them think the defenders have been disabled. Since General Yu's fighters are able to grab arrows out of the air they aren't in much danger but their blood-curdling shrieks make the attackers think they have struck mortal blows. When they press forward they are caught in a confusion of bamboo screens, hallways that lead to dead ends and other areas that the defenders know very well. Although greatly outnumbered defenders--very tough swordsmen--not only beat back the attack but kill the majority of the fleeing Japanese.

Yu has a large bag of tricks—his unit surprises the enemy, maneuvers around and through them, leads them into ambush, strikes at flanks and weak points and retreats when hopelessly outnumbered. He also knows the importance of secrecy, making sure that Old Li, whose fishing operation he defended in the first action, doesn't talk about the battle. He wants to make sure the pirates will continue to fall for this very simple trick. One reason for their continued success is the skill of Chinese fighters combined with the tactical genius of their leader. One of General Yu's men may be worth ten of the ronin but five of them together with the force multiplier of Yu’s tactical brilliance are superior to a couple of hundred pirates.

There are more enemies than the Japanese, though with the governor’s court rife with both treachery and bureaucratic inertia. General Zhao, the incumbent military commander in the district, tells the governor that the pirates aren’t that much of a problem and then insists on more troops when his army is defeated by the marauders. General Yu is denounced as arrogant and high-handed by his opponents at the court who tell the governor not to employ him. The governor, though, is completely committed to his mission—the Emperor has sent him to this corner of China to rid it of the seaborne predators and he will do everything in his power to accomplish it.

More dangerous is Prosecutor Lin and his assistant, also called Prosecutor Lin in the subtitles. They were a very slimy duo—profiteers, collaborators and traitors who informed the pirates of Yu’s plans. He found them out and they were appropriately punished but not until their betrayals had cost the lives of an entire village that Yu had sworn to protect.

There is a wonderful confrontation between Pai Ying who as Wu is as strong, silent and imperturbable a character as one could be and a Japanese swordsman could have "punk" stenciled on his robes. The Japanese is insolent, thuggish and contemptuous of his foe, the opposite of Mr. Wu. Wu humiliates the foreign fighter, unlike the Chinese martial arts experts who had challenged him immediately before and who he simply defeated without forcing them lose face.

“The Valiant Ones” is a beautiful movie to look at. King Hu used the wide screen filling it with close-ups of men in battle or gorgeous shots of craggy cliffs and the rockbound seacoast. Some of the cinematography is striking—clouds glowing pink on one edge, just touched by the setting sun for example. Hu is an artist of the first rank, a brilliant auteur. This movie is a beautiful looking action film, a meditation on the costs of leadership and a profound examination of sacrifice and loss.

Reviewer Score: 9