The Heroic Ones (1970)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2011-03-15
Summary: Don't go to pieces on us
“The Heroic Ones” operates on several levels. It involves a stately progression from feast to feast with lots of pageantry, pomp and ceremony. Even though the thirteen generals and their king are Mongols from the steppes for to the northwest there is a stylized spectacle to everything they do, from deciding where guests (and rival warlords) will sit at the big dinner party to which of the generals is best suited to lead the attack on the enemy. While they seem untutored and rough, these Mongols, with their buffoonish actions, are better soldiers than the more effete allies, allies who are much less inclined than they to engage the enemy.

An example of this is the very first fight when General Meng and his men attack the fortress. Li Tsun Hsiao tells those assembled that he will defeat Meng and bring him back to the banqueting hall wrapped in a rope. When visiting warlord Zhu Wen scoffs at the hubris shown by the young warrior Li bets Zhu that he will be successful, wagering his head against Zhu’s ornate jade belt. Li defeats the hulking General Meng (played by the hulking Bolo Yeung) using a Tang dynasty version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope in his classic fight with George Foreman, letting the bigger and stronger man wear himself out by flailing at a target that stays just beyond reach. It is an all or nothing strategy—you must be close enough to your opponent for long enough that he constantly thinks he is just one big blow away from victory. Li is executes the strategy perfectly and returns to the banquet hall dragging Meng with a rope around his neck.

Each of the thirteen generals has the attributes of a superhero. While large scale slaughter of bad guys by good guys was a convention of martial arts movies like this, “The Heroic Ones” is excessive to the extent that one wonders why King Jin and his sons bother with strategy or tactics since any pair of them can defeat (and kill) scores or even hundreds of enemy soldiers. Some of the extras employed by Shaw Brothers in this film must have spent day after day being killed.

Another set of images and devices shows the antagonism and rivalry among the brothers. We find out early that they are the “sons and godsons” of King Jin and later on that some of them were adopted but not given the Jin name. This has led to competition and discord, in this case between the paired opposites Li Tsun Hsiao and Kang Chun Li, the 12th and 13th generals. Li is boastful and enjoys being the center of attention. He is brave and impetuous. Kang is more cerebral and cunning, willing to think things through before acting, sometimes becoming obsessed with his target. Li is hot, Kang is cool. But most importantly Li is unalterably loyal to his father and will not only kill for him but also die for him. Kang has become so fixated on what he considers to be slights and lack of respect from the King and his brothers that he betrays the family and their mission.

Casting David Chiang and Wong Chung as the competitive siblings was a stroke of genius. Both of them are “lean and hungry men” and at first seem very much alike, as if they could change places and missions without much difficulty. Chan Sing was perfect as the conniving warlord more interested in weakening the Mongol warriors than defeating their common enemy. Lily Li Li-Li was a welcome change from the otherwise all-male cast although her role could have been cut from the movie without damaging it.

There were a few technical oddities in the production, particularly two very unsteady dolly type shots that clearly weren’t on tracks, the camera kind of wandering toward and more or less parallel to the actors being filmed but with jarring missteps along the way. Since it happened twice one imagines it was noticed during editing—someone had to decide that they were the two best shots to use in those spots—an unusual type of error for Shaw Brothers.
Reviewer Score: 6