Have Sword, Will Travel (1969)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2011-05-06
Summary: A well made classic
Among them Ti Lung, Cheng Cheh and David Chiang made the amazing total of 28 films for Shaw Brothers between 1969 and 1976. While "Have Sword, Will Travel" was an early effort by the three, Shaws clearly had a winning combination to fill the screens of their Cantonese theaters. The story fit like a pair of well-worn shoes—a hoard of silver was to be delivered to the Emperor. The route crossed a bandit filled wasteland but the royal courier was a fierce and experienced military bureaucrat Lord Yin, backed by a battalion of fearless fighters.

Word is out, though, that Lord Yin might be past it—that the wily veteran may be feeling his age. If so the upcoming trip will be the best chance to ambush the caravan and steal the silver before a younger, more energetic replacement is named. Siang is an exceptionally skilled martial artist who, like many of his kind, seems to have no real home but is comfortable on the road. He is betrothed to Yun Piao Piao who chastely accompanies him. She is no slouch in the killing department although less adept than the boys as is the custom in these films. Lo Yi is an ambiguous character—deadly, charismatic, even more of a loner than the typical martial arts hero of the time. He may want to steal the silver, he may just be passing through, he may be loyal to Lord Yin—no one knows. What is known is that he has a smoldering look and a devil may care attitude that Yun Piao Piao finds compelling attractive. Lo Yi is a classic outsider, a movie bad boy whose aloofness acts as an aphrodisiac to some women.

It turns out that the rumors about Lord Yin are true; he is even worse off than feared, having lost his kung fu ability months previously and now barely able to wield a sword. He has kept his infirmity from almost everyone but wisely fears spies from feared bandits gang the Flying Tigers, especially the well-named Pestilence. He is a formidable spy, one who can listen from the rafters or infiltrate the palace guard without being discovered. Pestilence is sent to spy on a council of war with Lord Yin and Siang, a meeting that Lo Yi stumbles upon. Thinking he is a spy from the Flying Tigers, Siang invites him to the dinner table where the two of them engage in some very well done fights using chopsticks in place of weapons. Even after being accepting their hospitality (and chomping his way through most of a dinner for four—he has been on the road a long time) Lo Yi is unable to prove he isn’t a spy. But then the real spy, Pestilence is seen and almost captured confirming that Lo Yi is who he says he is--a wandering swordsman. Pestilence escapes and Lord Yin knows that the enemy is aware of his weakness.

By now Yun Piao Piao is infatuated with Lo Yi although still loyal to her fiancé and their adopted mission of delivering the royal silver. Aware of his fighting prowess she convinces a most reluctant Siang that he is necessary as part of the escort. This ends what is essentially the first chapter of the movie. It has been full of loyalty and betrayal, plotting and counterplotting, love and renunciation; however there hasn’t been much action. Then the escort sets off with the silver, heading into bandit country, and there is nothing but action for the last thirty minutes.

Swordplay and the thick red blood that was one of the characteristics of Shaw Brothers at the time are almost constant. There is a lot of well choreographed and executed trampoline and wire work with fighters leaping at each other to battle in midair. Much of the action takes place in and around the bandits’ base, a looming tower that dominates the only road to the capital. Siang is unwilling to let Lo Yi help him in his unequal battle against all of the Flying Tiger soldiers--Lord Yin’s men having been dispatched by arrows and spears from the tower—as well as two all but invincible fighters. Lo Yi deals with this by jumping into the tower and, like Siang, slaughter bandits by the score with one slash of his sword. There are a lot of bandits and even efficient killing machines like these take a while to mow all of them down. Lo Yi is wounded several times when he finally faces off against the mute bandit who hacks and skewers him before being killed. The righteous kung fu practices of our heroes allow them to survive blows that would be fatal to ordinary fighters.

This points to the theme that runs through “Have Sword Will Travel”, that being on the right side of the law--or being a servant of the ruling class, as you will—gives on additional physical/psychic powers to defeat enemies that seem stronger, better armed and more organized. It is to the credit of Chang Cheh, cinematographer Kung Mu-To and editor Chiang Hsing-Lung as well as the actors that the audience accepts this fantasy since the action is so enthralling and believable.
Reviewer Score: 8