Retro Review: ‘The Flying Guillotine’
One of the things I love about the Shaw Brothers martial arts flicks is the use of elaborate and often ridiculous weaponry. While they may be impractical in a real fight, these weapons always looked great onscreen. Easily the most iconic of these was the flying guillotine used in the fan favorite 1975 movie appropriately entitled the Flying Guillotine. Directed by Meng Hua-Ho, this film is still regarded as one of the influential martial arts films of all time.
Drawing inspiration from true events during the Qing dynasty, an evil emperor does as all evil rulers do an encouraged the creation of a new weapon to kill his enemies. An inspired inventor Xin Kang builds the first flying guillotine. Manipulated by it’s wielder via a long chain, the guillotine has a hood which is thrown over the head of it’s victim, once in place the blades in the weapon spring forward slicing the head cleanly off. Under imperial orders a squad of the finest soldiers are recruited to master this new weapon, and one soldier in particular Ma Teng masters the weapon. As the emperor’s utilization of this weapon grows, Ma Teng and some of his compatriots grow weary and demoralized at the bloodshed they are forced to engage in on behalf of a despot. Naturally he rebels against his emperor becoming an enemy of the state. While he goes into hiding and starts a family, his past still haunts him knowing it is only a matter of time before troops come looking for him looking to throw the flying guillotine over his own head. When he along with his wife and son are inevitably ambushed at their own home, Ma Teng has to return and battle his enemies once and for all.
As mentioned before, the flying guillotine is based off a real weapon used centuries ago, however with true designs of the original weapon are now lost to time the filmmakers had to use their imaginations to design it. I seriously doubt the guillotine could be utilized as coolly in real life as it was in this film. Nor do I believe the story around it could have been as grandiose and epic as the Flying Guillotine is. The film is driven by the character arcs of three people; Ma Teng the conflicted guilt-ridden warrior trying to make things right, the emperor played to evil perfection by Yang Chiang in one of his finest performances, and Xin Kang a man who only wanted to use his clever mind to get on the right side of authority but only ends up filled with guilty as he has opened a Pandora’s Box. These three characters propel this rich martial arts epic which features; action, romance, drama, and everything else which makes for a great story.
Naturally being a product of the famed Shaw Brothers studio, the movie is visually stunning. The cinematography is flawless, as director Meng Hua Ho truly immerses the audience in the story making the lavish production elements to seem that much grander. There are no painted backdrops of the sky in this film as filmmakers truly to advantage of filming on location adding to the grandiose nature. Naturally the fight choreography is crisp and awe-inspiring as one would expect, however they are at a slower pace than usually seen in a Shaw Brothers flick. Perhaps this is because the fight scenes are not as heavily focused on in the Flying Guillotine in favor of focusing on the guillotine usage as well as the complex story being told. The fact that the Kung Fu battles are slower in this film also lends to a more brutal hard-hitting style.
While 1976’s Master of the Flying Guillotine was a bigger hit, this film holds a special place in the hearts of martial arts movie fans, for it’s introduction of this famed weapon to movie lore. Much like the characters themselves, the flying guillotine is given a fascinating arc throughout the film which would be built upon by the many ensuing sequels. The Flying Guillotine proves to be an ambitious epic from the famed Shaw Brothers and despite issues with distribution upon it’s initial release, it has become a favorite among fans of these films. While it does not feature as much action as the other Flying Guillotine films, it is a rich and engaging picture.