Last Hurrah for Chivalry [IMDB] [HKMDB]
Hong Kong, 1979
Directed by John Woo
Starring Damian Lau, Wei Pai, Lee Hoi-San
Released to a muted response in Hong Kong during November 1979, Last Hurrah for Chivalry was the last of four martial arts films directed by John Woo during the decade. For the first half of the 1980s, he would work exclusively on comedy films, both for Golden Harvest and the new studio Cinema City. That period would be commercially successful for Woo - the films were hits and he was referred to as the colony’s next “king of comedy” - but they would also be creatively stifling. When in 1986 he released his pet project and smash hit A Better Tomorrow, transforming him into a director of groundbreaking contemporary action films, Woo appeared to have left both martial arts and comedy behind for good. However, the distinctive style of the director’s “heroic bloodshed” films was made possible not only by his tutelage under mentor Chang Cheh, but also his experience of making martial arts films in the 1970s: and none more so than Last Hurrah for Chivalry.
At the centre of the film is a classic John Woo brotherhood. “Green” (Damian Lau) and Cheung Sam (Wei Pai) are both masterful swordsmen; the former, a hard-drinking but compassionate assassin and the latter, a brash youth with a troubled family. Initially just acquaintances, the pair form a strong bond over an impossible mission handed to them by the noble Ko Peng: to avenge his family and estate, taken from him by the unhinged local warlord Pak Chung-tong (Lee Hoi-Sang). Complicating matters is the arrival of a vicious wandering swordsman known only as “Let It Be” (Fung Hak-On) - who has presumably arrived via a long and winding road.
As with Woo’s previous martial arts film, Hand of Death (1976), much of the tale plays out similarly to what we would expect from a Shaw Brothers effort directed by Chang. The finale, which features a fortress defended by 36 masked fighters and guards as colourful as the “sleeping wizard”, could have come from any film starring the Venom Mob, Chang’s legendary company of screen fighters. Indeed, Wei Pai was a member of the Mob, having only recently defected to Golden Harvest when Last Hurrah for Chivalry was made. The Shaw Brothers feel is amplified further still by a rise in the number of indoor locations.
However, it is with this film that Woo was truly beginning to stake out his own territory. The sheer intensity and melancholic, tragic feel of the central brotherhood is distinctively Woo’s own, and his direction of action has improved tremendously since Hand of Death. In contrast with some of Chang’s films - including Five Deadly Venoms itself - the film is positively packed with action. In addition to the principle conflicts of the story, the challenges of Let It Be and the numerous incidental scrapes the heroes become involved in produce scene after scene of action.
The action director on the film was Fung Hak-On, who plays Let It Be to perfection and has a lot of fighting to do himself. Fung, who passed away in March 2016, was a very experienced action director who really outdid himself on Last Hurrah for Chivalry. The emphasis is on swordplay - and this is an absolutely top-tier swordplay film - but there are many novel hand-to-hand scenarios as well. At least two of the fights are true classics: the first is a sword battle between Cheung Sam and Let It Be, and the second occurs when Green and Cheung Sam finally corner Pak Chung-tong in a stone room filled with candles. Alternating from swordplay to kung fu and back again, it’s a truly gripping piece of work which relies on the talents of Fung, Woo, and the performers on screen.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry is essential to truly understanding the later work of John Woo, but it is also a hugely accomplished film in its own right. Outside of a few extraneous comic and domestic scenes, it engages throughout and is genuinely one of the best and most exciting swordplay films out there. We can only hope that new releases of Woo’s 1970s films are forthcoming - Last Hurrah for Chivalry should be at the top of the list.