The One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1967)
Probably not the first superhero origin story movie, or even the first great one, but it’s the earliest one I can think of and it remains one of the best in that now ubiquitous genre. After a bloody prologue, in which a man is killed protecting his master from gangsters, the film finds Jimmy Wang Yu as the son of the fallen hero, now a student of that same master, but one constantly picked on by the other, higher-class students. Wang resolves to leave, but is met by his tormentors in the woods by Shaw studio moonlight. In a fit of psychopathic impetuosity, the master’s daughter lops off Wang’s arm.
Director Chang Cheh blows up the insanity of this act, as Wang stumbles away in through snow and the soundtrack goes wild with a free jazz freakout. Eventually rescued by a young farm girl and nursed back to health, the philosophical conflict of the film slowly reveals itself. Wang must choose between a simple, non-violent life as a farmer or the kung fu world, where he owes his master a filial debt of loyalty and is duty-bound to protect him and his family.
This central section of the film alternates between Wang learning a new, one-armed fighting style (gleaned from half a book the farm girl gives him: half a book for half a man, it requires too the use of half a sword — his father’s broken weapon he’d saved for many years as a relic) and the schemes of an evil gang, led by the mysterious (because we only see him from behind until the climax of the film) Long-Armed Devil (the name a contrast to Wang’s disability, a penis joke, or both). The gang has developed a weapon that locks onto the master’s broadsword, leaving him open to be knifed in the belly. The gang uses this weapon to kill off many of the master’s disciples, and then challenges the man himself at his compound. Only the One-Armed Swordsman can save them. That is, if he decides that the demands of loyalty trump his desire for a nice quiet life as the One-Armed Farmer.
Of course he comes to their rescue, killing and/or dismembering many a bad guy (including action director Lau Kar-leung), choosing honor over domestic happiness. But, in the end he gets the farm girl too and they head out for their new life together. It’s an unusually optimistic ending for Chang Cheh, the Sam Peckinpah of kung fu movies. In his later films, the price of loyalty will prove much greater and the conflict between personal happiness and martial obligation will prove irresolvable. Hints of the darker reality are seen in the pile of slaughtered men littering the master’s home in the wake of the Long-Armed Devil’s attack. But as Wang and his girl walk away, accompanied by a rollicking beat and blaring 1960s horns, in these early days of the kung fu movie Golden Age, happy endings are still possible.