The 14 Amazons is one of those films in which Shaw Brothers pulled out all the stops: it’s got a huge cast, quite a bit of location shooting, an epic story and some huge melee battle scenes. Though many would assume from the title that it’s got either a strong feminist or exploitative slant, it’s got neither: instead, it’s a straight tale of heroism and determination that just happens to be centered around a family of women.
Their menfolk are absent for a reason, though. At the start of the film, we see the general Yang Tsung Pao killed in battle with many of his companions, the victim of an ambush during a war with Western Xia. He leaves behind only a single male heir, the young boy Yang Wen (played by actress Lily Ho). Saddened and determined to take revenge — as well as to protect their country against the forces of Western Xia — the grand matriarch of the family (Lisa Lu), Tsung Pao’s widow (Ivy Ling Po) and the rest of the family set off to do battle.
On the way, they contend with the traitorous official Wang Ching (Cheng Miu), who wants to negotiate instead, and the formidable generals of the opposing army as well, led by the King and his sons. Lo Lieh deserves a mention here as the King of Western Xia’s fifth son, playing the sadistic maniac (a role he’d had many times) with dark glee.
The 14 Amazons was made in 1972, the same year as The Water Margin, and I can’t help but think that the latter got the better team; it’s got a better score, a more interesting story and considerably better action choreography. To me, this film felt like it had more in common with the slower swordplay films before it than the harder, faster films that arrived in the 70s with the dominance of Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung. It’s not devoid of interest, though — there are some good performances, especially from Lisa Lu as the matriarch, Ivy Ling Po and Lo Lieh, and there are moments of almost fantasy, with the construction of human pyramids and bridges. Yes, really.
Check it out to see what the crowd at Cannes in 2006 saw, as part of the Cannes Classics Collection, and to see the first steps towards greatness in action choreography from a little-known member of the Hong Kong film industry named Tony Ching Siu-tung…