The Trail of the Broken Blade is a relatively early swordplay film for both its director, celebrated king of masculine action films Chang Cheh, and its leading man, Jimmy Wang Yu. Wang Yu went on to play his signature roles of the antihero in Golden Swallow and the one-armed swordsman in, er, The One-Armed Swordsman, and this movie foreshadows many of the elements in those later films.
Jimmy Wang Yu plays Li Yueh, the scion of a noble family whose father (a famous general) was disgraced and executed by the corrupt Prime Minister. The film begins as Li exacts his revenge, breaking into the Prime Minister’s home and taking his life, thereby setting himself up as Public Enemy Number One. Sure enough, posters of Li’s stubbled and brooding visage start appearing on town walls, and he’s forced to go into hiding, assuming a a new name and working as a simple horseman in a small town, where he’s befriended some of the locals and the casino manager’s daughter (Chiao Chiao) has taken quite a shine to him.
Meanwhile (and in this sort of story, there’s always a meanwhile!) a chivalrous young swordsman named Fang Chun-chao (Chiao Chuang) steps in as a gang of ruffians aided by one of the young masters from the Flying Fish Island attack a local household, with robbery and the young daughter of the house on their minds. He helps drive out the invaders, and is invited in, with the master of the house evidently seeing him as a fine match for his daughter. She, of course, isn’t interested — her heart is promised to another, her childhood companion… Li Yueh, our hero-in-hiding. Gallant as always, Fang promises to search for Li on the lady’s behalf, in order to reunite the two lovers.
And round and round it goes. Surprisingly for a Chang Cheh film, there’s a romantic melodrama in this film, though it keeps getting elbowed aside by male bonding and issues of masculine honour. Everyone’s in love with everyone else, some in secret, some more obvious (Fan Mei-Sheng follows Chiao Chiao around like a puppy dog!) and we even have a scene where our two separated lovers wonder what the other is doing right now…
Nonetheless, things get a bit more serious when the villainous men of the Flying Fish Island show up, with their equally villainous array of secret weapons and colourful outfits. The martial arts choreography here is by the celebrated team of Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai, but this is quite an early film, made before kung-fu films became more popular and the quality of the choreography improved. The Trail of the Broken Blade is still much more of a wuxia fantasy than the harder swordplay and martial arts films that arrived on the scene later, with the occasional character floating over the rooftops or fusing together two halves of a die with his fingertips. There’s nothing really spectacular in the action sequences, with the focus in this film more on the romantic tragedy taking place and Wang Yu’s furrowed brows than anything else.
Although it’s weaker than some of the other swordplay films Shaw Brothers produced in the late 60s, it’s still good fun, and worth a giggle for those who want to see what Chang Cheh was doing before he honed his style into directing even more masculine films, or for fans of Jimmy Wang Yu. Chiao Chuang’s performance as the quiet, heroic Fang is good, and Chiao Chiao is endearing as the rather petulant casino operator’s daughter. Fans of action films may enjoy playing name-that-extra with this one: sharp-eyed viewers might spot Lau Kar Leung, Lau Kar Wing, Yuen Wo Ping and several of his brothers, Wu Ma and others.