Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: The Sword and the Claw

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Sword and the Claw (aka Kılıç Aslan, aka Lion Man)
Directed by Natuch Baitan (aka Natuk Baytan)
AGFA / MVD Visual
109 minutes, 1975 / 2017

Recently, I reviewed a trio of top-of-the-line action films in the gangster genre by Japanese director Takashi Miike. So now, to go down the ladder a bit, I’m about to watch a Turkish delight known as The Sword and the Claw, among other names. To tell ya the truth, I’m just as excited. Miike makes films that are cinematically well-focused and a tad off the wall, but here, who knows what to expect.

During the 1970s, the first boom of kung fu films started flowing into the West after the popularity of the television show “Kung Fu” (1972-1975) took just about everyone by surprise. The mostly Chinese releases were cheesy and good fun, and the best were period pieces set in the early days of the Shaolin period. Turkish cinema is long known as having a “cash-in”/”ride the wave” philosophy, with unintentionally funny remakes of stuff like Star Wars and “Star Trek.” 

Please note that I am not in any way trying to insult the Turkish film industry, rather the opposite. I find it great fun and worth seeking out for the very nature of the releases. This is a film I’m not familiar with, especially since while I enjoyed the whole cinematic kung fu invasion, it was not a genre in my field of expertise; besides, most of those original films were pretty laughable in their own right, as people flew through the air, caught shurikens with their bare hands, and beheaded people with hats.

What I did grow up with was the old Italian sword and sorcery-type gladiator films, like Hercules Unchained (1959), which were arguably even cheesier than the kung fu films. Again, I watched and enjoyed them whenever they came on television (though in all honesty, I don’t own a single one in VHS, DVD, or digital).

The Original Poster
Not surprisingly, the opening battle scene is one of the Turkish Army fighting the Crusaders from Europe (i.e., Christians). It’s all on horseback, where every one-on-one fight is a single slash or fist blow, accompanied by a grunt (it sounds like a few used over and over). Every group on the European front is apparently involved, as it looks like there are Vikings, Knights Templar in black robes, and even a leather-covered gladiator. The soundtrack playing over it all is some lighthearted music that you might expect to be heard to welcome spring. You know right from the onset this is going to be a hoot.

After the battle, King Solomon (who looks a lot like a bearded Guy Williams) is seduced by the blonde European Princess, Maria, who states, “I am also attracted to you as a man.” The King is assassinated by the Westerners, led by the villain of the piece, Antoine. Meanwhile, Solomon’s wife, Amelia (also blonde) bears his son in the woods. Suleyman Sah (Cüneyt Arkin, who goes by Steve Arkin in the dubbed version) – aka “The Claw” of the title – has the same elaborate “birthmark” on his shoulder as Solomon. He gets raised by a den of lions, Tarzan-style. His brother by Maria, Alkar – aka, “The Sword” – is raised Moses-like as the son of Antoine, to whom Maria was forced to marry. For the story, I’m not going to go too far into details beyond this point, but suffice it to guess that the brothers are going to meet at some point.

Suleyman is hysterical, being dressed in loincloth; plus he kills with his bare hands. He hits you with his open palm and nails, and you’re in heaven, Valhalla, Jannah or whatever is viewed as the hereafter in this period of Turkish history (I’m assuming Muslim, but other than the bad guys having a cross, religion proper is never mentioned).

The Lion Man and Ida
The love interest is the lovely (raven-haired) Ida, who is a leader of the Turkish rebels. The love interest of whom? Or both? That remains to be seen by you. She reminds me a bit of a mix of the sultry Yvonne Romain in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf, and just-post Elvis-era Priscilla Presley. She’s a strong woman, but of course she’s put in harm’s way all the time, but all things considered, she also defends herself more than most cinematic women elsewhere in the world at that time. To be fair, women in action films tend to fare better than those in most other genres.

Yeah, the story is ridiculous, but it’s actually more complex than I was expecting. There are quite a few different subplots and a large number of characters that are fortunately easy to distinguish. Of course, men outnumber women by quite a large number, but if you take out the hundreds of extras who are killed, it evens it out more: by my count, there are 4 (in total) women in the story, and 7 (key) men. I was also surprised, considering its locale, that nearly all the women were the aggressors when it comes to the bedroom (a common Turkish fantasy? I really don’t know, I’m curious), and in one case there is an ample showing of cleavage. Other than Akins, no character is listed in the credits, so I don’t know who was playing whom.

The most common comments I’ve seen about the film, other than its complete preposterousness3` – and yes it is, but in a very fun way – is the way it’s dubbed into English. Honestly, I don’t see much difference between this and most of the period-piece kung fu stuff coming out of China and Samurai material from Japan around the same time. Meaning, yes of course it’s badly done, but they all were. Part of the charm, as far as I’m concerned.

This film was huge in Turkey when it was released, and made Arkin a big star there. There is also a sequel to the film, which would have made sense to add as a second feature rather than the one included (I say that before seeing it), but I’m happy to have had the opportunity to have viewed this one.

Most people have compared this film to the Conan franchise, but I disagree wholeheartedly; I believe its solid Tarzan meets kung fu mixed with the sword and sandal genre. Either way you look at it though, it’s a blast to watch. You may laugh at it, or you may laugh with it, but I guarantee, you will enjoy yourself, if this is the kind of film you looking for on a rainy weekend. I know I did.

Along with a truly fun group of “super” European trailers, the other extra is an entire second film, reviewed below.

The Brawl Busters (aka Sa-dae-tong-iue-moon aka Dragon From Shaolin)
Directed by Tommy Kim (aka Jeong-young Kim)
82 minutes, 1978 or 1981 / 2017

You know this is going to be fun when one of the first title card reads: “The Chinese Black Belt Society and Extraordinary Films presents Black Jack Chan.” I kept hearing that line from The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977): “We are building a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude!”

While it would have been nice to have had the sequel to the film above, it’s interesting to see one from South Korea, an area where my film knowledge is up-to-now virginal. Oh, and to be brutally honest, I didn’t get the joke of the title I until the beginning of actually starting to watching it.

It kind of makes sense when you realize the basic plot: During the dynasty era (yes, a period piece), a nobleman named She-Ya is assassinated by Kow-Ying Len, the leader of a quintet of female killers from Very Tea Lodge, who is a master in Tornado Feet Kung Fu; err, considering the locale, shouldn’t that be Cyclone Feet? At least she’s not using Jazz Hands Kung Fu. Meanwhile, She-Ya’s son, the villainous She-Hao, vows revenge. At the same time, a young buck (Bruce Cheung, aka the Black Jack Chan of the title card) has been tutored (off camera; no training montage) by a wise older master, and is on the road. You just know the guy and the woman at some point will eventually team up.

Essentially, this is a story about revenge told in a long and convoluted way that kinda makes sense, though why the original wrong took place is confusing. But what the hell, this has numerous fights, arguably nearly as much time as not.

Let’s talk a bit about the fighting (okay, I will). First of all, as with many releases in this genre, there is no logic, or physics for that matter. People fly through the air, bounce among the trees – though not as well as in larger budgeters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Another example is more than once someone will throw, say, some shurikens, and the intended target will hold up a small hand-held object that all the pointed thingies will stick to, even though the person isn’t moving. Unlike some movies where it looks graceful, here the action often looks clumsy and obviously either shown in reverse or sped up. For example, one of the villains wears a full length cape when he’s fighting. Even though he uses it to his advantage at one point, it still hinders rather than helps.

Personally, I believe that the filmmakers weren’t really trying to be rocket scientists about it, just to rush out a movie to sell to the foreign market for as inexpensive as posssible. This is the same philosophy of many of the B-films of the 1940s through ‘60s, such as the Frankie and Annette beachers, Noir detective stories, and those that fall into the psychotronic subgenre. But as you know, those styles were also a lot of fun. So is this.

Now, about the dialog and vocals. Due to some pieces of the film being missing, probably broken off between reels in the editing and reediting process in the projector rooms, there are some gaps and definitely harsh jumps. But it’s the dialog that is the most crazy, with the likes of, “When a woman kills one of our people it look very bad,” and “Her kung fu is excellent. It’s hard to believe she’s a woman!” “Bastard” and “bitch” seem to be used as much as the word “the.” To add to the head scratching is the dubbing itself, as the voices sound American, British and Crocodile Dundee-level Aussie (Kiwi?).

I haven’t found a link to a trailer, but this is worth seeing for the experience. Bad acting, bad writing, and bad dialog all adds up to – what else – a fun film. If you like Ed Wood and that ilk, you’re bound to find something for you here. If you’re you prefer the likes of Jet Li’s Hero (2002), well why hell are you reading this?

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