The History of Martial Arts Films

Inspired by the historic paring of Martial Arts film legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li in Forbidden Kingdom, we decided to take a look at the history of martial arts films. From the films of the black and white era to the special effects laden films of today, the martial arts film remains one of the most prolific and exciting genres of action film in history.

The earliest martial arts films came out of Shanghai in the 1920’s and remained popular in mainland China through the 1930’s, when the production of the films moved to Hong Kong. The films from the 1920’s were adapted from martial arts novels and they used wire work and swordplay. One of the early studios to emerge out of the 1930’s is South Sea Film, later renamed Shaw Brothers Studio.

Wong Fei-Hung’s Battle With Five Tigers In the Boxing Ring (1958)

The 1950’s would being one of the most prolific Chinese characters to the screen, Wong Fei Hung. The first Hung film was produced in 1949 and since then the character has been played by everyone from Gordon Liu, to Sammo Hung. The character was played by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master series as well as by Jet Li in the six Once Upon a Time in China films. The real Wong Fei Hung was a martial artist from the Guangdong (Canton) province and the son of one of the legendary Ten Tigers of Guangdong martial artists from the Shaolin monastery. The character of Wong Fei Hung has been adapted in over 100 films surpassing long standing franchises like James Bond or Godzilla.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

As the martial arts genre began to grow the Shaw Brothers studio began to make some of the most memorable and iconic films of the time. The Shaw Brothers studio hired hundreds of actors and signed them to exclusive contracts and sent them to work at the 46 acre Shaw Brothers studio (the largest privately owned studio in the world.) in Hong Kong. The martial arts films that came out of the Shaw studio included the classics Five Deadly Venoms, The One Armed Swordsman, Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas) The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka The Master Killer) and Five Fingers of Death. Interestingly, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung appeared as extras in some of the later Shaw films.

As the early martial arts film producers primarily created films for the Asian marketplace, film studio Golden Harvest would begin to create films that broke in to the West. Golden Harvest was founded by former Shaw Brothers Studio executives, Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho Koon Cheung. Instead of using the in house production model of the Shaw’s, they financed independent producers to create films under the Golden Harvest banner.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

A year after leaving Shaw studios, Chow and Cheung would sign a deal with up and coming martial arts star, Bruce Lee that would change martial arts films forever. Golden harvest first produced Lee’s The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) which led to the groundbreaking co-production in 1973 of Enter The Dragon with Warner Brothers. In addition to producing Bruce Lee’s films the studio would go on to produce films starring modern martial arts stars like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Jet Li.

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

The modern kung fu films have combined the best of the past and fused them with humor, special effects, wire work and tons of martial arts action. Directors like Tsui Hark, Andrew Lau and actor director Steven Chow have taken the martial arts film to new levels and introducing this 80 plus year old movie genre to modern audiences.


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