Before beginning this review, let’s point out a fun touch that restorers occasionally add to a film. Beach of the War Gods is a fifty years old movie. It’s the kind of film that makes you think about poor quality transfers, watched on some third generation Betamax or, even better, inside a smoke filled cinema with the smell of stale popcorn lingering in the air.
As this film starts there are scratches and blemishes, the sound hisses and crackles, it’s annoying, distracting, but also it helps transport the viewer to that world of grubby movie screens and sticky floors. Then, as we watch, just as the opening credits start, there is a shift. The image is cleaned up, the sound now clearer. Despite a huge difference, some how it’s also a subtle shift, allowing us to remain in a different world as we now enjoy the movie. To the people who do this kind of restoration work – you are seen!
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Beach of the War Gods, like many great movies, is a remake of The Seven Samurai. But is it more Battle Beyond the Stars than Magnificent Seven? In many ways, Kurosawa’s classic lends itself perfectly to the kind of wuxia movie popular at the time; heroes with fighting specialties, noble sacrifice and vengeance, and a big fight at the end are all present in the original and, thanks to Beach sticking to the Hong Kong cinema trends of the time. here they are all turned up to eleven. Specialised fighters? We’ve got guys who think using two shields is a good idea and another with more knives strapped to his body than can possibly be safe for himself, let alone any of his foes. Noble sacrifice? It’s a remake of The Seven Samurai, albeit with only six heroes, so you can be sure that very few are going to make it to the end. As for a big final fight… more about that later.
More than that, the original has done more than just inspired the plot of this film, it feel like it has notably changed it, possibly making it more mature than many of its contemporaries When the heroes die, there is no long, heroic speech during their last breath. They just die, tragically. There are few brawls during the lead up to the grand finale, creating a tension that is often lacking in other movies of the time. The most notable departure though is the camera work and choreography. Jimmy Wang Yu wrote, starred in and directed this film, and it does feel as though he has been inspired by the master Kurosawa. Though the crash zoom and quick cuts often seen and often pastiched are present, in general the camera work is far more fluid than you might expect, with some truly interesting shots, and use of slow motion, especially during the final battle.
The final fight is epic. Mammoth in every way. Beach runs at around 100 minutes, and almost half of that is taken up by this one, single, extended fight. The body count and gore used boggles the mind. This is a Wang Yu film so you expect it to get messy, but during the course of this fight so many Chinese villagers and Japanese soldiers are slaughtered you begin to wonder where they are all coming from. Also, forty plus minutes on one fight, without any real respite, is long. If you enjoy kung fu movie mob fights, it’s remarkable. If you don’t, it’s going to be a slog despite the quality of the choreography and the fact that the sets are really very nice.
Another difference from the original are the themes at play. In Seven Samurai the villages are distrustful of the samurai, seeing them as little different from the bandits who raid them. The establishment is questioned. Not so in Beach, where Wang Yu’s swordsman Hsia Feng is universally welcomed and shown even more deference when they realise he is the nephew of a great general. This is a movie full of patriotism verging on nationalism, the heroes are all ‘Sons of China’ and most need little more convincing to get involved than being told they are going to get to kill a large number of Japanese. Indeed, the overt racism, a fairly standard staple at the time with the Japanese often playing the roles of bad guys, is surprisingly prevalent, even given that fact.
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The special features are enjoyable, with Frank Djeng being as informed and informative as he is enthusiastic on the commentary, and Mike Leeder and Arne Venema give an interview discussing the work of Wang Yu. Even more interesting is an archival interview with the man himself. Eureka Entertainment have also produced one of their now well known and excellent booklets to accompany the release, along with a limited edition slip case. This is a movie that will divide people. Some will love it for what it is; an excuse to film a lovingly made, impressively shot, massive fight. Others will hate it for exactly the same reason.
Which makes your decision very easy. Are you the kind of person who cheers and whoops when the gore starts flying? Do you enjoy a simple plot with obvious heroes and villains? Have you got access to enough popcorn to sustain you through the entire battle? If the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these, then this is the movie for you.
Beach of the War Gods is out on Blu-ray on 23rd October from Eureka Entertainment.