So what is the big deal about Shaw Brothers? If you have to ask that then you know nothing about the martial arts cinema. Shaw Brothers is to Kung Fu films as Disney is to cartoons, as M.G.M. is to musicals, as Universal is to classic horror, as Hal Roach is to slapstick comedy. Shaw Brothers Studio opened in the 1930’s, gradually becoming a powerhouse thanks to the brothers buying out movie theaters across Hong Kong giving their studio a monopoly. As the profits rolled in Shaw Brothers reinvested into their studio, building huge standing sets, and signing great actors, directors and writers. The Shaws spent a small fortune on production, giving their films the same quality of those released by the major Hollywood studios. Martial arts movies were never the Shaw Brothers’ mainstay. Some of their biggest hits in Hog Kong were musicals. With the success of Japanese swordplay movies in the 1960s the Shaws decided to begin producing their own Chinese swordplay films. The success of these films lead to unarmed combat films and the Kung Fu films of the ’70s.
The Shaw’s first major martial arts star was Wang Yu (later adopting the name Jimmy Wang Yu) who’s hit films included The One Armed Swordsman and The Chinese Boxer. After a few years at Shaw Brothers Wang Yu broke his contract with Shaw Brothers by leaving Hong Kong and making movies in other countries. Another setback for Shaw Brothers was not signing Bruce Lee when they had a chance. Never the less the Shaws averaged no less than eight classic or notable martial arts films a year, something even rival studio Golden Harvest was not capable of doing. In the 1980s Shaw Brothers signed a deal with WWNorthal giving them exclusive North American television rights to their movies. Put into syndication as part of WWNorthal’s Black Belt Theater, Shaw Brothers movies found a brand new generation of fans. When WWNorthal went bankrupt in 1987 the Shaw Brothers films were withdrawn from television and would not legally be seen in the United States for another 20 years.
Some of the Shaw Brothers movies were available on home video. Five movies were released by Vista Home Video, Eight by Southgate. Both companies went into bankruptcy by 1990. Just before WWNorthal went bankrupt they had a deal with Embassy to release the entire Black Belt Theater catalog on home video. Embassy released nine movies in the series, only one, Master Killer, was a Shaw Brothers movie. A combination of WWNorthal and Embassy going into bankruptcy put an end to that series. By the ’90s only two Shaw Brothers martial arts movies were still in print. Warner Brothers had Seven Blows of the Dragon, a rare case of a Shaw movie not distributed by WWNorthal. And then there was the odd co-production between Shaw Brothers and Hammer, a Dracula film called Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. A number of Shaw Brothers movies were bootlegged, sourced from the edited for television Black Belt Theater prints. For an entire generation these bootlegs were the only Shaw Brothers movies available.
In 2003 Shaw Brothers signed a deal with Celestial Pictures to restore and re-distribute their entire library. Initially released in Asia, Celestial began making deals with American companies The first was Image Entertainment who released 30 films on DVD between 2006 and 2009. Image went for the more eclectic and artistic titles, possibly with the intent of releasing them on their Criterion Collection or HVE labels. The first Shaw Brother film to be released by Image, Black Magic, was not even a martial arts movie. A supernatural horror thriller about an evil witch doctor who seeks to curse a young couple, it starred many of the same actors who made their Kung Fu films. The second Image release was Super Inframan, Shaw Brothers one and only attempt at producing Japanese style science fiction. The film itself had been available from Good Times Home Video for many years, although unauthorized and taken from the edited American release. Super Inframan which resembles an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, just barely qualifies as a martial arts movie. Their third release, The Water Margin, was the first true martial arts movie Image released. However it had already been available under it’s English dub title Seven Blows of the Dragon from Warner Home Video for more than two decades. The next two releases, The Boxer’s Omen and The Cave of the Silken Web were once again mostly fantasy with a little bit of martial arts mixed in. This was followed by Legendary Weapons of China, voted the greatest Kung Fu movie ever made by noted martial arts journalist Ric Meyers. Finally Image was releasing the much waited for Shaw Brothers martial arts movies, but continued to stick with rarer titles and fantasy films.
With hundreds of movies being made available through Celestial it was unlikely that one American company would tackle the releases. Dragon Dynasty was the second, choosing to release some of the more groundbreaking films in the catalog. They began with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and King Boxer, better known in this country by the titles Master Killer and Five Fingers of Death respectively. Dragon Dynasty has also released The One Armed Swordsman, Come Drink With Me, Heroes of the East, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter and The 5 Deadly Venoms. Tokyo Shock went directly for the more popular Shaw Brothers titles, beginning with Heroes Two, the second in a series of movies based on the destruction and aftermath of the Shaolin Temple. Other releases include Five Elements Ninjas, The Kid With the Golden Arm, Challenge of the Masters with it’s sequel The Martial Club, The Brave Archer and Ten Tigers of Kwangtung. They also released Black Magic II. Another company with the odd name of Well Go has been releasing a number of Shaw Brothers movies under their Sword Masters series. This includes The Heroic Ones, The Duel of the Century and Heroes Shed No Tears. They also released the sequel to The Water Margin called All Men Are Brothers. Another company called BCI had the rights to 15 Shaw Brothers movies, but only managed to release two, Life Gamble and Opium and the Kung Fu Master before going bankrupt. The rights to their movies was quickly picked up by a company that specialises in Anime DVDs called Funimation, and has begun releasing. So far they have released such favorets as Shaolin Hand Lock and The Duel.
With 70 movies released in North America so far and many more on the way, Shaw Brothers is finally getting it’s due. For decades it’s movies were only available as edited bootleg prints. Finally we are getting quality prints. Shaw Brother Studios can finally take its deserved place along side M.G.M., Paramount and the other major Hollywood Studios. The quality of their movies are breathtaking. Especially considering that during the ’70s Hollywood studios had cut way back on their own production costs, and were putting out cheaper produced product than was being released by the Shaws. The release of the Shaw Brothers movies on DVD can finally put to rest the notion that all martial arts movies released in the ’70s were cheaply made.