Martial Arts films of the 1970s upped the Eastern influences and solidified America’s fascination with the genre, as each film reaped big box office numbers and introduced the barrier-breaking icon, Bruce Lee.
10 A Touch Of Zen (1971)
A Touch of Zen was filmmaker King Hu’s epic 3 1/2 hour martial arts extravaganza that became a cult hit, but was granted newfound respect when Criterion released the fully restored version in 2016. Critics and Martial Arts fans were re-introduced to the tale of a woman who teams up with a zen painter and Buddhist monks to fight a corrupt government.
The film was one of the most expensive Martial Arts films of its day, spending a large amount of money on the design and construction of villages, circa the Ming Dynasty era. Hu’s blend of quick editing, slow-motion, and tough realistic fight choreography would influence films for decades to come.
9 Master Of The Flying Guillotine (1976)
One of the best of the Martial Arts tournament films, Master of the Flying Guillotine finds a blind Kung Fu master who seeks revenge for the murder of his students. They were killed by a One-Armed man so the master constructs the titular weapon, setting out to enter the tournament and take the head of every one-armed opponent.
Unique in its weaponry and full of wild characters and expertly choreographed fights, the film was huge on the Grindhouse circuits and is regarded as one of the most exciting of all ’70s Martial Arts films.
8 Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
Another of the most influential of ’70s Martial Arts films, Five Deadly Venoms tells of a dying master who tasks his final student with finding 5 of his former pupils, each trained in their own special style. The student knows pieces of each and sets out to expose the group’s villain. The different styles are represented by special masks the men wear; Scorpion, Toad, Centipede, Lizard, and Snake, each creature possessing deadly venom.
Fans made the film a massive success and its influence can be found in projects as varied as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, and Disney’s Mulan.
7 Fist Of Fury a.k.a. The Chinese Connection (1972)
Bruce Lee continued his reign as an action film king with this tale of revenge finding his character seeking vengeance for the murder of his teacher.
The film’s title was changed to The Chinese Connection (but restored to Fist of Fury when it hit Blu Ray) to cash in on the title to the popular 1971 smash, The French Connection. Flying throat kicks, wild Martial Arts choreography, and the undeniable screen presence of Bruce Lee led this film to be one of the biggest successes of its year.
6 The Magnificent Butcher (1979)
Sammo Kam-Bo Hung became an international Martial Arts icon with The Magnificent Butcher. Hung starred as a butcher who is also a kung-fu student who gets involved with warring Shaolin temples.
Hung didn’t look like the average Martial Arts actor, as he had some weight on him, but the actor could move as fast as anyone. Hung also choreographed his own fight scenes and this film holds some of the toughest of its era, which created an iconic Martial Arts legend.
5 Drunken Master (1978)
Jackie Chan was already making a name for himself in the Hong Kong film world but with 1978’s international hit Drunken Master, he began to get noticed in America. Chan plays a youth who likes to get into trouble and is sent to a Kung Fu master to learn discipline through the master’s signature “drunken” Martial Arts.
Chan’s signature blend of hilarious comedy and jaw-dropping Kung Fu stuntwork played well to audiences worldwide and is considered to be one of the great Kung Fu films.
4 Five Fingers Of Death a.k.a. King Boxer (1972)
Lieh Lo became a Martial Arts film legend with the international release of Five Fingers of Death, the tale of a Kung Fu student who enters a contest to prevent a warring Shaolin temple from taking over. The American release of this film was extremely popular and is remembered for its amazing action scenes and its use of the Ironside TV show theme whenever Lo saw one of the bad guys. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to this in his Kill Bill films by having the theme play when Uma Thurman’s character saw a villain.
If Bruce Lee’s first Kung Fu film, The Big Boss, was the spark that started America’s love of Martial Arts films, this film was the engine that roared that love to an explosion.
3 The Way Of The Dragon a.k.a. Return Of The Dragon (1972)
Bruce Lee stepped behind the camera to create this massively entertaining Martial Arts extravaganza that finds Lee’s character protecting his family’s restaurant from local gangsters.
Each and every fight is quite amazing to watch. Lee cast his friend Chuck Norris as his final opponent and fights him in a Roman Coliseum in what has become one of the best fight scenes in Martial Arts film history. This is the first and only film where Lee used two sets of nunchakus at the same time, setting a trend in future Kung Fu films. The Way of the Dragon was the biggest financial success of the year in its native Hong Kong.
2 Enter The Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee’s biggest international hit stands as his most popular. Robert Clouse directed this big-budget co-production from Warner Brothers and Golden Harvest. Enter the Dragon starred Lee as a Martial Arts master who is recruited by a secret government agency to enter a tournament to help bring down a vicious international crime lord. American actor John Saxon and Martial Arts champion Jim Kelly co-starred as two fellow participants who befriend and help Lee to bring down the bad guy.
Massive sets and hundreds of extras infused this exciting adventure with the largest scope of any Martial Arts film yet. Each fight was choreographed by Lee and his team of stuntmen and the fights are some of the biggest and boldest of their time. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to the film by having Uma Thurman’s “The Bride” wear Lee’s iconic yellow with black stripes jumpsuit in his film Kill Bill Vol. 1.
1 The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978)
Chia-Hui “Gordon” Liu starred in one of the most respected Martial Arts films ever made and the one that started the “training montage” craze. In this film, where Liu plays a student of Shaolin Kung Fu who trains to fight an oppressive government, much of the film focuses on his training. To this day it is considered to be the pinnacle film to show the power of the mental and physical Martial Arts training. It is true that the scenes where Liu trains in the Shaolin temple are as exciting as any of the amazing fight scenes that follow.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin won Best Martial Arts Film at the 1978 Asian Film Festival and made a big star out of Liu. This film is also the inspiration for Wu-Tang Clan’s first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
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