I recently finished writing The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s. In one section, I list my 20 favorite films of the '70s before and after I wrote the book. Why? Because after watching 600-plus movies during an eight-month stretch, my list had 14 changes. That got me thinking about what would constitute the 10 movies every martial artist must see and why—hence, this article. The 11 titles listed here—I couldn't narrow it down to 10—aren't the best martial arts films ever made or even my favorites. Rather, they were chosen for the impact they had on the genre, either by presenting new directions in fight choreography or by bolstering international appeal. Therefore, they're listed in order of release date, not in order of preference.

Martial Arts Movie #1: Fist of Fury (1972)


After the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China was a fractured country, its pieces handed out to Japan and various European powers. Japan played a villainous role in Chinese history from that point on. Even after the nation's defeat during World War II, the fear of economic backlash against the Chinese kept Hong Kong and the Republic of China mum about Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese.

Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury changed all that. His character defiantly defeated Japanese martial artists in 1909 Shanghai, when the city was under strict Japanese rule. Lee single-handedly crashed through that barrier of silence, giving the Chinese a sense of identity and pride. Although Story of Huang Feihong, Part 1 (1949) ushered in the second genre of Chinese movies known as gong fu pian ("kung fu film," in which heroes fought with realistic skills), Fist legitimized it and brought international prominence to Hong Kong's waning film industry.

Trivia: The scene in which Lee kicks eight attackers in the Japanese dojo is one unedited, wide-angle shot. It forever changed fight choreography.

Martial Arts Movie #2: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)


In response to the popularity of the kung fu movies Jackie Chan made at Golden Harvest, rival studio Shaw Brothers countered by having filmmakers Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang create a new genre called guo shu pian. Although translated as "national art film," which implies that the national art is martial arts, guo shu films were designated as neo-hero movies because they focused on a new style of protagonist.

Directed by Liu and starring his adopted brother Gordon Liu Chia-hui as real-life hero Monk San De (one of the legendary "10 Tigers of Shaolin"), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin signaled the start of the guo shu film. It's also important because it was the first movie to unveil the secret training methods of the ancient Buddhist monastery.

Martial Arts Movie #3: The Shaolin Temple (1982)

The importance of this movie parallels the importance of its star. Jet Li was born during a time when intellectuals and philosophers were persecuted, when the government outlawed martial arts and even destroyed temples and executed monks who refused to enter re-education camps. Li broke down those walls and became Communist China's first actor to conquer Hollywood. He accomplished that feat by excelling in the cultural contraband of martial arts, philosophy and cinema.

The Shaolin Temple was China's first live-action kung fu movie since the 1949 Communist takeover. It inspired the masses to visit the real temple's remains and forced the paranoid government to warn the public that it was unnecessary to learn self-defense. It was also instrumental in introducing wushu to film fans worldwide.

Martial Arts Movie #4: Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain (1983)


With Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Western-trained, new-wave filmmaker Tsui Hark ushered in a fifth martial arts film genre that wasn't officially named until it had run its course. Coined by yours truly, the Fant-Asia genre combined elements of sex, fantasy, sci-fi and horror with high-flying, gravity-defying wire work, far-out sight gags and over-the-top martial arts choreography. The film's action director, Ching Siu-tung (the father of "wire fu"), dared to shoot the fight scenes at 18 frames per second as heroes zipped, flipped and flew at the speed of light amid explosions and magic weapons.

Martial Arts Movie #5: Duel to the Death (1983)


After the success of Zu, Ching Siu-tung directed Duel to the Death and proved that shooting old-fashioned sword fights at 18 frames per second didn't make the action look hokey; it made it sing with gleeful, steel-slashing bewitchment. The movie intelligently weaves in the traditions of the classic chivalrous swordsman traveling down his path of martyrdom with a quasi-modern, German expressionistic visual approach that combines the elemental filmmaking sensitivities of Tsui Hark with Michael Curtiz's swashbuckling style. What does all that mean? It's a helluva fun film to watch!

Martial Arts Movie #6: Police Story (1985)


As the kung fu and guo shu films started to lose their luster—due in part to Hong Kong's copycat mentality, in which the fights were becoming too repetitive—the 1980s witnessed the birth of the final two genres: Fant-Asia and the one defined by this movie. At the turn of the decade, Jackie Chan wanted to do something different, so he started to avoid period-piece films. His characters moved away from being practitioners of traditional kung fu and became more like extreme athletes, as seen in Dragon Lord (1982).

With his next film, Project A (1983), and more officially with Police Story, he created the wu da pian ("fight films using martial arts") genre. It combined athleticism, martial-arts-influenced battles and outrageous stunts wrapped in modern themes and settings. Furthermore, instead of using traditional kung fu movements, the battles incorporated more Western-style boxing with karate-like kicks. Just about every contemporary-themed martial arts movie shot since is a result of Chan's wu da style.

Martial Arts Movie #7: Drunken Master II (1994)


Based on fight choreography, Drunken Master 2 is arguably the best martial arts movie ever made. At the time of its release, Fant-Asia films were at their peak, and other directors were switching to Jackie Chan's wu da style. Yet Chan returned to his kung fu roots to make a superior sequel. Filled with phenomenally fresh fights, it avoided the popular bobbing style of choreography used during Chan's kung fu film heyday. His martial skills flowed like a waterfall over smooth rocks.

The final 16 minutes are as mesmerizing and creative as they are relentless and exhausting. Chan showed Hollywood, which had claimed any fight that lasted more than two or three minutes was boring, that a long battle could be exciting without having to repeat the same movements over and over.

Martial Arts Movie #8: The Matrix (1999)


Although not a martial arts film, The Matrix was the first mainstream Western movie to successfully blend Hollywood's panache for visual effects with Hong Kong's stylized fight choreography to create what's still considered a phenomenon. Matrix is a visual spectacle. Its martial arts gags and imagery have been parodied ad infinitum, and the movie has become an integral part of 20th-century pop culture.

Trivia: Matrix inadvertently launched a ridiculous Hollywood trend. When the directors (the Wachowski brothers) approached Yuen Woo-ping to do the fights, he didn't want to. He hoped that by asking for an exorbitant fee, he would turn them away. It didn't work, however. Yuen then figured that by demanding that the main actors practice martial arts with him for four months, he'd be off the hook. Wrong again. Hollywood assumed that training actors for fighting roles was the standard.

Martial Arts Movie #9: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)


To die-hard martial arts film fans, this movie was nothing new, but to the average American, Crouching Tiger was something never before encountered. Its twang of novelty resonated around the world as it became the first Chinese-language wu xia film to be widely accepted by Western audiences. Wu xia was the first genre of Chinese martial arts movie; its name translates as "martial chivalrous-hero film." Originating in Shanghai in the 1920s, such movies were saturated with classical tales, heroic stories and legends of superhuman swordsmen and magical feats.

Directed by Ang Lee and fight-directed by Yuen Woo-ping, Crouching Tiger blended Eastern physical grace and action with American elements of performance intensity and the subtleties and nuances of European cinema. The movie was Lee's homage to wu xia films, and it started a trend that brought international attention to similar motion pictures by other Chinese directors.

Martial Arts Movie #10: Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)


Just when you thought good martial arts movies were the sole domain of China and the United States, the film industry of Thailand received worldwide acclaim. Tony Jaa's Ong-Bak introduced a new and dangerous kind of fight choreography that combined wu da action with a stylized version of muay boran (the progenitor of muay Thai). The highlights of the movie are not only Jaa's bouts with his meth-crazed adversary but also Jaa's outrageous stunts: deadly knee-drop strikes, elbows of fury, far-out fire kicks and so on.

Jaa reminded us why we liked Jackie Chan's movies from the mid-1980s. More important, Jaa's efforts to showcase his nation's fighting arts inspired other countries—including Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia—to follow suit.

Martial Arts Movie #11: Ip Man (2008)


Not since Drunken Master 2 has there been such a rip-roaring, old-school, kung fu movie. Ip Man arrived on the heels of those high-budget, high-production-value Chinese/American wu xia films shot in China using fancy wire work. It proved that traditional kung fu fight choreography reminiscent of the 1970s never goes out of vogue.

The kung fu is as real as the legitimate martial arts stars that perform the fights, which is no longer the case in most movies that feature actors who don't practice or practitioners who are more into gymnastics than traditional kung fu. Not once does Donnie Yen, who plays Bruce Lee's teacher Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man), break wing chun form to execute unnecessarily flashy movements to appease viewers who regard wushu-style fights as the real thing.

(For the past 18 years, Dr. Craig D. Reid has worked as a writer and martial arts film critic. He estimates that he's watched more than 5,000 martial arts movies. He's practiced martial arts for 38 years, and since 1979, he's worked off and on as a fight choreographer in Hollywood and Asia. For more martial arts movie wisdom, check out his book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors).)

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To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!

In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.


Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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