The Heroic Ones

“The history of The Heroic Ones gives an impression of magnitude.”

Thus, states director Chang Cheh about his movie The Heroic Ones, an action-packed saga about a clan of warriors in historic war-torn China, in his memoirs. The Heroic Ones was also a title I considered co-opting for the book I wrote about the people who worked at the studios where the film was made – Shaw Brothers Studios as I wanted a title that spoke about the adventures of a group of people. Now, my book is not about people involved in a war or a fight; it is about people engaged in a business and creative enterprise, namely the making of martial arts movies. But the history of Shaw Brothers Studios and their filmmakers is such a fascinating one, and quite epic in scale, that I think it could be seen as an adventure in its own right.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Chang goes onto say about his cast of characters in The Heroic Ones:

“It is about how a bunch of relatively barbaric people who are loyal, forthright, crude and brave… become embroiled in a culture so ripe that it has begun to rot.”

The real-life characters in my book were not “relatively barbaric”; the Shaw brothers and their directors were well educated and learned. Whether or not they exhibited the qualities of loyalty, forthrightness, crudity or courage varied from individual to individual. But culture certainly played a part in their organisation’s story, as it does in the story of any enterprise.

“They succeed because of their unique qualities, yet they are also victims of the conspiracies of ‘civilised men’… bringing themselves to their own tragic downfall by slaughtering each other.” ~ Chang Cheh

No one in the Shaws Organisation slaughtered anyone else – they left that kind of shenanigan to the characters in their films. And it can’t be said that Shaws had a tragic downfall. While it’s true that they ceased film production in the 1980s, they then morphed into other avenues of business and indeed had always maintained different business interests throughout their history. Shaws has always been willing to diversify. But the successes of Shaws and their filmmakers did come about because of unique qualities, including the ability to adapt and to innovate.

I have a confession to make: I don’t actually like the movie The Heroic Ones. I find the characters a bit too crude and barbaric; I can’t engage with them and find it hard to care what happens to them as they busily get on with doing horrible things to each other.

So, it took me by surprise when my brain suggested to me that this could be the name of a chapter. But I entertained the idea. I’d wanted a title that referenced the gloriously over the top films themselves, and a reading of Shaws’ achievements does give “an impression of magnitude” that the title suggests. Furthermore, The Heroic Ones is about a group of people – a family and their retainers – and how the dynamic between them shifts and changes as they respond to external challenges. My book is about a family (a group of brothers) and their retainers (the filmmakers who worked for them) doing the same thing. The glaring difference between the characters in the film and the real-life characters in the Shaws adventure are their fates: the characters in the film seem to be caught up in a kind of nihilism; they are destined to churn through various macho tropes that inexorably lead them into danger, conflict and, for most of them, gory deaths. The Shaws and some of their filmmakers, on the other hand, had a spectacular talent for creating entertaining films that saw them prosper.

In the end I went with another title for the book… Why I did this will be the subject of my next blog.

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