Ninja Over The Great Wall (aka Fire On The Great Wall) is a film I’ve wanted to see for a while. Directed by my favourite Bruce clone, Bruce Le, it takes inspiration from Fist Of Fury (indeed, it was released in some countries as Shaolin Fist Of Fury), has probably the highest budget he ever worked with and is one of the few totally straight-faced films he made. However, I think perhaps the version I watched (a VHS copy released on Viking Video) didn’t do it justice. The English dub track was horrific – way too campy for the film’s style – and the image quality appalling. The (many) scenes that take place at night took ninja mystique a little too far and were almost impossible to see at all.
There are some better quality bootlegs out there but sadly, as a result of its scarcity, Ninja Over The Great Wall may forever be consigned to the dustbin of obscure kung-fu history: no one even seems to know when it was made. The Viking Video sleeve claims 1999 (absolutely 100% inaccurate!). IMDB says 1987, HKMDB says 1990 and, judging by Le’s appearance in the film, I’d guess at more like 1983 or 1984. As ever, it’s hard to really know who else was involved. Long-term Le collaborator Joseph Kong gets a producer credit but the rest of the cast list is stuffed with unknowns and/or psuedonyms. There are some unintentionally amusing credits too like poor old “Shit Pai” (an unfortunate alias of Xue Bai)…
…or “Fung Kin Shit” (he wrote the theme song but has a name that would probably find his profile removed from Facebook!).
Anyway, Bruce plays Chi Kung, a martial artist whose village is destroyed when the Japanese armies invade China in 1931. There’s a long, slow and grueling scene right at the start where his girlfriend crawls over a ton of corpses looking for him in the dark and eventually finds him barely alive amongst the bodies. This kind of sets the tone for the film – bleak and draggy in an oddly exhausting way. This first scene alone takes nearly fifteen minutes of the runtime and the only good part is one (admittedly fabulous) tracking shot as Bruce and his lady run across the field full of human remains…
The pair of them flee to Beijing where a distant uncle lives and this is how Bruce gets embroiled in a Fist Of Fury style blood feud with a school of Japanese martial artists. They poison poor Uncle Whatsisname quite early on so Bruce swears vengeance, going up against an endless series of bad guys, their ninja henchmen and – eventually – the most honourable warrior in Japan, Tojiro. Most of this is super-talky and not as much fun as it sounds.
There’s a little bit of decent fighting in daylight, a lot of unwatchable fighting in pure darkness and much badly dubbed barking about honour and politics and common enemies. In Fist Of Fury, Bruce Lee’s performance convinced even audiences with no interest in Chinese-Japanese relations of the emotional value of the story but Le fails to imitate that here. He only really gets things going once or twice although, in fairness, these highlights do almost make the rest of the film worth sitting through.
Most of the ninjing happens in the dark, sadly, but there is one prolonged swordfight where Bruce takes on a squad of tooled-up ninjas and it’s properly stunning. The swordplay is impeccably choreographed (people often forget just how good Bruce Le had got at this by the early 80s) and there’s one moment where he sets a ninja on fire… and they keep fighting! I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a guy do a series of ninja backflips while ON FIRE before and that deserves serious credit.
To cut from this madness straight into another swordfight where Bruce takes on white-clad SNOW NINJAS is just solid ninja gold. You’ve got to love these guys:
Unfortunately, after this brief ninterlude it’s back to the grind as Bruce and Tojiro train independently in their chosen disciplines ready for a final showdown on the Great Wall Of China. Bruce takes his spiritual training from the Yellow River (this just mostly involves him splashing about topless – something for the ladies in the house!) while Tojiro learns the (here, quite despicable) art of Bushido, which culminates in a scene made quite absurd by the dubbing when his master implores him – over and over in staccato yelps – to gouge the eyes out of a baby. “CAN YOU KILL THIS BAY-BEEEEEE? CAN YOU KILL A BA-YYYY-BEEE? CAN YOU? CAN YOU? GOUGE ITS EYES OUT!” etc.
That said, the final fight itself is spectacular, making full use of a wonderful location shoot on the Great Wall. It’s hard to see just how many people with flaming torches they got to walk down the Wall as the picture quality’s so bad but I imagine these scenes could look quite magnificent if anyone ever took the time to restore this properly. Bruce and Tojiro properly duff each other up too; a brutal kaleidoscope of blood and broken limbs complete with Le’s trademarked cartoon X-Ray inserts as bones snap, a controversial style but one which I love.
It’s a real shame the movie plays so badly in its currently available form because I get the impression there would be something better here if watched in its original Cantonese language and with the picture enhanced to how it was meant to be seen. It’s clearly an earnest labour of love for Le – the gory, ultra-bleak twist at the end makes a firm statement of intent – and technically superior to many of its low-budget peers, but very difficult to watch with the dire dub track and endless murk. Maybe one day someone will restore it to glory and it’ll go some way to convincing history that there was a lot more to Bruce Le than initially met the eye. Or who knows? Maybe it will always just be an interesting failure from a huge talent that never got to fully shine? Either way, ninjologists owe it to themselves to at least check out those flaming ninja backflips.