Best martial arts movies of the 70’s ranked
In the 1970s, the martial arts trend swept the world. The early 1970s saw a boom in blaxploitation in film, but the initial audiences for these films—often black males from urban centers—felt too limited in terms of profit margin. Enter the kung fu movie. Featuring a young non-white male protagonist, he stood up to the rich hooligans at the top, using his fists and feet to bring justice. Five Fingers of Deathstarring Lo Lieh, sparked a craze for all things kung fu in North America.
It was the new spectacle for American audiences that many non-white people, especially in cities, could relate to, even if they weren’t Asian. But at the same time, it helped create a legacy of representation in cinema that has had both good and bad implications. Even today still like movies Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Ringsbuilt on that legacy, although it also stereotyped Asian Americans.
Regardless, the martial arts movies of the 1970s were unique, a cultural phenomenon that made men like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan icons for a generation. Here are the best martial arts movies from the 70’s.
Updated May 2023 If you’re a fan of martial arts movies from the 1970s, you’ll be pleased to know that this article has been updated with additional content from Patrick Hayes.
11 heroes of the east
Like many neighboring countries and peoples, China and Japan share a rivalry that regularly boils over and leads to conflict, war and bad relations. In the 1978s heroes of the east, Love and Marriage are thrown into the mix creating a battle between Japanese and Chinese martial arts. With an engaged couple from both countries and disapproving in-laws, future Chinese husband, Ho-Tao inadvertently challenges his wife’s Japanese troupe to a series of kung fu matches to prove the worthiness of Chinese martial arts.
10 The great butcher
This is a movie that features a mix of intriguing genres that breathe new life into the traditional martial arts flick. Comedy returns Woo-Ping Yuen’s 1979 film, The great butcher a new dimension and gives it a really likeable charm. The film’s main character, Lam Sai-Wing, a humble if erratic butcher, is recruited by his estranged brother for an unknown mission.
After being accused of raping the headmistress of a notorious kung fu school and murdering his hothead son, Lam Sai-Wing must fight to prove his innocence and clear his name. Full of brilliant stunts and really superbly executed choreography. The gorgeous Butcher is an unforgettable spectacle.
9 king boxer
king boxerbetter known as Five Fingers of Deathwas named by Reservoir Dogs Director Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films of all time, a glowing accolade from a true film icon. The 1972 Hong Kong martial arts film tells the story of two martial arts schools preparing for a prestigious tournament. To all but confirm his school’s victory, one of the school’s principals enlists the help of three samurai, intent on eradicating their rival’s most talented fighter.
8th A touch of Zen
A touch of Zen is a classic Wuxia. Somewhere in a remote village during the Ming Dynasty of Chinese history, a humble scholar changes his personality after sleeping with a refugee. The fugitive (Hsu Feng) is on the run because she is conspiring against a corrupt eunuch who is trying to kill her entire family, and the scholar helps her in her attempt to get justice.
This film is a mix of comedy, drama and action with a deep philosophical level due to its themes and references to Zen Buddhism. The long running time is a bit difficult, but the martial arts scenes are complex and worth the wait. A fight scene in a bamboo forest took 25 days to shoot as the characters had to maneuver through bamboo trees. A touch of Zen is a lesson in patience as it takes an hour to get to the first fight, but that’s what makes it an epic worth watching.
7 Master of the Flying Guillotine
Master of the Flying Guillotinee has an odd premise at first glance, but is a fan favorite. It’s a sequel to the movie The one-armed boxer, in which the main character also plays a role in this film. A blind expert in the flying guillotine (a weapon used for decapitation) pursues the one-armed boxer for revenge. His students are all murdered, leading to his desire for revenge. Master of the Flying Guillotine is a bizarre movie, that’s why it’s so entertaining. Stupid and like a fever dream Master of the Flying Guillotine is considered the holy grail of Hong Kong martial arts films.
6 Five Deadly Poisons
Five Deadly Poisons is one of the biggest cult films in the martial arts genre. Five former students of the Poison clan have decided to use their powers for evil, and the dying master entrusts his last student with the task of stopping them from stealing his friend’s fortune. Each of the former students has been trained in a specific style of kung fu based on an animal, but the student tasked with stopping them has no style of their own and is therefore powerless over the others.
The film starts off with a lot of exposure through the use of voiceovers, but the stunning visuals make up for the slow start. Looking back from a contemporary perspective, Five Deadly Poisons may not stand out as well as other kung fu films, but his legacy lives on in Quentin Tarantino’s Beloved Kill Billthe music of the Wu Tang Clan and even in Power Rangers.
5 fists of anger
fists of anger was Bruce Lee’s second major film after that The big boss (1971), but fists of anger was his first publication in the United States. fists of anger is unique in that it is set in Shanghai and explores the impact of Japanese colonialism in China; The antagonists are all members of a rival Japanese dojo. The film itself expresses anti-Japanese sentiments as the Japanese characters are openly racist towards the Chinese ones. Lee’s Chen Zhen goes through grief and anger, fighting the enemy in a noble act of redemption. fists of anger was a worldwide hit and grossed over $100 million at the box office.
4 The Way of the Dragon
Written, co-produced and starring Bruce Lee. The Way of the Dragon was the last film of his life and his directorial debut. Chen Ching-hua and her uncle Wang own a restaurant in Rome, but a crime boss wants to sack them so he can take over the property. Enter Bruce Lee as Tang Lung. He appears to be a simple country guy, but is said to be gifted in the martial arts. He must protect the restaurant from now on, much to the chagrin of the workers.
The Way of the Dragon carries Lee’s handwriting everywhere: a bit strange, sometimes even bizarre, but fast-paced and full of Lee’s kung fu at its best. Oh, and there’s an epic fight between Lee and Chuck Norris in the Coliseum – it’s hard to beat.
3 Drunk Master
Drunk Master is Jackie Chan at his finest – it’s also the film that made him a global superstar. He’s the son of Wong Kei-Ying, one of the greatest martial artists of the Qing Dynasty, but Chan doesn’t quite live up to his father’s expectations. Wong sends Fei-hung (Chan) to a cruel teacher named Beggar So and then tries to run away. Drunk Master mixes slapstick comedy with martial arts, and while the story is plain at times, the funny moments make up for it. This film also popularized the comedic style of ancient kung fu, which recreates the movement of a drunk person.
2 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has long been considered one of the greatest martial arts films ever. Liu Yude (Gordon Liu) was once an average student, but after taking part in a rebellion, he sees all his friends, their families and classmates murdered by the government. He then decides to embark on this epic journey in search of revenge and true deliverance from the corrupt government and heads to a temple to learn kung fu.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not just a story about trying to achieve your goals – it is also a spiritual journey. Also included in this film is a great deal of political commentary on the Qing Dynasty and foreign occupation.
1 Enter the dragon
Bruce Lee plays Lee, a martial arts instructor hired by British Intelligence to infiltrate a crime lord’s private island. The plot intensifies when he realizes that the man involved in his sister’s death works on this island. Enter the dragon is an intriguing film because it depicts globalization so simply: it is an Asian martial arts film that revisits concepts from spy films and the blaxploitation genre.
Enter the dragon Considered one of the best martial arts films, its legacy is even more complicated. It offers a glimpse into a turbulent time of change in Asia and reflects how Bruce Lee’s films managed to bridge cultures while destroying and creating new stereotypes of Asians in cinema.