Maybe those of you of my age remember the ad campaign. If so, maybe you remember further back to the Berlin Olympiad of 1941. Designed as a show of Axis solidarity and superiority, it ended in controversy surrounding the karate tournament. Baron Von Rudloff, captain of the silver-medal German team, accused the captain of the Japanese gold medalists, Mr. Miyagi (soft g, please) of bribing his compatriots into throwing their matches with diamonds. Unfortunately for the Baron, der Fuehrer wasn't interested in excuses. Rudloff was kicked off the team, stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged. For more than thirty years afterward, the German nursed his grudge.
"Don't make me come down there!" Norman Coombes presides over the school of hard knocks in Kill or Be Killed.
One of the Baron's students isn't quite with the program. Steve (James Ryan) apparently didn't have a problem with learning martial arts from a strutting, ranting uniformed Nazi originally, but he's starting to grow impatient and disgruntled with the situation. He wants to know what they're training for, but his attitude only gets him into fights with more loyal students. Steve's feelings for Rudloff's one female student, Olga, are the only thing keeping him in the desert. But once the Baron at last announces the purpose of their training, having lured Miyagi into accepting the challenge with smuggled diamonds, and then tells Olga that she can't be on the team and has to leave, Steve wants to go with her. They manage to flee together, with some sneaky help from a sympathetic Chico, in a battered Volkswagen. But Steve's car fu proves very poor, and the karate couple find themselves stranded in the desert. Their solution: dismantle the car, raise a big, fortunately available hunk of canvas on a mast attached to the chassis and sail to civilization.
At the same time, Rudloff still wants Steve on his side. Once the fact of Steve's attachment to Olga finally sinks in on the old Nazi, he regrets expelling her from his school. A repentant Rudloff now orders one of his goons to kidnap her. The goon surprises Olga in the middle of a lesson from her new, personal, private, female karate instructor -- she'd shooed Steve away for some reason. There ensues perhaps the most gratuitously destructive episode of fight-scene vandalism since the Jonathan Winters-Arnold Stang gas-station battle in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as the goon smashes a piano, a guitar, statuary, a TV set, etc in a protracted effort to subdue Olga. Eventually he succeeds, leaving Steve to discover an empty, devastated house. Rudloff's strategy works -- sort of. Steve enters the tournament, but on Miyagi's team, the Japanese having somehow convinced Steve that it'd be easier to infiltrate the Baron's dungeon and free his girl if he joins the enemy side.
"We were just sparring, whoever you are." Olga (Charlotte Michelle, left) and friend. Below, the Baron's goon perpares to El Kabong himself in an intimidating display of stupidity.
Eventually, the tournament gets out of the Baron's control as more fighters on both sides object to his, well, Nazi-like dominance. Tiring of it all himself, Rudloff has his Foreign Legion-outfitted guards herd all the karate men into two adjoining cells. And here he made his great mistake, and an inconceivable one for one so devoted to the power of the open hand. Put a few dozen guys whose hands and feet are deadly weapons in two cells separated by a wall and what are they going to do? They're going to punch and kick that wall into oblivion, of course, and then they're going to combine their strength into approximately one Hercules-unit of power, enough to bend the cell bars so they can all escape. So remember: the next time you stage a karate tournament, make sure your dungeon has solitary confinement for everyone.
The movie won't end this easily...
Seeing a rebellion break out, Rudloff, Chico and Luke pack Olga into their car and flee into the desert. Steve commandeers a vehicle to pursue him, but his car-fu is as bad as ever. In an automotive answer to drunken boxing, however, he turns obstacles into shortcuts, flipping and barrel-rolling his wreck until he blocks the Baron's escape route. Somehow he's capable of crawling out and engaging Luke in a final battle as the Baron watches and Chico holds a gun on the Baron. Strangely, the story ends with the Nazi and the dwarf, with Rudloff given the choice between revenge on his betrayers and the Spellbound finish....
According to Wikipedia, director Ivan Hall filmed Kill or Be Killed in South Africa in 1977 -- belying the ad assertion that it was "The Greatest Hollywood Martial Arts Film Ever Made," --but the film wasn't released for another three years. Then, on the strength of the U.S. ad campaign, the movie went over big enough to justify a sequel, Kill and Kill Again. Having watched it, I can understand why someone might have thought the film unreleasable. Most of what little budget Hall had went to hiring fighters; the castle looks like the sort of thing you rent for birthday parties. The "location" work is worse than a joke. The writing is witless, especially when it aspires to wit.
Rudloff: It seems that Asians never age...
Miyagi: Only today, now, is important.
Rudloff: But my letter reached you in the past.
Miyagi: To be answered by the present person...
There's also something slightly offensive in the idea that two teams combining the best karate men on earth, one of them coached by a Japanese person (played by a Chinese person who looks just a little like Dana Carvey), don't appear to have a single Asian between them. They manage to have a black man, after all, and this is apartheid South Africa -- one of the few places, I imagine, where unrepentant Nazis could parade about more or less openly. But apart from the black guy, the fact that so many of the fighters look alike confuses the film a bit. It's hard to tell all the shirtless dudes with similar hairstyles apart. On the other hand, they're all legitimate karate men, and they strongly enhance the movie's entertainment value by beating the crap out of one another with gusto. The violence is on a strictly PG level (by 1980 standards), but it looks convincingly brutal when perpetrated by guys who probably beat one another up on a daily basis. The fights are constructed more through editing than choreography, and the editing is often pretty choppy, but the action is consistently energetic enough to keep you watching.
James Ryan is a wiry, acrobatic, intense and loud performer. His accent seems right when you're used to hearing martial artists talk in vaguely Anglo tones, and his amplified battle cries (they often sound like, "YEAHHHH!!!") are almost unsettlingly enthusiastic. He's perhaps too fond of his signature move of leaping, flipping and boxing his opponent's ears, but that does make a cool visual. While Kill or Be Killed was meant to make him a star, Ryan is inevitably overshadowed by the Nazi and the dwarf. Chico is Daniel DuPlessis's only film role, if we can trust IMDB, and he makes the most of it. But he and everyone else is eclipsed by Norman Coombes's instinctively berserk performance as Baron von Rudloff.
The only vestige of the TV ad campaign I could find online was this 9-second spot uploaded to YouTube by robatsea2009. Maybe it'll jog some memories.