Yes, it's basically the magnificent seven samurai gladiators beyond the stars again, though Wang Yu falls slightly short of a quorum, recruiting four only warriors: a strongman with a big sword; a knife thrower with an arsenal for a vest; a spear fighter and his sometime antagonist, a dude that uses two shields for weapons. Fortunately, the villagers prove apt pupils who are soon able to give the pirates all the fight they want. Unfortunately for them, the pirates are led by one Shinobu Hashimoto (Fei Lung), who may be even more of a one-man army than Hsia Feng. The stage is set for an incredible battle in the village that lasts for nearly a half-hour of screen time. It's a tour-de-force of composition, choreography and editing by Wang Yu, his stunt coordinators and cinematographer Yao Hu Chiu.
The costume designer Li Kai-yuan deserves credit as well for making the action easy to follow. The rank-and-file good guys are in white, the rank-and-file bad guys in black. The Japanese in red have special skills or weapons that make them dangerous, while the five heroes and the main villain have distinctive costumes and features. Wang Yu holds his shots so you can follow the action, and indulges in some amazing lateral tracking shots as first Hsia Feng and later Shinobu march through opposing forces like swords through butter. A generous auteur, he builds Fei Lung up as an awesome antagonist who manages to take down two of the heroes during the main battle. The heroes all get big, picturesque heroic moments of their own, of course. Wang Yu also makes judicious use of slow-motion, particularly to highlight Hsia Feng's defeat of a particularly nasty red antagonist. This guy fights with a hook on a chain. Missing our hero, his hook gets embedded in a post. While he strains to release it, Hsia Feng throws another enemy into the extended chain. That serves to yank the weapon loose and propel the first bad guy into the path of our hero's sword. Shinobu gets some slo-mo highlights of his own to further build anticipation for the inevitable one-on-one showdown.
The final fight is a night battle fought at the foot of a windmill. You get the impression that Wang Yu is yet another filmmaker profoundly influenced by James Whale's Frankenstein from the way Hsia Feng dangles awhile from one of the turning windmill blades and the way he and Shinobu gaze at each other through a turning wagon wheel, as Whale's Frankenstein and Monster do through the gears inside their windmill. This closing showdown can't hope to top the epic battle that preceded it, but it makes a good denouement after the climactic carnage.
The Golden Harvest studio promoted Beach of the War Gods as the manliest of pictures, boasting of a total absence of women from a cast of thousands. It probably helps to be in a manly mood to appreciate its magnificent mayhem, but what made me appreciate it more was a film I'd watched just before -- a very recent wuxia picture I'll probably be reviewing shortly. That picture used modern wirework and CGI to let its heroes and villains leap about in ways impossible for Wang Yu forty years ago. But the CGI and green-screen moments were almost always painfully obvious and distracting in the newer movie, and while it was more progressive than Wang Yu's in at least one sense -- there were nearly as many prominent female warriors as there were males -- Beach had all the advantages otherwise. Wang Yu's film has a visceral immediacy and a committed intensity that was mostly missing from the more recent and more fantastical picture, and it had a director and all-around creative team that had clearly thought hard about maximizing the visual impact of the action they staged. The result is a kind of crazed masterpiece of epic violence that any fan of martial arts cinema must see sometime.
Here's a rather awkward English-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by montrealflickers. Definitely see the picture in Chinese if you can.