Based on a classic text called “The Yang Heroes”, this colossal super-production from Shaw Brothers studios brings together virtually all their greatest female stars. When heroic General Yang Tsung Pao (Tsung Hua) and his men are slain by barbarian invaders, his mother Great Madame Tai Chun (Lisa Lu), widow Mu Kei Ying (Ivy Ling Po) and son Yang Wen Kuan (Lily Ho Li - ridiculously hot despite playing a boy) are forced to defend their kingdom. The Emperor is reluctant to send troops to aid the Yang women and his chief minister insults them at the funeral. So, a host of patriotic aunts, sisters and female cousins take up arms and launch an ingenious sneak attack upon the Mongols. Aided by runaway slave Lei Chao (Yueh Hua), the Yang women begin an arduous journey that tests the courage, valour and self-sacrifice of daintily lethal swordswoman Yang Pa Mei (Li Ching), vivacious martial arts tactician Tu Chin Ngo (Tina Chin Fei), plucky cook’s daughter Yang Pai Feng (Shu Pei-Pei), and many others.
Produced on a lavish scale, The 14 Amazons was in many ways the last, glorious hurrah for female-dominated Mandarin cinema. Once Bruce Lee hit big in Hong Kong, these kinds of movies quickly dried up. As a hymn to the bravery and resilience of women this sure beats Steel Magnolias (1989), with vignettes of camaraderie and female bonding that recall John Ford cavalry epics. The plot is essentially a series of military manoeuvres and counterattacks, yet pitches the pure-hearted heroines into fiendishly difficult situations and against a roster of truly brutal villains (starry cameos from Tien Feng, Bolo Yeung and Lo Lieh) who prove frustratingly hard to outsmart.
Incredibly gory (flying severed heads, exploding bodies and fountains of blood) and stylised in parts, the film nonetheless impressively dwells on the hardship and suffering wrought by a long military campaign. The amazons endure starvation (choking down a diet of tree bark!), fatigue, and their own psychological battles. Acclaimed filmmaker Cheng Kang (father of Ching Siu Tung, the famous choreographer/director) and co-director/cinematographer Tung Shiu-Yung (one of seven who toiled for three years on this movie) marshal grand scale set-pieces and the brilliant fight choreography serves up several edge of your seat moments. The most extraordinary celebrated sequence being when the amazons form a human bridge to get their troops across a vast chasm.
The film was a huge hit and swept the board at all the major Asian film ceremonies, with awards going to Lisa Lu (who began her long career playing opposite Jimmy Stewart in The Mountain Road (1958)) and the iconic Lily Ho Li. It’s a long standing tradition in Chinese cinema to have women play male heroes, but while inescapably feminine and sexy, her fiery performance lights up the screen. Huangmei Opera star Ivy Ling Po is equally memorable in a rare non-musical role, plus there are eye-catching turns from lesser known actresses like Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Betty Ting Pei (later Bruce Lee’s mistress and in whose apartment he was found dead), and lovely Liu Wa Chi.
For all the violence and suffering this remains a feel good movie where women take a stand against apathy and political corruption as well as the invaders. The spectacular climax where the amazons unleash a raging flood and face a superior army with invincible shields is as thrilling and bloody as Seven Samurai (1954). How many chick flicks can say that?