Everyone remembers their first kung-fu movie — or everyone remembers their first wave of kung-fu movies, anyway. For some, they came late at night on the less-explored frequencies of the television broadcasting spectrum; for others, they came on sparsely attended double- and triple-bills at the local discount theater. They looked faded and muddy, but somehow still vivid; they felt cheaply produced, yet full of life and energy; and as for how they sounded, time has turned their both hollow and theatrical English-language dubbing into an art form with connoisseurs of its own. They came from faraway lands, which rendered them exotic, but we experienced them almost as dreams, products of another reality altogether. And some of them you can experience again as public domain films.
We still call them “kung fu movies” even though, having grown older and wiser — or at least more culturally aware — we now know their heroes didn’t always defeat their enemies with the Chinese martial arts covered by that umbrella term. But the label applies well enough to 1977’s Legend of Shaolin, the Hong Kong-made epic at the top of the post set in the 13th-century Yuan Dynasty and dealing with that most kung-fu of all themes, revenge. But such historical “kung fu” pictures could also come from countries like Japan, an example of which you can thrill to just above: 1983’s Legend of the Eight Samurai features Sonny Chiba, living embodiment of the 1970s martial-arts film, under the direction of the prolific and respected provocateur Kinji Fukasaku, best known today as the maker of the controversial Battle Royale.
Next in this public-domain martial-arts marathon, we have another Hong Kong movie, Guy with the Secret Kung Fu from 1981, whose title alone strikes me as recommendation enough. And for our final selection, we move to a more contemporary setting with 1987’s Four Robbers, wherein the titular quartet—pursued by both the police and a malevolent crime syndicate that at first wants to recruit them and later wants revenge against them—have to flee from Hong Kong to Thailand without gambling away the fruits of their labor or compromising their principles. This movie, and many others of its kind, give the lie to the notion that there’s no honor among thieves. Most all of the wanderers, samurai, rebels, aristocrats, cops, and robbers you see in them have one kind of honor or another — but when they come into conflict, it tends to take some old-fashioned kung-fu fighting to settle things. You can find these films added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc., which includes more 23 Free Kung Fu and Martial Arts Movies Online.
Colin Marshall writes elsewhere on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.