There are films that are legendary because they are outstanding pieces of cinema. Then there are other films that are legendary because they aren’t. Mighty Peking Man is one such film, but it tries really hard. The key to that last sentence is ‘try hard.’ An enthusiastic film made by people whose talents and abilities fall short of their goals can provide a great deal of entertainment. Mighty Peking Man does exactly that. It is one of the classic ‘so bad that it is good’ movies. No, let me take that further — this is so bad that it is GREAT!
One of cinema’s undisputed classics is the original King Kong. When it was remade in the 1970’s, it was accompanied with one of the biggest saturation marketing campaigns that I can remember. Hell, I even remember making my mum buy a copy of a women’s magazine because it had a King Kong iron-on transfer inside. During that time, everybody was talking Kong. That includes the Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong — but rather than a giant ape, they chose to depict a ten story tall Neanderthal man.
Thankfully, they chose not to hide their creation. You don’t have to wait for an hour to see the beast in action. Before the titles have even rolled, you see Mighty Peking Man trashing villages and temples — or at least, models thereof. If it looks a little bit fake, who cares? The film is off to a rampaging start. After the titles, the film opens in Hong Kong, and some bright spark with a huge bankroll of cash thinks he can make even more cash if he can capture Mighty Peking Man and display it to the world. To do this, he launches an expedition to the Himalayas. He tries to hire Johnny Fang (Danny Lee) to lead the expedition. Johnny used to be a great hunter, but now he is a drunk because he has busted up with his girlfriend. This is shown in a corny little flashback. It’s the old “one day I came home early…” story! Despite his sorry state, Johnny agrees to lead the expedition.
We next join the team in India, decked out in safari suits, on the trail of Mighty Peking Man. They are following a track in wagons pulled by oxen. At the first village they come to, they are caught in an elephant stampede, and many of the natives (Chinese extras in Indian “brown face”) who were carrying supplies are killed. Their wagons are overturned and destroyed too. Their next trial comes when the group is confronted by a tiger. And then, three of the party step into quicksand! It’s starting to look like the expedition is cursed. Johnny, who hasn’t got that much to live for, declares that the expedition must go on, but that night as he sleeps, everybody packs up their tents to go home, leaving him stranded.
Alone, Johnny continues the quest. It doesn’t take long for him to encounter Mighty Peking Man. As he tries to flee, he’s knocked unconscious. Just as Mighty Peking Man is about to crush Johnny into warm liquid goo, the hapless explorer is rescued by a beautiful blonde jungle girl who seems to have control over the beast!! Who is this girl? Her name is Ah Wei (Evelyn Kraft), and she has a back story too. Time for another flashback! It seems that many years ago, when she was just a child, she was traveling with her parents in an airplane in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. Her father lost control of the plane and crashed. Both of Ah Wei’s parents died. Alone in the jungle, Ah Wei was found by Mighty Peking Man, who protected her. Now she is a fully grown woman, much in the Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle mold. She has elephants, tigers, and leopards as her friends and wears a magical jungle girl bikini top that manages to droop as low as possible without actually showing nudity. The thing is really a marvel of jungle engineering.
Ah Wei has Mighty Peking Man carry Johnny back to her cave, where she can tend to him. When Johnny awakens and finds himself in the care of a beautiful, semi-naked blonde, he does what any red-blooded male would do: he spends his time frolicking around the jungle with her. Although Ah Wei is friends with most of the jungle creatures, one creature she has no control over are snakes, and one happens to bite her on the upper thigh. Johnny, poor guy, has to suck the poison out. As she heals, Johnny and Ah Wei fall in love. Mighty Peking Man, or ‘Utan’ as she calls him gets a little bit jealous, but she manages to appease the beast.
After more jungle frolicking, tiger cuddling, and leopard tossing, Johnny suggests that they return to the ‘real world’ with Utan. She agrees and says a teary farewell to her jungle friends. Then Utan picks them up gently in his hands and walks with them down from the mountains and to a city in India. Upon arrival, the inhabitants of the city panic. I guess that’s what you do when a ten story tall neanderthal man walks into your city. But Ah Wei shows them that he means no harm. Johnny then arranges a freighter to take Utan back to Hong Kong.
Eventually they arrive in Hong Kong, and Johnny is an instant celebrity. And who should come crawling back, but his old flame! Johnny reconciles with her and is giving her a sloppy pash when Ah Wei walks in. She freaks and runs off into the city.
Meanwhile, Utan has become a circus freak, performing feats of strength at an arena. Ah Wei naturally makes her way to Utan, but the unscrupulous show promoter (Ku Feng) captures her and tries to rape her. Utan see this, goes crazy, and breaks free. Let the rampage through the streets of Hong Kong begin!
Danny Lee needs little introduction, and for those who want a broader overview can beam across to Keith’s excellent review of Battle Wizard. Before becoming the star of a whole swag of tough cop films, Lee starred in a whole swag of kung fu films for Shaw Brothers. That’s a lot of swags! Mighty Peking Man was one of Lee’s first breakaway roles.
It’s impossible to deny that Evelyn Kraft looks great in this film. Clad in skimpy animal skins for the majority of the movie, she cuts a fantastic figure — and I am sure viewers will enjoy the scenes where she shimmies up trees (and later lamp-posts). Its hard to find accurate information on Evelyn Kraft. On various sites she is listed as being either Russian, Swiss, or German. Regardless, Shaw Brothers chose her to star in two of their higher profile films in 1977. The first of these was The Deadly Angels, in which Evelyn joined Shaw Yin Yin, Dana, and Kim Ching Lan as a foxy force of fighting females. As you no doubt have guessed, The Deadly Angels was a ripoff — no let’s say it was ‘inspired by’ — Charlie’s Angels. The other Shaw Borthers feature for Kraft was Mighty Peking Man.
Mighty Peking Man is one of the greatest films of its kind. It’s fast paced and infectiously likable. The miniatures used in the film aren’t that bad. Of course, they look a little bit phony, but on the whole they are pretty good for a film of this vintage. The real goofball part of the this film is its plot, which serves up every corny ‘jungle movie’ plot contrivance it can muster — and the film is all the better for it. The funny thing is, and I know that this film is just a King Kong ripoff, but when the climax of the film comes around — and anyone who has seen Kong will know whats going to happen — I actually got emotional. I’m too manly to admit to a tear welling up in my eye, but I really sympathized with Utan’s plight. The film successfully asks ‘who really is the beast?’
I know that many readers are fans of Godzilla and kaiju films. If you are, then add this to your list. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.