Home » ‘The Crippled Masters’ Is Essential Disability Pride Month Viewing

‘The Crippled Masters’ Is Essential Disability Pride Month Viewing

The Crippled Masters

The 1979 Hong Kong kung fu cult classic The Crippled Masters is proof that, occasionally, exploitation movies are actually the least exploitative films of their time.

Keep in mind, The Crippled Masters is a film that came out more than a decade before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. Representation of actors with actual physical disabilities is still rare today, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was practically non-existent.

Out of all genres of film, it seems like martial arts movies would be the least likely to break down barriers and squash stereotypes. After all, it’s a style of filmmaking based on capturing the speed and flexibility of the human body in action. Which makes the existence of The Crippled Masters all the more amazing—for several reasons.

Historically, if a movie even had a character with a physical disability, odds are the filmmakers just cast an able-bodied actor and had him or her pretend to be disabled—i.e., Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot or Jon Voight in Coming Home.

Well, in The Crippled Masters, the two titular characters are portrayed by martial artists with real life disabilities—Frankie Shum and Jackie Conn. And the movie never patronizes them or posits them as “the less fortunate”—rather, both actors are depicted as competent fighters more than capable of holding their own against able-bodied adversaries. The movie doesn’t shy away from the actors’ physical disabilities, but it doesn’t make it the focal point of the film, either. There’s a real kung fu story front and center (however generic), with the protagonists out for vengeance just so happening to lack arms and legs, respectively.

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The Crippled Masters is certainly a movie that was way ahead of the curve when it comes to representation of the physically disabled. In most movies from the era, the disabled characters were meant to be pitied and existed primarily as reminders for the able-bodied characters to be more cautious. It’s actually depressing just how many mainstream American movies are out there—and keep getting produced today—where the disabled characters are depicted as victims of “cosmological justice” … as in, the characters allegedly deserve their disabilities and suffering for some moral failing. Seriously, just how many movies have you seen where someone is paralyzed in a drunk driving incident, or has to have a limb amputated because of drug use?

You’re not going to find any of that insulting “they brought it upon themselves” faux-moralization in The Crippled Masters. While canonically the characters are victims of horrific punishments (there’s a double arm dismemberment scene within the first minute of the movie, with an acid disfiguration follow-up about 20 minutes later), the heroes of the movie are never exhibited as “deserving” of their condition. Nor are their respective disabilities portrayed as a horrific, unbearable circumstances. So many films about disabled individuals revolve around characters “overcoming” their challenges — a trope that I’m sure is meant to be inspirational, even though it always has the side effect of dehumanizing and othering the characters themselves. That reiterates that they’re different and will never benormallike the viewer.

With the protagonists of The Crippled Masters, there’s never a moment where the characters lament their lots in life and pine for the days when they weren’t disabled. Instead, their great trial and tribulation comes in the form of exacting revenge on a corrupt warlord … who the film plainly states is nigh-undefeatable even for the best able-bodied martial artists in the kingdom. In that, The Crippled Masters is a rare movie where disabled characters aren’t relegated to just their disabilities. The real challenge of the film isn’t some sort of quasi-spiritual quest for self, but a very real external threat in the form of a maniacal kung fu master who isn’t above maiming and mutilating his subjects for the slightest of transgressions.

Towards the end of the movie, the line between “disabled” and “able-bodied” blurs—which is something that never happens in most movies revolving around disabled characters. The two heroes are so effective at martial arts—as in, being able to beat up multiple opponents at the same time—that the term “able-bodied” sort of loses its distinction. The protagonists may lack certain appendages, but when it comes to dealing out devastation, it hardly seems like they’re at that much of a disadvantage. Ultimately, The Crippled Masters does something that very, very few big budget, big name American movies about disabled characters have ever done—it actually makes you look past the physical appearances of the actors and see them as fully fleshed out, multidimensional people.

It may have taken nearly half a century for it to happen, but the pioneering genre flick is finally getting a long overdue, special edition remaster.

And it’s no coincidence the long-awaited Blu-Ray restoration of The Crippled Masters, courtesy of Film Masters, drops on July 23.

July is Disability Pride Month, after all. And the 45-year-old martial arts mini-masterpiece definitely deserves some recognition for its part in changing the narrative in cinematic representation. Now let’s wait and see how long it takes for everybody else to catch up.

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Written by Tyler Doupé
Tyler Doupe' is the managing editor at Wicked Horror. He has previously penned for Fangoria Mag, Rue Morgue Mag, FEARnet, Fandango, ConTV, Ranker, Shock Till You Drop, ChillerTV, ComingSoon, and more. He lives with his husband, his dog, and cat hat(s).
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