Man, oh man, this is one fantastic martial arts film. If Five Shaolin Masters doesn't have it all, it certainly does come close. Not only do you have numerous well-choreographed fight scenes involving groups as well as individuals, you've got a whole buffet of fighting styles served up for your viewing pleasure. Speaking of viewing pleasure, the print is fantastic. I can't speak for the DVD specifically, but the print that I saw was in vivid, glorious widescreen, looking more like a modern-day Hong Kong release than a film dating back to 1974.
As the film opens, the Shaolin Temple has just been destroyed by imperial Manchu forces. Thanks to a traitorous spy among the Shaolin disciples, the bad guys were able to take the Temple by complete surprise, killing all but five of its members. After fighting their way to safety, the survivors head off separately to make contact with other rebels. The Manchu are never far behind, as they are determined to stamp out all the rebels once and for all. Numerous fights ensue along the way, leaving the five Shaolin disciples alive but unsure of themselves, having learned that they are no match for the kung fu fighters of the Manchu. Having encountered their enemies (including the traitor that betrayed the Temple) face to face, though, they are now aware of their enemies' strengths and weaknesses. Proving that knowledge is power, each of them begins intensive training in the particular fighting style he thinks he will need in order to defeat his adversary. That, of course, sets the stage for one hell of a battle in the film's final 15-20 minutes.
I'm no martial arts film expert, but my understanding is that the great writer/director Chang Cheh brought together two generations of top-notch martial artists for this film. The five would-be Shaolin masters are played by Ti Lung, Chi Duan-chun, Mang Fei, Alexander Fu Sheng, and David Chiang, with the last two turning in particularly memorable performances. The Manchu kung fu experts are a few years older than the heroes, but their skills remain honed to a razor-sharp edge. Pao Yu-lung (Choi Wang) is deservedly renowned and feared for his skill with the Flying Axe, while his buddies (played by Kong Do, Fung Hak-on, Chien San, and Ma Fu-yi) are just as masterful at their own individual fighting styles. One of them kills a man with a mere snap of his ponytail, which was so impressive I had to immediately pause and watch him do it a second time.
The big fight at the end is the equivalent of five main events all rolled into one, featuring a display of martial artistry showcasing the Tiger and Crane style, advanced usage of the chain dart and fighting staff, a whopping ten complementary styles by one fighter, and all kinds of other impressive action. The realism extends all the way through the aftermath of each pugilistic duel, as well. Liu Chia-Liang's fight choreography is spot-on throughout the entire film, as is Chang Cheh's direction. For the time being, at least, Five Shaolin Masters is my new favorite martial arts film.
On a final note, a prequel to this film, Shaolin Temple, was made in 1976, so you might want to hunt that one down before watching Five Shaolin Masters. If you have any interest in kung fu cinema at all, though, you're definitely going to want to see this 1974 classic - with or without the prequel.