In the director's own words, The Shaolin Temple is Chang's grandest project to be released in 1976. Boasting a massive cast including Alexander Fu Sheng, Yueh Hua, Chi Kuan-chun, Lo Meng, Philip Kwok, David Chiang, Ti Lung, Shih Szu and several of the studio's top stars in the mid-70s, The Shaolin Temple is Chang Cheh's opus, a culmination of his collaborations with the Venoms Mob, his friendships with the other two members of the Golden Trio (Cheh, David Chiang, Ti Lung) and the results of a long partnership with Chang's long-time supporters and partners in the studios.
The Shaolin Temple is the final site of resistance against invaders from the Manchu Dynasty and the ultimate stronghold against tyranny. But the Temple's head Abbot is getting older, the temple is waning in strength, and in a last, desperate attempt to spread their messages of enlightening to the civilians, the monks have decided to admit practitioners not born or raised in the temple to be their students. Among those students are Fang Shi-yu (Alexander Fu, who will portray Shi-yu in several films after this), a young man from a once-wealthy family who had since fallen from grace, Hung Hsi-Kwan (Wang Wai), a righteous rebel who opposes the Manchus, Hu Hui Gan (Chi Kuan-chun) who is a labourer, Hu De-di and Cai De-zhong (Chang Cheh's favourite disciples, David Chiang and Ti Lung), a pair of close buddies who only wants a roof over their heads, and Ma Fu-yi, who have ulterior motives of joining the Shaolin monks.
As the practitioners bonds over their training, they are inevitably caught in the final battle as the Manchus, eager to wipe out all resistance, launches their assault on the temple.
The movie spawned a series of follow-ups from the same studio, including Five Shaolin Masters, Men From The Monastery and Abbot Of Shaolin, as well as a remake, The Shaolin Temple which is known as Jet Li's film debut.
The Shaolin Temple (1976) contains examples of:
- Advertised Extra: For some baffling reason, the Celestial DVD Cover of the film depicts Ti Lung in the front and center, despite him being the Deuteragonist at most. Although a good reason is probably because of Lung being the most popular by the time the DVD is re-released in the 90s. note
- Anyone Can Die: Yes, anyone.
- Big Badass Battle Sequence: The film's climax, which is a battle between the Shaolin monks, practitioners, and defenders of the Shaolin Temple, against the Manchurian army and the Shaolin traitors supporting the Manchus.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Shaolin Temple has fallen, with the monks and abbots dead, but a small band of survivors, including protagonist Fang Shi-yu and his crew, made it out of the temple, where they will travel the land to spread the teachings of Shaolin and establish a resistance force to battle the Manchus.
- Blade on a Stick: Abbot Hui Xian uses a halberd in the final battle to kill several Shaolin monks after revealing his intentions to betray his own allies, and later tries to kill Fang Shi-yu and Hu Hui-gan using the same weapon.
- Cavalry Betrayal: At the end of the film, the Manchurian army is en route to invade the temple. Numerous Shaolin monks proceed to take action, barricading the temple's gates, while Abbot Hui Xian grabs a halberd, seemingly to prepare the defense of the temple... only to suddenly go on a killing spree, using said halberd to cut down several surprised Shaolin monks, and then lift the barricade to allow entry for the Manchurian army. Turns out the Abbot is working with the invaders the whole time.
- Characters Dropping Like Flies: The film starts off with a sizeable number of characters joining the Temple, but as the Manchu forces invade the Temple in the final act, several named characters begin getting killed off, one-by-one, firstly the abbots and lower-tier monks, and then the protagonists, until the battle turns into a last-ditch attempt to flee the burning temple.
- Chekhov's Skill: Most of the skills learned by the Shaolin practitioners ends up being crucial in assisting them defeat their respective Manchurian enemies in the final battle, including Fang Shi-yu's skills in breaking objects with his fingers, Zhu Dao learning to leap in gravity-defying jumps, and Hu De-di's skills in flail combat.
- End of an Age: At the end of the film, the Shaolin Temple is destroyed, with all the monks and abbots killed, and it's up to the handful of escaped practitioners, including Fang Shi-yu and his friends, to re-establish the teachings of Shaolin while opposing the Manchurian tyranny.
- Ensemble Cast: A large-scale film with several Shaw Brothers megastars playing key roles.
- Epic Film: Chang Cheh certainly envisions this film to be such, given the amount of sets, extras employed, production values and the like. The above poster even boasts the tagline: "Chang Cheh's Biggest, Grandest, and Most Glorious Project of the Year!" (1976)
- Epic Flail: Hu De-di's preferred weapon, which he is trained to use with deadly efficiency. This is the same weapon he used to kill the traitorous Ma Fu-yi at the final battle.
- Evil Mentor: Shaolin Master Hui Xian appears to be a Sadist Teacher who is overly-strict towards his pupils, repeatedly inflicting punishments on the trainees for the most insignificant of reasons, and just being unreasonably harsh overall. But it turns out he's secretly working for the Manchus and simply awaiting his chance to betray the Shaolin monks.
- Fire-Forged Friends: The team of trainees admitted into the Shaolin Temple - Fang Shi-yu, Hu Hui-Gan, Hong Xi-Guan, Hu De-di, Cai De-zhong, Huang Song Han and Zhu-dao, after enduring months and months of training together and going through thick and thin, eventually became close friends and sworn brothers willing to stick out for each other.
- In a Single Bound: Most of the Shaolin practitioners are trained to traverse great distances just by leaping, by concentrating their chi within their body. Zhu Dao in particular can leap fifteen meters vertically while carrying someone the same weight as himself.
- Les Collaborateurs: There are several practitioners and monks whom are actually aligned with the Manchurian invaders, including Master Hui Xian and Ma Fu-yi, who betrays their fellow monks in the final battle.
- Simple Staff: The monks and practitioners begin their training with staffs, as seen on the poster.
- Taking You with Me: The final battle between Zhu Dao and a Manchu Elite Mook culminates in Zhu, unable to defeat his foe, deciding to throw himself and his opponent on a row of spears and pikes held upright by several soldiers, thus impaling himself and his enemy together.
- Training Montage: The entirety of the second act, which is a training sequence for Fang Shi-yu, Hong Shih-kwan, Hu Dei-di and the other practitioners to become stronger and better fighters.