In War Can There Really be “Heroes on Both Sides”?

When I first watched the trailer for Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002), I was expecting a fast-paced samurai action film with breathtaking duels and epic combat scenes. However, underneath all the dramatic swordplay, I was struck by the bitter love story, poignant sacrifices and tragic denouement, which forces the audience to recalibrate their notions of morality and revenge.

Image Source: Still via Hero (2002) Official Trailer 1, Movieclips Classic Trailers // YouTube

King Qin is initially presented as an imperialist monarch, who is determined to expand his territory, but as the storyline progresses it becomes clear that his actions seek to end the catastrophic civil war between the Seven Kingdoms. The Emperor’s conquering plan is certainly “soaked in the blood of his enemies”, as we can see the desolation left in the wake of the imperial army throughout the neighbouring kingdoms. This is most notably depicted at a provincial calligraphy school where the assassins Broken Sword and Flying Snow are hiding. The dramatic fighting skills and fearless calligraphy of the fugitives emphasises the indiscriminate slaughter of the young students as the Qin archers inflict devastating casualties. They are joined by an imperial mercenary, Nameless, who has been tasked with the execution of Broken Sword, Flying Snow and another legendary insurgent named Sky.

Image Source: Still via Hero (2002) Official Trailer 1, Movieclips Classic Trailers // YouTube

Nameless proudly offers Sky’s shattered spear to the King as proof of his defeat in a beautifully choreographed fight sequence, and throughout the film he recounts the slaying of the other infamous dissidents earning bountiful rewards from the king and the rebellious ire of the audience. However, Nameless proves far more complex than a traditional hired assassin. The self-styled “lowest ranking government official in Qin” shields himself with his lack of identity and masterful swordsmanship. This is until he later reveals that he is an orphan from the Zhou province whose parents were killed by the imperial army. Zhang further alters our perception of the illusive fighter by revealing that neither Sky, Broken Sword, nor Flying Snow were actually murdered due to Nameless’ precise technique, as he only inflicted flesh wounds during the battles. Finally, just when the audience realises Nameless’ ingenious plan to place himself within striking distance of the King, we are forced to reassess the importance of vengeance at the cost of national unity and peace. Nameless can be seen to represent the rebels who have been crushed by Qin’s hegemonic invasion, but Zhang’s inspired use of flashbacks and equivocal truths makes us constantly question the morality and heroism of his actions, right until his poignant sacrifice.

Image Source: Still via Hero (2002) Official Trailer 1, Movieclips Classic Trailers // YouTube

Flying Snow has the most conviction in her desire to seek reparations from King Qin to the point where she tragically stabs her lover, Broken Sword, for swaying Nameless’ resolve to kill the Emperor. In a truly heart-breaking scene, Broken Sword allows himself to be slain to prove his belief in unifying China and his eternal love for Flying Snow. All the audience’s righteous anger at Broken Sword for allowing the Emperor to slaughter his family and friends melts away as he softly repeats “Our Land”, which is the mantra for unity. Throughout the film we see the tumultuous and often violent relationship between the two lovers, yet their final embrace on the top of a cliff, both impaled by the same sword, is bitterly beautiful. Zhang sets Broken Sword and Flying Snow up to be victorious vigilante warriors, correcting the wrongs of a villainous Emperor. However, by the end we are forced to accept that the most heroic action for a warrior is to strive for peace, as reflected by Broken Sword’s special 20th calligraphic form of “sword”.

Image Source: Still via Hero (2002) Official Trailer 1, Movieclips Classic Trailers // YouTube

If, therefore, the greatest quality for a hero is seeking peace, we must revisit the role of King Qin. While he is undeniably ruthless in his pursuit of hegemony, the principal assassins and the audience come to realise that the conquering army seeks to unite the Seven Kingdoms and halt the ruinous warfare. Misunderstood and misrepresented by his courtiers and enemies alike, maybe King Qin’s actions are just as heroic as those of Nameless and Broken Sword in trying to bring peace to China. At the end of the film, we are informed that Nameless was buried as a hero in the new Chinese state, and that the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty heroically built the Great Wall of China to cement the peace within his lands. So, should we assume that all the principal characters are heroes for helping to end the civil war? This is certainly the conclusion that Zhang is pushing us towards, yet I think it is far more interesting to analyse the progression of morality and heroism throughout the film. We are constantly revising and updating our opinions of each character until their final sacrifice. Ultimately, we are left with the surprising notion that in a combative society, where professional swordsmanship is the highest achievement, the most heroic action is to relinquish vengeance and seek peace with your enemies.

James Meredith

Featured Image Source: Still via Hero (2002) Official Trailer 1, Movieclips Classic Trailers // YouTube

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