The greatest icon of martial arts cinema, and a key figure of modern popular culture. Had it not been for the amazing Bruce Lee and his incredible movies in the early 1970s, it’s arguable whether or not the martial arts film genre would have ever penetrated and influenced mainstream western cinema & audiences the way it has over the past three decades.
The influence of Asian martial arts cinema can be seen today in so many other film genres including comedies, action, drama, science fiction, horror and animation…..and they all have their roots in the phenomenon that was Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was born “Lee Juan Fan” in November 1940 in San Francisco, the son of Lee Hoi Chuen, a singer with the Cantonese Opera. Approximately, one year later the family returned to Kowloon in Hong Kong and at the age of 5, a young Bruce begins appearing in children’s roles in minor films including The Birth of Mankind (1946) and Fu gui fu yun (1948). At the age of 12, Bruce commenced attending La Salle College, and was later beaten up by a street gang, which inspires him to take up martial arts training under the tuition of “Sifu Yip Man” who schools Bruce in wing chun kung fu for a period of approximately five years (this was the only formalized martial arts training ever undertaken by Lee). The talented & athletic Bruce also took up cha-cha dancing, and at the age of 18 won a major dance championship in Hong Kong.
However, his temper and quick fists saw him fall foul of the HK police on numerous occasions, and his parents suggested that he head off to the United States. Lee landed in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1959 and worked in a relative’s restaurant, however he eventually made his way to Seattle, Washington where he enrolled at university to study philosophy, and found the time to practice his beloved kung fu techniques. In 1963, Lee met Linda Emery (later his wife) and in addition he opened his first kung fu school at 4750 University Way. During the early half of the 1960s, Lee became associated with many key martial arts identities in the USA including kenpo karate expert Ed Parker and tae kwon do master Jhoon Rhee. He made guest appearances at notable martial arts events including the Long Beach Nationals. Through one of these tournaments, Bruce met Hollywood hair stylist Jay Sebring who introduced him to TV producer William Dozier. Based on the runaway success of “Batman”, Dozier was keen to bring the cartoon character of “The Green Hornet” to TV and was on the lookout for an Oriental actor to play the Green Hornet’s sidekick, “Kato”. Around this time, Bruce also opened a second kung fu school in Oakland, California and relocated to Oakland to be closer to Hollywood.
Bruce’s screen test was successful, and “The Green Hornet” starring Van Williams went to air in early 1966 to mixed success. However, the show was surprisingly terminated after only one season (30 episodes), but by this time he was receiving more fan mail than the show’s star. He then opened a third branch of his kung fu school in Los Angeles, and began providing personalized martial arts training to film stars including Steve McQueen and James Coburn. In addition, he refined his prior knowledge of wing chun, plus incorporating aspects of other fighting styles such as traditional boxing and okinawan karate. He also developed his own unique style “Jeet Kune Do” (Way of the Intercepting Fist). Another film opportunity then comes his way, as he landed the small role of a stand over man named “Winslow Wong” intimidating private eye James Garner in Marlowe (1969). Wong paid a visit to Garner and proceeded to demolish the investigator’s office with his fists and feet, finishing off with a spectacular high kick that shattered the light fitting. With this further exposure of his talents, Bruce then scored several guest appearances as a martial arts instructor to blind private eye James Franciscus on the TV series “Longstreet” (1971).
With his minor success in Hollywood and money in his pockets, Bruce returned for a visit to Hong Kong and was approached by film producer Raymond Chow who had recently started “Golden Harvest” productions. Chow was keen to utilize Lee’s strong popularity amongst young Chinese fans, and offered him the lead role in _Tang sha da xiong (1971)_ ( aka “Fists of Fury”, aka “The Big Boss”). The film was directed by Wei Lo, shot in Thailand, on a very low budget and in terrible living conditions for cast and crew. However when it opened in Hong Kong, the film was an enormous hit! Young Chinese flocked in their thousands to see this ground breaking film starring a tough, athletic Chinese hero who dispensed justice with his fists and feet. Chow knew he had struck box office gold with Lee, and quickly assembled another script entitled Jing wu men (1972) (aka “The Chinese Connection”, aka “Fist of Fury”). The second film (with a slightly improved budget) was again directed by Wei Lo and was set in Shanghai in the year 1900, with Lee returning to his school to find his beloved master has been poisoned by the local Japanese karate school. Once again, he uncovered the evil doers and set about seeking revenge on those responsible for murdering his teacher. The film featured several superb fight sequences, and at the film’s conclusion, Lee refuses to surrender to the Japanese law and seemingly leaps to his death in a hail of police bullets!
Once more, Hong Kong streets were jammed back with thousands of fervent Chinese movie fans who could not get enough of the fearless Bruce Lee, and his second film went on to break the box office records set by the first! Lee then set up his own production company, Concord Productions, and set about guiding his film career personally by writing, directing and acting in his next film, Meng long guojiang (1972) (aka “Way of the Dragon”, aka “Return of The Dragon”). A bigger budget, meant better locations and opponents, with the new film set in Rome, Italy and additionally starring hapkido expert Ing-Sik Whang, karate legend Robert Wall and seven times US karate champion Chuck Norris. Bruce played a seemingly simple country boy sent to assist at a cousin’s restaurant in Rome, and finds his cousins are being bullied by local thugs for protection.
By now, Lee’s remarkable success in the Orient had come to the attention of Hollywood film executives and a script was hastily written pitching him as a secret agent penetrating an island fortress. Warner Bros. financed the film, and also insisted on B-movie tough guy John Saxon co-starring alongside Lee to give the film more Western appeal. The film culminated with another show stopping fight sequence between Lee and the key villain, Han, in a maze of mirrors. Shooting was completed in and around Hong Kong in early 1973 and in the subsequent weeks, Bruce was involved in completing over dubs and looping for the final cut. Various reports from friends and co-workers cite how he was not feeling well during this period, and on July 20th 1973 he lay down at the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei after taking a headache tablet, and was later unable to be revived. A doctor was called, and he was then taken to hospital by ambulance and pronounced dead that evening. The official finding was death was due to a cerebral edema, caused by a reaction to the headache tablet. In other words, death by misadventure.
Chinese movie fans were absolutely shattered that their virile idol, had passed away at such a young age, and nearly 30,000 fans filed past his coffin in Hong Kong. A second, much smaller ceremony was held in Seattle, Washington and Bruce was laid to rest at Lake View Cemetary in Seattle with pall bearers including Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Dan Inosanto. Enter the Dragon (1973) was later released in the mainland United States, and was a huge hit with American audiences, which then prompted National General films to actively distribute his three prior movies to US theaters…each of them was a box office smash. Bruce Lee was an international film star after he had died!
Fans worldwide were still hungry for more Bruce Lee films, and thus remaining footage (completed before his death) of Lee fighting several opponents including Dan Inosanto, Hugh O’Brian and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was crafted into another film titled Game of Death (1978). The film used a look alike actor and shadowy camera work to be substituted for the real Lee in numerous scenes. The film is a poor addition to the line up, and is only saved by the final twenty minutes and the footage of the real Bruce Lee battling his way up the tower. Amazingly, this same shoddy process was used to create Si wang ta (1981) (aka “Game of Death II”), with more look alike and stunt doubles interwoven with a few brief minutes of footage of the real Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee was not only an amazing athlete and martial artist, but he possessed genuine superstar charisma and through a handful of films he left behind an indelible impression on the tapestry of modern cinema.