Resolved: Bruce Lee's Extraordinary Genius Was Utterly Wasted in His 1970s Movies

As a former TKD student and teacher, I revered martial arts superstar Bruce Lee in my early years, yet today have feel that four of his five martial arts films (The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way/Return of the Dragon, and Game of Death) were huge lost opportunities and squandered his immense talent.

“Enter the Dragon,” by contrast, was great movie-making, although the film would have been improved had they cast it with phenoms Joe Lewis and Ed Parker.

I agree: four of Lee’s film “flops” had great moments (Lee fighting Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum) but the acting, editing, sets, writing, voice-dubbing, and direction ranged from bad to awful. And “Game of Death” was an posthumous abomination.

Now, had Lee been able to team up with the Wachowskis, they could have made magic happen. But as is, it strikes me Lee was born 30 years ahead of his time and the hack Chinese directors/producers who worked with him did a grave disservice to his legacy.

Your thoughts?

I’m going to take a risk and guess that you’re American or perhaps European.

The acting, editing, sets, writing, and direction of Lee’s first two films were under Golden Harvest, part of a new wave of Hong Kong film companies that had been given greater artistic control over their products. Their predecessors were companies like the Shaw Brothers who had made dozens of hits churning out “week’s worth wonders” like Master of the Flying Guillotine and tales of flying sword-wielding wizards and demons. A lot of those were little more than martial scenes a director managed to capture on film that were then left to other production crews to string together into some kind of a semi-coherent tale. They were, in that sense, the predecessors to the Canon (Golan/Globus) Films products that came later.

Bruce’s early experiences working for the Hong Kong Film companies occurred during the transition from Shaw-style production approaches to Chow (Golden Harvest) -style approaches – which is perhaps to say, “Let’s build a story that leads up to a fight.”

So while The Big Boss may not seem like great cinema, you can compare it to something like Master of the Flying Guillotine and see a considerably more coherent (and possibly more compelling) story. I realize that still doesn’t compliment The Big Boss very much.

Nor is it much of a compliment to say Fist of Fury was somewhat better. While it drew on an incident that was well-known to the Chinese (particularly to Chinese Martial Artists – q.v. the end of Fearless and the starting premise of Fist of Legend) and was a cathartic vent for long-suppressed frustrations going back to China’s first major encounters with Western powers, it was still created first and foremost for a Chinese audience with any success in the West being an added/unexpected bonus.

When Lee created his own production company and wrote Way of the Dragon[1], he wrote the tale to fit the planned fights. But Bruce’s experience was from television (which in the 60’s was more about a situation with episodes and less about character growth and story arcs) and the Hong Kong 7-day wonders (which were mostly about finding excuses for fight scenes – see above). And while, as you note, the pairing of Lee and Norris at the Coliseum seems grandiose and was pivotal in launching the latter’s film career, it really isn’t much more than another spectacle that the director wanted to shoot and fit into his film somehow. In this case, the Director and main character were both Lee.

Bruce then turned his attention to his next project.

In contrast, when Warner Brothers decided they wanted to capitalize on (i.e. try getting a piece of the market) the kung fu craze, they made a wise choice in sending Lee’s friend and former boss to ask Lee to be the star. Enter the Dragon was an interruption to Lee’s planned magnum opus, but the offer was good and he needed the money in order to finance his new production company and project. That was quite a fortunate situation for everyone.

Being an American cinematic company, Warner Brothers worked in a different manner than the Hong Kong (particularly the martial arts flick) industry. Furthermore, the film writers worked differently from the television writers: They started with a framework and a plot, built in side-stories, added excuses for fights, and then choreographed and filmed them. The point is that Enter the Dragon is a movie that fits American sensibilities about how a movie should flow largely because it was written by American writers for an American production company to sell to American audiences. And this is why I’m guessing you’re American.

Game of Death, of course, was an unfinished and only partially-filmed script which ghoulish entities tried to salvage simply to squeeze more funds out of the fan base. I seriously doubt many of the tricks they played would be possible under modern legal conditions in the industry. Nevertheless, it was done and the result is something of a Frankenstein’s Monster of real and look-similar actors, original film, recycled footage, original story, and a plot that went way off-track from what Lee originally intended and the point(s) he was trying to convey[2]. No wonder it seems like a mess. The only slight saving-grace was that, because the people involved knew they were exploiting a fad, they were willing to provide high-quality Hollywood production values (at the time) to make the final product as slick and presentable as possible. It looks like a high-quality film because the equipment and techniques were high-quality and, IF you can just sit back and try to enjoy/follow the story line, it’s about on-par with Way of the Dragon and still better than the Golden Harvest products.

Last, but not least, the Wachowski Brothers (famous for their spectacular choreography for The Matrix) would not have achieved their fame if not influenced by the predecessors in Shaw, Chow, Lee, and others.

[a former student of several martial arts and teacher of two]

We who achieve greatness do so by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
–Albert Einstein (I think…)

[1] Marketed in the West as Return of the Dragon
[2] For the closest approximation of his plan, see Cross of Iron (1978) – but don’t watch it expecting superb martial arts mastery…

I also studied/taught TKD (well, sorta - through Paul Vunak’s PFS, but trained under several of BL’s original students), but never got into BL’s films to the extent you guys did. I viewed them as pretty much separate and distinct from his MA teachings. Essentially a caricature. Not sure how The Tao of TKD would be presented on film…

I often thought it odd that I was so interested in MA, but so disinterested in MA films. Most filmed fight scenes bored me.

Jeez - of course I meant JKD! :roll_eyes:

Your post is amazing, like strolling along a long, deserted beach, then chancing upon a pearl. Thank you.

I wonder how popular was “Enter the Dragon” in China back then vs the earlier films. I wonder if Chinese/HK movie-goers saw Dragon and said, “Wow, this western movie is sooo much better!” Go watch Lee’s earlier movies, then answer that question!

An opening scene in Dragon evokes the same “cathartic vent for long-suppressed frustrations going back…” that you observe, which of course begins on a boat carrying Lee and other fighters to Han’s island, which finds Peter Archer repeatedly challenging Lee to a fight. Lee responds calmly and philosophically, to the chagrin of 300 million Chinese who ached for him to right old wrongs on film.

This points to Lee’s sometimes idiosyncratic casting. Archer may have been a “karate champion in Hong Kong” (per Wikipedia), but his MA credentials were thin for a major movie – and I do not recall him actually fighting Lee in “Dragon.” Lee exercised a lot of power in his movies, sometimes too much, I feel.
Elsewhere, yes, Bob Wall was a strong fighter in the United States but his fighting style and stature were similar to Jim Kelly’s, and roundhouse kicks from tall guys like Wall and Kelly do not always look graceful on the big screen. Alas, there’s little diversity in fighting styles in “Dragon,” which the ghost of Lee “later” corrected in “Game of Death.” Again, Ed Parker and Joe Lewis had international followings and were fantastic fighters, though Lewis and Lee admittedly had a hot-and-cold relationship. Parker would have been fascinating to watch in a fight.

Another curiosity: John Saxon, who was then a martial arts cipher but perhaps he was the best B movie actor they could afford. I’m sure Steve McQueen (Lee’s student and friend) was busy and had a price tag far too high for HK. Fortunately, the editors left a lot of Lee’s “Dragon” philosophising on the cutting-room floor. (Sorry, but it had to be said.)

Final note: My family and I resided in Hong Kong during filming of some of Lee’s movies, but I was far too young to do anything like watch him on set. My parents knew a famous female movie star in HK who undoubtedly knew Lee, as it was a small professional community, but nothing came of it. Makes me wish for a time machine. Still, for all I know, I may have seen him in one of HK’s trendy restaurants and never knew who he was.

Ah, now I recall: Archer loses to Jim Kelly.

I remember Jim Kelly best as Black Belt Jones.

The quality was definitely better.

But all of Lee’s movies except EtD had a strong plot element of ‘China against the world’, which really fired up domestic (Chinese) audiences. In (I think) Fist of Fury, after kicking ass against karate fighters, Lee uttered the immortal line, “Now you know the Chinese are no longer the sick men of Asia”.

EtD was made for international markets, and there was less of a.kung fu vs. karate theme.

Many Chinese hold up Bruce Lee as a thoroughly Chinese superstar, but he rejected the formality of Kung Fu and Wing Chun; he dared to share the secrets of Kung Fu with westerners (knowing it would outrage the old guard in China); and he adopted a thoroughly western/American lifestyle. Lee’s Jeet Kune Do fighting system is an international hybrid of styles, and is not Chinese.

Bruce Lee’s Chinese ancestry worked both against him and for him. Yes, he experienced much prejudice in his life but he gained superstardom in the west and was revered by Hollywood’s leading men. He had magnetic screen presence on “The Green Hornet” TV show – and a magnetic fan following. After the first GH episode, America was buzzing about Lee’s Kato – so much that GH producers had to make sure he didn’t steal the show. In that role, Lee’s being Asian was a huge plus, as it added to his mystique and credibility as a fighter.

Regarding the U.S. television series “Kung Fu,” it’s stunning how many David Carradine fan boys still cling to the notion that DC was a talented martial artist. Some even postulated grudge fights between Carradine and, say, Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee or Bill Wallace. Truth is, Carridine never bothered to study any MA system, not even a single lesson. Instead of being a master fighter, he was slow and awkward and led a hugely undisciplined life. Had Lee been given the “Kung Fu” role (producers thought his accent too thick and incomprehensible, which actually might have been a big plus for the role of an abused drifter), “Enter the Dragon” may not have happened – and “Enter the Dragon” was Lee’s crowning achievement, though Lee himself placed some major limitations on it.

Lee also felt Enter the Dragon failed to convey enough of his martial arts philosophy. That is why, after the production wrapped up, he hired his own crews and actors to film additional scenes. The first was the opener that people see as some kind of promotion-exam-by-combat[1] and the second was the discussion with the Shaolin superior[2] monk, in which he talks about ‘being like water’ et cetera. Remember, too, that Enter the Dragon was a necessary diversion from his work on Game of Death, which he intended to be a more intentional and expanded showcase for his philosophy. I tend to think he didn’t want to waste the opportunity to present a taste of that philosophy in an internationally-produced film intended for an international market, but he also didn’t want to expose it all in someone else’s film and thereby dilute the revelations and impact of his own planned offering.

Having glanced through Lee’s book and watched interviews with him, I find that he had excellent insights into the subtleties and nuances of interpersonal combat. In fact, he is credited with seeding the trend of blending and mixing martial arts which eventually developed into the Ultimate Fight competitions[3] that are so lucrative on Pay-Per-View these days. However, with all due respect (and believe me, I revere him in many ways) I don’t think his talent and thoughts were directed toward much more than that – not battlefield techniques, troop maneuvers, seige tactics, or other aspects of human combat; not PR, image management, media spin, or other facets of mental intimidation that can be leveraged against an opponent; not the nature of fear, the social ramifications of victory or defeat, or other philosophical analyses of the aftermath of conflict. He was a specialist – and a phenomenal one at that – but his expertise was in a very specific field of limited utility.

If you partake of the commentary tracks included with the Kung Fu series DVDs[4] you’ll find Carradine admitting he hadn’t had any training before being cast in the role. In fact he talks about the initial fight choreographer teaching what was closer to Aikido and then, after a few successful shows gained some sponsorship, they could afford a change of fight choreographers. The latter taught more Kung Fu material and Carradine also started delving into Tai Chi Chuan, which is closely related.[5] Carradine also noted that the trademark flute in the show was something of an accident: He was a talented musician on many instruments[6] and was starting to learn the flute during the early days of shooting so he brought one to the set so he could practice when he wasn’t in front of the cameras; the producer thought that was the perfect instrument for an itinerant monk and worked it into the show.

The fact is, though, David Carradine was a good actor from a family of good and great actors[7] and, in fact, he had done substantial television work (including many Westerns) before trying out for the TV series. His lack of martial arts skill was actually leveraged by the producers: While Green Hornet producers had to speed up the camera while recording Bruce’s fight scenes, just so they could be viewed with some clarity when played back at normal speed, Kung Fu producers sped up the recording cameras to show Carradine’s martial arts in super-slow motion, thereby dragging out a few moves and chewing up more TV air-time with less actual violence. It was a less campy and more appealing approach than, for example, the interjecting block-out technique [8] used in the Batman series.

[1] “If you win this match you get to go to the next level. If you lose, we take away 5000 experience points and you try again when you’ve earned them back through adventures or training – but you can’t adventure in the Caves of Chaos because you did that already.”
[2] Abbot? Bishop? Sorry, but I’m not very familiar with delineations of rank in religious organizations.
[3] Don’t get me started.
[4] Yeah, those are a part of my video collections, too.
[5] What I found nauseating was the marketing of a video tape collection in the 1980’s with David Carradine leading Tai Chi forms and exercises. At the time I figured he was just exploiting his reputation as that Kwai Chiang guy, but it’s quite possible the producers were exploiting both Carradine and that reputation. I remember passing through the room while my sister was watching Kung Fu: the Legend Continues with Kwai Chiang still alive and helping people in modern times; I remember thinking "What, do you think you’re like Yoda? Nine hundred years old and perpetually preserved by your mastery of the force Kung Fu?
[6] See him in Bound for Glory as Woody Guthrie – he’s really playing the music in those scenes.
[7] Amongst the highly respected family names in show business are the Baldwins, Barrymores, Bridges, Carradines, and Fondas
[8] The word BANG! splashes across the screen in a colored oval with jagged edges, not only telling the audience that someone got hit, but also visually obscuring that impact at the same time.

There are a couple of different titles, but they usually get translated into English as “abbot”.
From Wikipedia:

In Chinese Chan Buddhist monasteries, a common word for abbot is Fāngzhàng (方丈) meaning “one square zhàng (equal to ten square feet)”, a reference to the size of Vimalakirti’s stone room.[6]

Another word for abbot is Zhùchí (住持), meaning “dweller” and “upholder.”[7] Monks and nuns tend to be addressed as Fǎshī (法師) meaning “Dharma teacher.”

The character in the later show was the grandson of the character in the original series.

QUOTE: “The fact is, though, David Carradine was a good actor from a family of good and great actors[7] and, in fact, he had done substantial television work (including many Westerns) before trying out for the TV series. His lack of martial arts skill was actually leveraged by the producers.”

Grestarian, this is one of the most generous comments re: Carradine and the GH producers I’ve ever run across. While KF wasn’t a martial arts show, per se, I’d like to think a more dedicated actor (certainly a Caucasian playing a Chinese monk on network TV) would have immersed himself, learning all he could to gain credibility, authority, and authenticity. Of course, that isn’t how Hollywood did things back then. It’s said that Carradine gained the role on strength of his dancing (ironically, Lee was a dance champion in Hong Kong), but rarely does one see dancers who are so flat-footed and ungainly. Some maintain DK did study Kung Fu during the show’s final season, but no one can point to where he studied or with whom.

Same goes for Tom Laughlin of “Billy Jack” fame. I can only image what Bruce Lee thought of TL in that role. Laughlin is remembered as one of the most cantankerous, difficult and egomaniacal oddballs in Hollywood history, which is saying a lot. Director Robert Altman recalled him being “an incredible pain in the ass.” Problem is, Laughlin believed his own press. He thought he was a brilliant actor/director and a gifted martial artist, never mind that Hapkido legend Bong Soo Han made Laughlin a star. Laughlin, like Carradine, never studied martial arts; he was too busy playing the dime-store philosopher to his groupies. Some internet sources claim he studied MA both before and after shooting of “Billy Jack,” yet no one can point to a single credible source. Looking back, I recall Bong Soo Han moving with grace and authority and authenticity, which is precisely what Laughlin lacked.

Although they occasionally hinted that he was the original, pretending to be his own grandson.

I’m not an expert on Bruce Lee in any sense at all but two things that I’ll note:

  1. Probably the closest parallel to Lee would be Arnold Schwarzenegger. They’re both intelligent men who were proficient and original in their athletic field, and were able to turn that into a film career. So if we look at Arnold’s career, we might get some sense of where Lee’s career might have gone. That is to say, we might have seen him trying to his hand at more dramatic and comedic roles, for example, and learned that he had already hit his level in mostly schlock action territory. It’s maybe better to let it lie there?

  2. The films made 30 years later are also horrible schlock. But… It’s horrible schlock made on the shoulders of films that came earlier and figured out the techniques and formulas. The Wachowskis took from Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell probably took from movies like Top Gun and John Woo’s The Killer. The Killer would have come from movies like Enter the Dragon. In another 50 years, people will look back at Crank and wish that Jason Statham had been born 30 years later, because those films that he was in are clearly inferior to the ones made decades later. Well yeah, because they were made later. That’s just the way of things, I suspect.

Back in the 1970s I was dating a Korean woman who loved martial arts films. We went to one intended for the Korean market, so no English. As we left I noticed people gesturing at her and speaking in hushed tones. I asked her what was up and she said, " I look like (the heroine), they think I am her. "

The film itself was crazy ridiculous. People hitting each other with 2 x 4 lumber and steel pipes without flinching, repeatedly. 10 minute fight scenes and no one was breathing hard.

It’s a bit unfair to compare them given that MotFG is a period-piece fantasy while all of Mr. Lee’s films take place in the modern day. The narrative conventions are totally different. Although MotFG suffers (imo) from Jimmy Wang Yu’s underwhelming and wholly unconvincing one-armed technique, I found the story far more compelling and the film itself without question far more imaginative than any movie with Mr. Lee. Entertainment being, of course, in the eyes of the viewer.

I recall the three pre-EtD movies consciously evoking the three Spaghetti Westerns Clint Eastwood made with Sergio Leone: low-budget action films relying heavily on a laconic (and charismatic) lead who can’t be beaten. Given the boost Mr. Lee’s ‘70s films gave to MA cinema in general, EtD in particular and especially later HK films which feature more elaborate action and plots, I am grateful for Mr. Lee’s efforts to make them successful because it ultimately facilitated the existence of many other, better films.

Egads, Dropo, either you yourself were the Master of the Flying Guillotine (and thus your ego is on the line in favorably comparing it to EtD, this after declaring that comparisons shouldn’t be made) or you’re a major investor in that movie and still hoping to break even some 45 years later, but after seeing the official trailer of Flying Guillotine, it reminds me of every bad early Chinese martial arts movie ever made. Are you sure it wasn’t satire? Again, if that’s you brandishing that Ginsu veggie-cutter, I congratulate you … but I’m thinking not.

I admit EtD’s official trailer was inartfully done (and that John Saxon looks absurd in it), but at least Lee had the street cred to carry the movie … and, really, few people go to MA movies to analyze narrative conventions and Jungian archetypes. Yes, the plot is flimsier than Kleenex but all is forgiven if the action is top notch. The casting of Archer and Saxon was a major lost opportunity. I’ve got to wonder how off-track Game of Death would have been had Lee actually completed it. A philosophical treatise isn’t what MA audiences want. Thankfully, EtD did cast Ahna Capri lol.

I was a big fan of Bruce Lee films when I was younger, and it helped inspire me to train in Kung Fu as a teenager/young adult. My favorite films of his were Big Boss and Fist of Fury (known back then as Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection, respectively).

I enjoy both, but given the choice, I’d probably rewatch Master of the Flying Guillotine before Enter the Dragon. The cartoonish excesses of those Shaw Bros. movies are a lot of fun when approached with the right mindset.

Not worth its own thread but…
I saw some MA movie where a guy climbs up a flag pole like a flag - just by his hands, and rigidly perpendicular to the pole. It was so ridiculous I quit watching.,

Was that any of the films being discussed here?