This day, July 20 marks the 43rd year since American martial arts actor Bruce Lee bid adios to the world. His meteoric rise to become one of the major movie phenomena of the 70s showed its first signs with the release of Kung Fu actioner, The Big Boss (US: Fists of Fury, Dir: Lo Wei, 1971), a huge commercial success for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Productions. The film was followed-up with Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury (The Iron Hand, US: The Chinese Connection, 1972).
Riding on the success of the above two ‘chop socky’ films and by then considered as the Numero Uno Kung Fu star, Lee himself directed The Way of the Dragon, (US: Return of the Dragon, 1973) shot in Italy.
However, Lee’s popularity would hit sky high and elevate him to cult status only after the release of the mind-boggling actioner, Enter the Dragon (The Deadly Three, Dir: Robert Clouse, 1973), his last completed film, in which he directed the stunt sequences and acted as the main protagonist amongst an all-star cast of karate champions built around a quadrennial Karate championship contest on a Chinese island which is the sinister fortress hideout of the evil Han.
Unfortunately, having not seen the final product which he had been eagerly waiting to see on its United States premier in August, Lee died on July 20, 1973 at Kowloon Tong at the age of 32 when he was working on Game of Death.
The prime factor for the growth of interest in the Asian martial arts and Hong Kong movies in international box-office is attributed to this first Chinese superstar of Hollywood with charming screen charisma. Born to a Hong Kong family in Chinatown in San Francisco on November 27, 1940, he was given the Americanised-name Bruce Lee reportedly by a hospital nurse. At the age of six, Lee made his appearance in the Hong Kong movie, The Beginning of a Boy. As he went on to appear in twenty movies, he also took up studies in martial arts from the age of 13, in the process developing his own form of attacking style in karate, Jeet Kune Do, based on street fighting techniques.
By the late 50s, back from Kowloon to United States for his higher studies, he also appeared in supporting roles (1966-1967) in the TV series The Green Hornet as well as in Batman, etc. He was cast in director Paul Bogart’s Marlowe (1969), a slick update of author Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister with actor James Garner in the role of the private eye Philip Marlowe. This movie in which Lee (also stunt supervisor) reduces Marlowe’s office to rubble was his American début. By then, this muscular young man had become popular in the Far East film circles, eventually paving the way to showcase his brilliance in the martial arts tournament in Enter the Dragon.
The film which has endured all these years, also featured many other martial arts experts: John Saxon (Long time student of oriental martial arts of karate and tai chi chuan); Jim Kelly (the 1971 International Middleweight Karate Champion); Robert ‘Bob’ Wall (1970 United States Professional Karate Champion); Peter Archer (1971 Commonwealth Karate Champion); Yang Sze (Bolo Yeung) (South-East Asian Shotokan Karate Champion), and Angela Mao Ying (Black Belt Hapkido Champion of Okinawa), etc. An Uncut version of Enter the Dragon issued later features interviews, comments about incidents on the set and more footage unseen in the original released version.
Enter the Dragon was Hollywood’s first major involvement in a movie rooted in the Martial Arts scene and no doubt, it was Bruce Lee’s international popularity and his niceties of the martial arts that made the rebirth of these Asian arts worldwide possible. Until next time, Jo
- Movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
- DVD sleeves credits: Wikipedia, amazon.com, and from my private collection.
- The illustrated scenes are from the movie: Enter the Dragon.
- This article is an affectionate nosegay to movies of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)