Bruce Lee remains the greatest icon of martial arts cinema and a key figure of modern popular media. Had it not been for Bruce Lee and his movies in the early 1970s, it’s arguable whether or not the martial arts film genre would have ever penetrated and influenced mainstream North American and European cinema and audiences the way it has over the past four decades.
The influence of East 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.
Lee was born “Lee Jun Fan” November 27, 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 five, 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. Bruce was later beaten up by a street gang, which inspired him to take up martial arts training under the tutelage of “Sifu Yip Man” who schooled 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 got him in trouble with the Hong Kong police on numerous occasions. His parents suggested that he head off to the United States. Lee landed in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1959 and worked in a close relative’s restaurant. 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 Lee Cadwell (aka Linda Emery) (later his wife) and also 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 figures 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 T.V. producer William Dozier. Based on the runaway success of Batman (1966), Dozier was keen to bring the cartoon character of The Green Hornet to T.V. and was on the lookout for an East Asian 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 (1966) starring Van Williams aired in 1966-1967 with mixed success. His fight scenes were sometimes obscured by unrevealing camera angles, but his dedication was such that he insisted his character behave like a perfect bodyguard, keeping his eyes on whoever might be a threat to his employer except when the script made this impossible. The show was canceled after only one season (twenty-six episodes), but by this time Lee was receiving more fan mail than the show’s nominal star. He then opened a third branch of his kung fu school in Los Angeles and began providing personalized martial arts training to celebrities including film stars Steve McQueen and James Coburn as well as screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. In addition he refined his prior knowledge of wing chun and incorporated 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 came his way as he landed the small role of a stand over man named “Winslow Wong” who intimidates private eye James Garner in Marlowe (1969). Wong pays a visit to Garner and proceeds to demolish the investigator’s office with his fists and feet, finishing off with a spectacular high kick that shatters the light fixture. 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 pocket, 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 The Big Boss (1971), (aka “The Big Boss”, aka Fists Of Fury”). In it, Lee plays a distant cousin coming to join relatives working at an ice house, where murder, corruption, and drug-running lead to his character’s adventures and display of Kung-Fu expertise. 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. Chow knew he had struck box office gold with Lee and quickly assembled another script entitled Fist of Fury (1972) (aka “Fist Of Fury”, aka “The Chinese Connection”). The second film (with a slightly bigger budget) was again directed by Wei Lo and was set in Shanghai in the year 1900, with Lee returning to his school to find that his beloved master has been poisoned by the local Japanese karate school. Once again he uncovers the evil-doers and sets about seeking revenge on those responsible for murdering his teacher and intimidating his school. The film features 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 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, The Way of the Dragon (1972) (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-time U.S. karate champion Chuck Norris. Bruce plays 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 East Asia 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 starring alongside Lee to give the film wider appeal. The film culminates 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 overdubs and looping for the final cut. Various reports from friends and coworkers cite that he was not feeling well during this period and on July 20, 1973 he lay down at the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei after taking a head-ache medicine called Equagesic and was later unable to be revived. A doctor was called and Lee was taken to hospital by ambulance and pronounced dead that evening. The official finding was death due to a cerebral edema, caused by a reaction to the head-ache tablet Equagesic.
Fans world-wide were shattered that their virile idol had passed at such a young age, and nearly thirty thousand 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 audiences there, which then prompted National General films to actively distribute his three prior movies to U.S. theatres… each was a box office smash.
Fans throughout the world 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 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 Game of Death II (1981) (A.K.A. “Game of Death II”), with a look-alike and more stunt doubles interwoven with a few brief minutes of footage of the real Bruce Lee.
Tragically his son Brandon Lee, an actor and martial artist like his father, was killed in a freak accident on the set of The Crow (1994).
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.
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