A retrospective look at the man, the myth and the ultimate martial arts / action legend that is Bruce Lee.

It is hard to imaging a time when Bruce Lee was anything less then the cultural icon he is today. But in the 1960s, he was just another immigrant trying to make his mark in the world. Initially, he had a dream of opening a franchise of schools he could teach his brand of Gung Fu at. To this end, he became Sifu to many Hollywood stars such as Steve McQueen and James Coburn, and they put the idea in his head to demonstrate his martial art trough acting in movies. This wasn’t much of a stretch because as a child, Lee followed his father into acting and stared in 23 non martial arts movies. He eventually landed the role of Kato in the single season of The Green Hornet and after that….nothing.

Nobody in Hollywood was willing to take a chance on Asian actor with an accent. He was passed over for a movie role in the property that would become the Kung Fu TV series. Another series was called Kelsey, where Lee again played a sidekick for the title hero during the gold rush. Yet another series would have seen Lee play a Chinese immigrant who would protect Chinese workers being used to build the railroads in the Old West. This property recently aired on Cinemax as The Warrior. But what really hurt Lee was that he couldn’t get what would be the first American martial arts movie made entitled The Silent Flute. In it, a westerner would play the hero in a quest across continents for The Martial Arts Bible.

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Bruce Lee’s Break Into Hollywood

Lee would play the role of various fighters of different styles the hero would need to confront. Lee actually toured India scouting for locations with James Coburn and screenwriter Sterling Siliphant. Despite the stars lobbying for the property, the studios passed on it. It was eventually made after Lee’s death as Circle of Iron in 1979. Lee was crestfallen he couldn’t get it made and decided to follow the example of another bit studio actor by the name of Clint Eastwood, who went to Italy to film Westerns. Only Lee decided to go East back to his native Hong Kong to cash in on the martial arts craze. He was forced to do this because he couldn’t find work in the West and he needed the money.

What Lee didn’t know was that he was already a celebrity in Hong Kong. The Green Hornet was called The Kato show there and the Chinese people took great pride that one of their own was famous in America. And as the fates would have it, a man named Raymond Chow was creating a new studio called Golden Harvest to challenge Shaw Brothers. So a studio executive in need of a star found and actor in need of a role. A two picture deal was finalized at $7500 a picture and Lee was flown out to Thailand to film 1972’s The Big Boss.

Anybody who wants a black belt in Bruce Lee should read the biography by Mathew Polly. In it, he talks about the kung fu battles being filmed were nothing compared to the battles going on behind the scenes. The movie takes on a whole new meaning if you know the backstory. Apparently Raymond Chow didn’t tell the director or the star the Lee was to be the star of this picture. Jimmie Wong was already a martial arts star with one legged under his belt when he was hired away from another studio. Knowing the backstory, you can tell that he was the hero initially. He was the one doing all the fighting and standing up for workers rights before he is killed off in the first act of the movie.

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A Fight to Bring Martial Arts to the Mainstream

Behind the scenes, it turns out that Lee was lobbying hard to get the director replaced and his role expanded. He was eventually successful. It was the dailies of the fight scenes that won Lee the argument. With a new director on board, they just kept filming rather then recut the movie. Lee does not even have a fight scene until the halfway mark of the movie and now we know why. But when he does, it is like watching man learn how to walk upright. Lee even clashed with the stunt team who were all trained at the various Chinese Opera houses, which did fights in long prearranged sequences that we all know and love from the chopsocky genre. But Lee was a genuine martial artist. When he fought, he roared at the stuntmen with legit martial arts techniques meant to take them out and they didn’t know how to react.

What’s the plot you say? Well, the script was only three pages long which was not unusual for this type of film. Lee plays a man who is sent to Thailand to work in an ice factory with a pledge to his mother that he will stop fighting. He is shown around by his cousin, who is all about the workers rights. When his brother and other workers go missing after discovering heroin is being smuggled out in the ice, Lee launches an investigation and discovers their dismembered corpses frozen in the ice. What’s a man to do when the honor of his family and his people is insulted but extract some righteous revenge. This leads to a kung fu showdown with The Big Boss, who is also well versed in the fighting arts.

The one thing nobody talks about in this is Bruce Lees acting. He really gets to emote in this picture. You see the displeasure on his face when he has to endure the humiliation and abuse as an exploited immigrant worker. The powers that be try to bribe him with wine, women and a foreman’s job which in turn makes him a traitor in the eyes of his fellow workers. Or the pain when he discovers the course of his cousin to the unmitigated rage as he extracts his revenge with foot, fist, icepick and saw. Have I pointed out that the fights are truly something to behold and was never put to screen until that point?

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An Ultimate Action Legend is Born

When the movie opened, the fortunes of literally everybody involved were at stake. The first five films of Golden Harvest underperformed and Lee was afraid that if he couldn’t generate a hit overseas, his Hollywood brand would be irrefutably damaged. The movie premiered to great fanfare and during its first screening, the crowd was introduced to this new symbol of Chinese nationalism. By the end of the showing, there was literally stunned silence . The crowd literally didn’t know what hit them. Then they erupted into applause and Bruce Lee was carried out on their shoulders like a conquering hero. The movie became an international sensation and Bruce Lee got a taste of the fame he would never realize until after his death. A legend was truly born.

Have you ever wondered why the film has a different title when released in the West? This movie was called The Big Boss in Hong Kong and had its title changed to Fists of Fury when released in the West. Not a bad title for a revenge movie and could be the title of any kung fu movie. But it was supposed to be called The Chinese Connection. This was to capitalize on an American film called The French Connection, which dealt with a heroin pipeline into the United States from France which was released the same year. What happened was when the film reels were being sent to the West, they were put in the wrong canisters and nobody caught the mistake and that’s how the title of Bruce Lee’s first two movies got switched.

Know this about Bruce Lee. He was a man like any other. He had a family and insecurities, and hopes and dreams just like any man. What made him was the singleminded determination he went about achieving his goals be it in action, martial arts or his quest for physical perfection. He was a man who described himself as a human being and said that according to Confucius “ Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family”. And this worldview is the reason all of humanity can agree on the greatness that was Bruce Lee and aspire to it in our own ways.

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