What's the mark of a great film star? Well, one of them is to be familiar even to those who haven't seen their films and Bruce Lee certainly qualifies on that score—everyone knows him, even if it's only that he was a chap who kicked seven bells out of people while dressed in his pajamas.
But he owed his stardom to more than violence: he was charismatic enough to have been a movie icon even if he'd never thumped anyone.
"Bruce was charismatic enough to have been a movie icon even if he'd never thumped anyone"
We don't need much reason to talk about the great man but we've got a good one anyway—a new film called Birth of the Dragon is coming out, a biopic about his life before the movies. He led an eventful life, did our Bruce and there was more to him than fighting. Although, as we shall see, there was plenty of that too…
A baby Bruce Lee with his parents. Image via Wiki
Bruce Lee might be one of the most famous Chinese people ever... but he was actually born in America. Lee’s parents had gone to the states on tour—his father Lee Hoi-chuen was a great star of the Chinese opera and was traveling with his pregnant wife.
So it was that Lee Jun-fan—"the little dragon—was born in San Francisco on 27 November 1940, traveling to Hong Kong soon after.
Child star and the cha-cha-cha
Yee Chau-shui and Bruce Lee in The Kid, 1950. Image via Street Lab
Hong Kong audiences might have received a shock when the (adult) Bruce Lee made his first Kung Fu flick, for they might have remembered his previous film roles.
You see, he started his film career as a child star, playing cheeky scamps and wide-eyed orphans—not the sort of thing you expect from a future martial arts superstar.
Nor was that his only claim to fame: he was a wizard at dancing too. At 18, Lee was even crowned cha-cha-cha champion of Hong Kong. Those folks who call his fight scenes “balletic” are more right than they realise.
Coming to America
Bruce Lee with his family in the 70s. Image via Nistido
In between school and cutting a rug on the dance floor, the teenage Bruce liked getting into fights. And not the sort of choreographed skirmishes of his later film work. Oh no—these were proper street fights, with knives and cleavers and everything.
Unsurprisingly a little concerned about their son, the Lees decided it would be prudent for him to leave Hong Kong and go to America, studying in Seattle. There he met, and fell in love with, Miss Linda Emery. In the face of opposition from her parents, they married and eventually had two children, Brandon and Shannon.
Oh, and you'll be glad to know he avoided any fights. For a little while, at least…
After marriage, Bruce and Linda moved down the coast to San Francisco, where he started to teach martial arts. This wouldn't have been a problem had he restricted himself to the large Chinese community. Trouble was, he included white folks as well.
This was very much frowned upon by the purists; eventually, they decided that the best way to put this young upstart in his place was the traditional way (i.e. a fight). It's this incident that's at the heart of Birth of a Dragon: a fellow named Wong Jack Man was selected to issue the challenge, which Bruce accepted.
It was all settled very quickly, with Bruce easily victorious but the Kung Fu establishment never did warm to Bruce Lee. He was, they pointed out, a performer more than a serious martial artist. He didn't practice orthodox Kung Fu but had synthesised his own form from a variety of styles, which he called Jeet Kune Do (“way of the intercepting fist”). Traditionalists were thin-lipped at the liberties he took.
Bruce didn't give a fig, and once he'd defeated the purists' champion, he was free to do as he pleased.
Business was booming, and Bruce soon started to number Hollywood players amongst his clientele, including actor James Coburn and writer-producer Sterling Silliphant. Both recognised how charismatic their trainer was and suggested he should, with their help, try his luck in showbiz.
But…while everyone could see he was a natural in front of the camera, there wasn't much appetite for an Asian leading man. After a few bit-parts, Bruce Lee won the role of Kato in The Green Hornet, better than nothing but still a sidekick.
Or at least, that was how it was seen in America. On a trip back to see the family, Bruce discovered that Kato was considered the hero in Hong Kong. Moreover, he found producers who wanted to put him in movies.
Bruce Lee in The Big Boss
Heresy it might be, but none of Bruce Lee's films are actually especially good. His first (as an adult, that is) might be his worst: The Big Boss was a low-budget affair, with a hackneyed script and a director—Lo Wei— who might charitably be described as a hack.
But— and here is the crucial point—it had Bruce. Even if the story or the execution leaves much to be desired, Bruce Lee is utterly compelling, even in repose. It's the fight scenes that make it, though. It doesn't matter that director Lo shoots in a pedestrian way; Bruce knew how to present himself and make the shot look as good as possible. It's as good a definition of “star power” as you'll see.
"Bruce played an agent who must stop an evil supervillain, with fight scenes that made 007 look stale"
It was a huge hit. A follow-up quickly appeared: Fists of Fury, which is probably his best film (not to mention an even bigger hit). Taking advantage of his new-found fame, Bruce spread his wings further and went to Rome for his next film, The Way of the Dragon, where he had an on-screen fight with Chuck Norris and beat him, which in internet terms makes him, what? God?
If this all sounds frantic, it was; Bruce was working at a furious pace. He even started making a film before a script was ready, shooting a series of fights for a project that was interrupted when he received a call from America…
Kung Fu fighting
It wasn't only Hong Kong audiences who were crazy about Bruce Lee; his films had sold internationally—even to America—and initiated the global chop socky craze of the early seventies.
Sensing a way to make a bit of money from it, Warner Brothers in Hollywood contacted Bruce and asked if they'd like to make a film for them.
This would become his best-known film, Enter the Dragon, which took a James Bond plot (Bruce as an agent who must stop an evil supervillain) but with fight scenes that made 007 look stale. It was small beer by Hollywood standards (director Robert Clouse was basically an American Lo Wei) but a huge production for Hong Kong, and Bruce pulled out all the stops.
Incidentally, for many years the British release was censored: the BBFC had a “thing” about nunchucks. So it still feels a wee bit subversive to include the demonstration above. Take that, BBFC!
With Bruce in his prime, it was a huge hit and plans were made for a follow up, perhaps even a triumphant return to America.
And then Bruce Lee died. He was only 32.
When someone as physically fit as Bruce Lee dies so young, it's probably inevitable that the official verdict will be challenged.
Dark mutterings began soon after and have continued ever since: he was murdered by Kung Fu masters, angry at how he had bastardised their art.
Alternatively, the Triads were involved, angry that he didn't pay them sufficient respect. A third version has it that he wasn't actually dead, but that this was just an excuse—he'd gone undercover to fight drug smugglers.
As usual with conspiracy theories, the official verdict is overwhelmingly the most plausible: Bruce had been taking a pain-killer. He died after a severe allergic reaction to one of its ingredients.
The afterlife of Bruce Lee
A couple of years after Bruce's premature demise, questions began to be asked about the footage he had begun shooting before he was interrupted by Enter The Dragon. It was little more than a series of fight scenes—he planned to shoot the narrative scenes later— but it showed him at his peak.
With the family's consent, Robert Clouse (of Enter the Dragon) fashioned a new story around them, rather tastelessly based on the rumours that his death had been faked. This became Game of Death and set a precedent that others would follow.
Other “posthumous” Bruce Lee films followed, padded with outtakes of earlier films. Others were made starring Bruce 'Li' or Bruce 'Le'. Rather wonderfully, there's even a film called The Clones of Bruce Lee, in which Bruce has been cloned (three times!) by scientists to battle crime and the like.
The one, the only
Accept no substitutes, though. Years after his death, he remains the gold standard for movie martial artists: a beautiful, graceful and athletic performer and oh so magnetic.
Go to see Birth of the Dragon by all means— but realise it can only be a shadow of the real thing.
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