40 years ago today, on July 20, 1973, movie star and kung fu expert Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by a combination of overwork, herbal medicine, and prescription drugs while visiting actress Betty Ting Pei in her apartment. (Or at least that’s the version I’m familiar with. There may be other factors involved in this case that can be found in different accounts.) On Saturday, July 21, 1973, I learned of Lee’s death as I was riding the subway home from Manhattan after seeing a double bill of CITIZEN KANE and GRAND ILLUSION at the New Yorker Theater. I had picked up the New York Post and gone to the entertainment section and found a small article with the headline, “Bruce Lee, Kung Fu Star, Dead at 32.” By this point I had already seen one Bruce Lee film in theaters, THE CHINESE CONNECTION, the English-dubbed version of FIST OF FURY, which had been released in Hong Kong a year earlier, in 1972. One other movie of his had been released in the U.S., FISTS OF FURY, the English-dubbed version of THE BIG BOSS, which had premiered in Hong Kong in 1971. Two other movies he’d completed were waiting for release. WAY OF THE DRAGON, a film that Lee had written and directed himself, as well as starred in, would be released in the U.S. as RETURN OF THE DRAGON in 1974. The one Hollywood film he’d starred in, ENTER THE DRAGON, filmed earlier in 1973 in Hong Kong, would be released on August 19, one month after his death.
Bruce Lee fever swept through my neighborhood. Within a week, stores were selling posters, pictures, T-shirts and all manner of Lee merchandise. I bought a tank top with the image of Lee from the ENTER THE DRAGON poster on it.
People were talking about Lee and rushing to his movies. When ENTER THE DRAGON opened, people were excited. One kid at the community center where I worked, a budding film buff, declared that this proved that everyone was wrong, that Lee hadn’t died. After all, a new movie with him was coming out. I had to gently explain to him how movies are shot and why they take so long to get into theaters.
Not that Lee’s emergence on the entertainment scene hadn’t been previously noticed. After “The Green Hornet” began airing on ABC on September 9, 1966, kids began running around imitating Lee’s kung fu kicks. One guy we knew began studying kung fu with a kind of devotion he’d never previously shown before in any endeavor. He took on the name “Chu” and got good enough to eventually teach kung fu to neighborhood kids, including two friends of mine. Chu was also among those who’d gone to see Lee’s earlier movies in Chinatown theaters before they were released in English.
Another friend of mine, also motivated by Lee, studied karate with Ron Van Clief for several years. This friend also devoured every word Bruce Lee ever wrote and studied his techniques as well. Seven years after Lee’s death, this friend and I went to 42nd Street to see a double bill of ENTER THE DRAGON and THE FISTS OF BRUCE LEE (starring Bruce Li). Ron Van Clief eventually went to Hong Kong to star in a series of “Black Dragon” films, including THE BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE, aka THE BLACK DRAGON REVENGES THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE, released in 1975.
In 1978, THE GAME OF DEATH was released, a Warner Bros. film that took about 15 minutes of a fight scene that Lee had shot before he died and constructed a new film around it with an actor with only a vague resemblance to Lee playing Lee’s part in newly written scenes. The cast was padded with Hollywood names—Gig Young, Hugh O’Brian and Dean Jagger—and one relative newcomer playing Lee’s girlfriend. That actress, who’d made her film debut five years earlier in BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, was Colleen Camp, my cousin.
In July 2009, I was in Los Angeles and one of the places I visited was the Warner Bros. studio. In the studio’s museum, where you can see the original piano from CASABLANCA, there’s a display case holding two hand-written letters by Bruce Lee addressed to Ted Ashley, who was the head of the studio when the letters were written. Lee expressed his intentions for ENTER THE DRAGON in strong, colorful language and made it clear he was speaking from the heart and hoping to reach Ashley’s heart and not just his head. I was eager to copy these letters, but I had left my camera outside at the insistence of the tour guide because photos were not allowed in the museum. So, in the remaining time I had left, I tried to furiously transcribe the letter in a notepad. Eventually, I found a copy of it on the web (in a book entitled, Letters of the Dragon: Correspondence, 1958-1973, by John Little). It’s an amazing document in its expression of Lee’s passion for making the best martial arts film he could and I have reproduced it below, at the bottom of this entry.
(In an interesting side note, my first trip to Warner Bros. had been in January 1974, where my cousin Don Camp, Colleen’s brother, was appearing as an extra in “Police Story.” During a break in filming, Don took me around the studio and we visited the set of “Kung Fu,” where I got to see David Carradine, the show’s star, and that episode’s guest stars, Judy Pace and Roger E. Mosley. “Kung Fu” is famous as the show that was initially designed as a TV vehicle for Lee, but his casting was nixed by studio executives, all well before ENTER THE DRAGON.)
In 1998, I visited my sister Claire in San Luis Obispo, California, where she’d been living with her family since 1989. I went to the local historical society and went through the little museum exhibits they had about the area and learned about a Chinese man named Ah Louis, who’d lived in the town in the late 1800s and established a shop there in 1874 where Chinese workers could order goods from China and send packages and wire money there, among other services. It turns out that this shop, now called the Ah Louis Store, was still in business in San Luis Obispo and still operated by a family member, although it now mostly sold souvenirs and what used to be quaintly called “curios.” I went to the store while I was there and the item I bought was a little statuette of Bruce Lee, which is now situated on a shelf in my foyer.
I was astounded to learn that the-then current proprietor of the store, Howard Louis, was indeed the youngest son of Ah Louis! Howard had been born in 1908. His wife Yvonne had lived in the Bronx and knew Pelham Parkway, the street I live on. All of his older siblings had gone into other, more lucrative fields (law, medicine, etc.), so he was the one who carried on the family’s original business in America. In 2008, the year Mr. Louis would have turned 100, I called my sister and thought to ask her what news she had of him. She said he’d died earlier in the year at the age of 100.
I didn’t remember the anniversary of Lee’s death until this morning, so I haven’t had time to watch a lot of Lee material, even though I have all of his films and several documentaries about him. I did take time to watch the documentary, “How Bruce Lee Changed the World,” which I’d taped off the History Channel in 2009. Like a lot of recent documentaries about show biz greats of the past, it has its share of current celebrities with no connection to the subject talking about what a great influence the subject had on them. There’s a lot of that in this film, with rappers, actors, videogame designers and admen among the ones who wore my patience thin, but they’re balanced out by a host of martial artists and people in the worlds of physical fitness, bodybuilding and mixed martial arts attesting to the direct influence of Lee’s kung fu techniques, concentrated training methods and innovative diet on their work in these fields. This was all new to me and quite interesting. What’s important here is that Lee was known to use a lot of different methods and traditions from all over in creating his fighting style and was not limited to what his teachers had instructed.
There are also scenes of Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, visiting China for the first time for the dedication of a Bruce Lee museum in her grandfather’s hometown. She also visits producer Raymond Chow (co-producer of ENTER THE DRAGON) and interviews him briefly. There are numerous inaccuracies in the narration. For one thing, the narrator calls Raymond Chow, head of Golden Harvest, the biggest film producer in Hong Kong in 1973. I’m sorry, but I would argue that Run Run Shaw, head of Shaw Bros., deserved that title. Golden Harvest was relatively new on the scene and, despite a few early successes, was seen as something of an upstart at the time. In another instance, the narrator declares ENTER THE DRAGON to be “the first co-production between Hollywood and an Asian company.” Not true. My previous blog entry, from July 8, details a collaboration between Hollywood and Japan eight years earlier, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965).
I would have liked more from Chinese martial arts stars and directors and kung fu film personnel. Jackie Chan is interviewed, as is his longtime colleague, actor/stuntman Yuen Wah. Donnie Yen, who plays Lee’s character from FIST OF FURY in a recent movie called LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN, is interviewed briefly also. (He also played Lee’s kung fu instructor, a renowned martial artist in his own right, in IP MAN and IP MAN 2.) Director John Woo (HARD-BOILED) recounts the audience reaction at the first Hong Kong screening of THE BIG BOSS. Frankly, I would like to have heard more from these guys and a little less from some of the American performers recruited to speak about their tenuous connections to Lee, (e.g. LL Cool J and Eddie Griffin) and maybe a little less from the RUSH HOUR trilogy director, Brett Ratner. Bey Logan, a Hong Kong resident of English origin, and an expert on Hong Kong cinema, is seen a lot and I appreciated that. (His audio commentaries on numerous Hong Kong film DVDs are particularly valuable). Grady Hendrix, of New York’s famed Subway Cinema, which puts on the New York Asian Film Festival every year, also weighs in on the filmic aspects of Bruce’s influence. I was also happy to see one of my childhood heroes, Stan Lee, on camera, as he talks about Bruce Lee’s influence on Marvel Comics. It’s not a great documentary by any means, but it has some good material in it.
One of the key figures missing from the documentary was Fred Weintraub, producer of ENTER THE DRAGON and the one who kept pushing the “Kung Fu” TV show as a vehicle for Lee. I got to see Weintraub give a talk at Barnes & Noble last year on the occasion of the publication of his book, Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me: From the Man Behind a Half-Century of Music, Movies and Martial Arts, co-written with David Fields. I bought a copy of the book at the time and I re-read the chapter on Lee this morning in preparation for this blog entry. As you can imagine, his account is presented strictly from a producer’s standpoint and covers the making of ENTER THE DRAGON from the angle of someone concerned entirely with the day-to-day turmoil that comes from an inexperienced American crew shooting in a foreign country on a tight budget and a tight schedule. It doesn’t offer the most flattering portrait of Lee you’re likely to find. Clearly, Weintraub felt that Lee’s success in Hong Kong films went to his head rather quickly and made him a somewhat different person from the struggling actor and “obscure martial arts instructor” he’d known in Hollywood. Here’s a paragraph:
“In retrospect, my take on Bruce is neither psychological nor biological. It’s astronomical. To me, he was a shooting star who streaked across the night sky of our collective awareness in a flash of white-hot, unsustainable intensity, only to burn up in the atmosphere of fame, wealth and worldwide adulation. As much as we would like to think otherwise, Bruce possessed the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us, and he simply wasn’t equipped to handle his meteoric rise.”
I’ve seen hundreds of kung fu films (probably more than a thousand), mostly in the last 15 years. I saw Lee’s films multiple times in theaters when they came out, but not much since then. My big lament, and it pains me to say this, is that Lee never got the chance to make a great kung fu film in his lifetime. Yes, his fight scenes in his four movies are great and the fight choreography magnificent, but the films themselves suffer from weak scripts, low budgets and poor direction. I would argue that ENTER THE DRAGON is a particular disappointment. Any scene that isn’t a fight scene is a chore to sit through. It’s got a hackneyed secret agent plot that has Lee’s character working unapologetically for the British government, something that must have seriously irritated Lee’s Hong Kong fans at the time, particularly after the boldly expressed Chinese nationalist sentiments displayed in FIST OF FURY (THE CHINESE CONNECTION), an angle that’s given some much-needed attention in the documentary I cited above. I know that a lot of Lee fans in the U.S. sing the praises of ENTER THE DRAGON loudly whenever they can, but the fact remains that without Lee’s participation, the film would have been quickly forgotten.
So many better kung fu films were made in Hong Kong in the years after Lee by directors such as Chang Cheh, Lau Kar Leung, Yuen Wo Ping, Sammo Hung, Ng See Yuen, and Lee Tso Nam, among others. Lau Kar Leung (aka Liu Chia Liang), who made the masterpieces, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, HEROES OF THE EAST and 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, died earlier this year, on June 25, at the age of 76. I was hoping to do a blog entry on him, but I felt I first needed to re-watch a number of his classics and never found the time to do so. I did watch SHAOLIN MANTIS, though, another great film of his. (Another recent death is that of Jim Kelly, Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON co-star, who died on June 29 at the age of 67.)
After Lee, other kung fu stars emerged in Hong Kong and Taiwan to do great work on screen, including Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng (who died in a car accident ten years to the month after Bruce Lee), Chen Kuan Tai, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Alexander Lou, Wong Tao, John Liu, and Tan Tao Liang, to name a few, not to mention such female stars as Angela Mao and Chia Ling (aka Judy Lee). Ms. Mao played Bruce Lee’s ill-fated sister in ENTER THE DRAGON and made a host of great kung fu films of her own, including WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES, HAPKIDO, THE TOURNAMENT and her masterpiece, BROKEN OATH. When Sammo Hung was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2010, the organizers managed to bring out a surprise guest to present the award…Angela Mao, who’d been living in Queens, New York for several decades. I was there and shouted in adulation when she came out and I leapt to my feet to lead a standing ovation. The young people in the audience didn’t know who she was and one of them asked me afterwards and I said, “She was the greatest female kung fu star of the 1970s and she played Bruce Lee’s sister in ENTER THE DRAGON.”
One can argue that Lee’s kung fu scenes, in the four films he starred in, were among the finest expressions of the martial arts on camera. Certainly, one can analyze the way his scenes were shot and the way he adapted his movements for the camera and declare that he’d created a more realistic style of cinematic martial arts than had been seen before and possibly since. The success of his films may have contributed to the genre’s increasing move away from swordplay and historical kung fu action to more contemporary settings and more hand-to-hand fighting and up-to-date fighting styles and techniques. One can also argue, as many have done in the past, that regardless of the films’ merits, Lee’s proactive characters and their stance of defiance represented something truly liberating to action movie audiences, particularly in minority communities and Third World countries across the globe, and that this character transcended movie genres, formulas, and film styles. What Lee symbolized was more important than the nuts-and-bolts production aspects of his films. I can understand that and certainly welcome such readings, but as a film buff, I kept wishing for something better in cinematic terms. Had Lee lived, I’m sure he would have made some great kung fu films and worked with some better directors and co-stars. But the films he left us only hint at the future greatness we could have expected.
Having said all that, I must declare that my favorite Lee film after all these years remains FIST OF FURY/THE CHINESE CONNECTION, the first one I saw. It has the strongest plot of the four films and Lee plays the most determined and driven of his screen characters, a kung fu student who avenges the death of his teacher and defies the Japanese occupiers. (It also spawned a host of Hong Kong rip-off films that purported to be sequels, some featuring actual cast members from Lee’s film.) FIST OF FURY was later remade as FIST OF LEGEND (1994) with Jet Li in Lee’s role, with fight scenes directed by Yuen Wo Ping. The remake is, in my opinion, the better film, but the original gives us Lee in all his righteous, glorious fury in a way that no other film of his quite captured.
Finally, here’s the first of two letters Lee wrote to Ted Ashley back in 1973:
April 22, 1973
Nowadays, my offers for doing a film have reached to the point that I guarantee you will both surprise as well as shock you.
Viewing from the angle of efficient practical business sense, I hope we will be fair and square and have mutual trust and confidence–I have had a bad experience doing a picture with some person or organization in Hong Kong. In other words, I was burned once, and didn’t like it.
Without Bruce Lee, I am sure that Warner Bros. will definitely and factually suffer no loss, and vice versa; therefore, and I sincerely mean it, that is from one human being to another, practical business or whatever it is, I sincerely hope that during this meeting, I will find a genuine and truthful friend, Ted Ashley.
As a friend, I am sure that you will agree with me that, after all, quality, extremely hard work, and professionalism is what cinema is all about. My twenty years of experience, both in martial arts and acting, has apparently led to the successful harmony of appropriateness of showmanship and genuine, efficient, artful expression. In short, this is it, and ain’t nobody knows it like I know it. Pardon my bluntness, but that is me!
Under such circumstances, I sincerely hope that you will open up the genuineness within you and be absolutely fair and square in our transactions. Because of our friendship, I am holding up my money-making time—like ten offers from hungry producers—to look forward to this meeting. You see, Ted, my obsession is to make, pardon the expression, the fuckingest action motion picture that has ever been made.
In closing, I will give you my heart, but please do not give me your head only; in return, I, Bruce Lee, will always feel the deepest appreciation for the intensity of your involvement.