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The Legend of the Dragon

The Legend of the Dragon

Saturdays in November | 8 Movies

Bruce Lee was a different kind of action hero for the American cinema. Small and wiry, with a quiet demeanor and a genial smile that hardens into intense concentration when he tenses to fight, his quicksilver moves and deadly blows made him the most ruthlessly driven hero American audiences had ever seen. He was also a trailblazer: the first movie star of Chinese ancestry to break through to American audiences since the silent era.

Born in San Francisco to Lee Hoi-chuen, a Hong Kong actor in a Chinese opera company, and Grace Ho Lee, the Eurasian daughter of a wealthy businessman, the young Lee made his show business debut at the age of three in a stage production with his father. When the family returned to Hong Kong, Lee continued acting on stage and in films, where he earned the nickname \\\"the Little Dragon.\\\" You can learn all about his journey from child actor to martial arts master and international movie star in Bruce Lee, the Legend (1984), a documentary from director Leonard Ho and Golden Harvest, the studio that made Lee's first martial arts films. Featuring extended sequences from his movies, rare clips and interviews with Lee, the documentary chronicles his journey back to the U.S., the development of his own style of martial arts fighting, the sleek, stripped down Jeet Kune Do (which translates as \\\"The way of the intercepting fist”) and his efforts to break into a Hollywood that did not believe in the potential for a Chinese-American leading man. So he accepted an offer from producer Raymond Chow, founder of the upstart studio Golden Harvest and returned to Hong Kong for a two-picture deal.

Bruce Lee was not originally slated to be the star on The Big Boss (1971, released in the U.S. as Fists of Fury). An otherwise routine revenge drama about Chinese immigrant workers at a Thailand ice-packing plant run by drug smugglers, it began filming with martial arts movie veteran James Tien in the leading role. Lee's part was essentially shoehorned in as a sidekick to the established star but he had definite ideas of how he could improve the old fashioned genre with his modern martial arts style and more realistic approach to screen fighting. Lee had prepared by watching Mandarin martial arts movies and found them \\\"awful… everybody fights all the time, and what really bothered me was that they all fought exactly the same way.\\\" He clashed with the cast, crew, fight choreographer and the director, and the battles continued even after Raymond Chow brought in veteran filmmaker Lo Wei to take over direction. But Lee's perseverance paid off: his character dominates the film as he takes his revenge in the big boss of the title. Shot in the final days of production, Lee had to fight past the pain of a sprained ankle and through the fog of flu while they raced to meet the production deadline. The results were revolutionary in the old-fashioned industry. Lee brought a new style to the Hong Kong action film with his flying kicks and quick knock-outs and a ferocity to his portrayal of a Chinese action hero. Audiences were thrilled. As Jackie Chan (at the time a young stuntman and movie extra) recalls, \\\"The film was everything the movies we were making weren't…. it was a revelation.\\\" The Big Boss became the highest grossing release of all time in Hong Kong up to that point.

Golden Harvest quickly reunited Lee with director Lo Wei for the second film in Lee's contract, Fist of Fury (1972). Inspired by the story of Huo Yuanjia, the real-life martial arts teacher who became a national hero in 1902 when he defended Chinese honor in a battle with a Russian wrestler, the film follows the efforts of his top student (played by Lee) to carry on his master's legacy and his reputation in the face of Japanese bigotry. Lee was a perfectionist and he resented working with Lo, who had taken credit for \\\"teaching\\\" Lee martial arts in self-promoting interviews. The animosity was apparent to the cast, as costar Nora Miao recalled in an interview years later. To placate Lee, producer Raymond Chow gave Lee total control of his fight scenes, and Lee drafted one his American students, Robert Baker, to play the Russian wrestler. Lee's style was faster and more fluid than other martial arts screen performers and his choreography emphasized those qualities, which set him apart from not only his screen nemeses but other action stars. The results were undeniable: Fist of Fury overtook The Big Boss, once again breaking box office records. In the U.S. it was retitled The Chinese Connection to cash in on the success of The French Connection (1971). 

After two smash hits, Lee had the clout to write his own ticket. He formed a production company, Concord Production, and took charge writing and directing his third feature. Set and shot in part in Italy, The Way of the Dragon (1972) became the first Hong Kong movie to shoot on location in Europe. As with his previous two films, Lee played an outsider standing up against foreigners for Chinese dignity. It's a theme that hit home for Lee, who faced prejudice growing up in Hong Kong as a child of mixed race (his mother was part German) and in the U.S. as a Chinese-American with ambitions to break into an industry dominated by white actors and filmmakers. He once again cast actress Nora Miao as the love interest and for the climactic battle he cast American karate champion Chuck Norris in his first screen role. The fight is set in the Roman Coliseum but the production couldn't secure shooting permits so they snuck cameras in to get establishing shots and stole a couple of key shots of the actors in the Coliseum before doubling the location in the studio. Norris is one of Lee’s best opponents and a marvelous physical contrast: brawny and hairy, he uses power and blunt karate moves while lean, wiry Lee counters with speed, gymnastic prowess and balletic grace. Once again it broke box office records in Hong Kong and it was a major hit in the U.S. (where it was renamed Return of the Dragon), Canada, France, Spain, Germany and other countries around the world. Lee was an international box office success.

Lee's dream all along had been to break into Hollywood as a leading man but his efforts to date had resulted only in supporting roles. He was at work on a new project for Golden Harvest when he finally got his Hollywood break. Initially titled Blood and Steel, Enter the Dragon (1973), developed by American producer Fred Weintraub, it was an American idea of a Chinese martial arts movie mixed with a spy thriller. To placate Hollywood, the screenplay featured three heroes, including American characters played by actor John Saxon (a black belt in karate) and karate champion Jim Kelly. Fearing that Hollywood would once again make his role subservient to the traditional white hero, Lee insisted on control of the martial arts choreography and he was able to incorporate his martial arts philosophy in early scenes of the film. An international coproduction between Warner Bros. and Golden Harvest, it was shot in Hong Kong with an American director, Robert Clouse and production team and a largely Chinese crew, with local actors and stunt performers filling in the supporting roles. Action star Angela Mao was cast as Lee's his sister and you can spot future superstars Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan in uncredited roles. Lee had one other demand: change the title. Enter the Dragon was an international hit and became one of the most influential action films of all time. Lee, sadly, was never able to bask in his Hollywood stardom. He died on July 20, 1973 of an acute cerebral edema.

Before he signed on to Enter the Dragon, Lee had been working on his fourth film for Golden Harvest. He completed a few scenes for Game of Death (1978) and producers scrambled to complete the film after his death with lookalikes standing in for Lee in the new sequences. Korean Tae Kwon Do expert doubled Lee for the new action scenes, which were choreographed by Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao took over for some of the acrobatics and Albert Sham stood in for dramatic scenes. Lee had around 100 minutes of film in the can but no finished screenplay, just an outline. Robert Clouse was brought in to write a new screenplay around the existing footage and shoot new sequences to fill out the film. Only around 11 minutes of Lee's original footage was featured, most of in impressive climactic battles with the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (one of Lee's students) and Lee's former teacher Dan Inosanto. The resulting film had little resemblance to Lee's intentions and looked like the patchwork job it was, with clips, outtakes and close-ups of Lee's face cut in with the new scenes. Real-life footage of Lee’s funeral was even worked into the film. Chuck Norris turned down a role so Golden Harvest recycled footage from The Way of the Dragon and a stand-in doubled Abdul-Jabbar in the reshoots. Despite the problems, the film was another hit: Bruce Lee's final film, released five years after his death. The unused footage shot by Lee was eventually recovered and showcased in the 2000 documentary Bruce Lee: A Warriors Journey.

The death of Bruce Lee sent Hong Kong film companies scrambling to fill the void left by the martial arts movie superstar. Tribute films, pseudo-sequels and biopics were rushed into production and continued to proliferate for years, with such lookalikes (or Lee-alikes, as they were dubbed) as Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, Bruce Le and Bronson Lee thrust into leading roles in often cheap productions. Bruce Li was the most prominent of these Lee-alikes. A Taiwanese actor and stuntman born Ho Chung-tao, he starred in dozens of movies, including Bruce Lee's Secret (1979), very loosely based on the life of Lee. It was just one of the many pseudo-biographical thrillers cranked out in the era and it was rereleased under numerous titles, including Bruce Lee's Deadly Kung Fu, The Story of the Dragon and Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story.

It was years before audiences were treated to a tribute film worthy of Lee's legacy. The Hollywood feature Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), directed by Rob Cohen and based on Linda Lee Cadwell's biography of her husband, is a classic biographical drama. The producers initially approached Lee's son Brandon Lee, who was struggling to escape his father's long shadow and make his own way as an actor. When he turned it down, Jason Scott Lee (no relation to the family) was cast as Bruce and, along with Lauren Holly (cast as Linda), underwent extensive training in Jeet Kune Do. In a tragic twist of fate, Brandon Lee was killed on the set of The Crow (1994) due to the negligence of property master, just a month before the release of Dragon.

Bruce Lee made history as American's first Asian action hero, opening the door for such contemporary stars as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen. No one, however, managed to match his charismatic combination of good looks, gymnastic grace and seething intensity. Jackie Chan eventually broke through to American stardom as the clown prince of kung fu, but his boyish charm, acrobatic style and comic flair offered a very different kind of hero. Once groomed as \\\"the next Bruce Lee,\\\" Chan knew better than anybody: there’ll never be another Bruce Lee.