“Birth of the Dragon,” a movie based on the legendary fight between actor and martial artist Bruce Lee and Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man in 1965, is slated for release this Friday. Bruce Lee’s most famous film, “Enter the Dragon” — still widely regarded as one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made — also debuted in August but back in 1973, only a few short weeks after Lee’s untimely death at age 32.
In 1964, Lee was unknown on TV or in cinema, but by then he had made waves in martial arts circles with his Jun Fan Gong Fu Institute in Seattle. Already a cocky, charismatic star at 24, he’d attracted critics and fans alike with his audacious claims about the weakness of traditional martial arts and his own prowess.
Enter Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man. No one agrees on exactly why he fought Bruce Lee. Lee and others claimed it was because Chinese martial arts leaders on the West Coast were angry that Lee taught Caucasians their ancient secrets. Wong Jack Man claimed he challenged Lee himself. Others even claimed one of Lee’s students orchestrated the battle as a publicity stunt.
Whatever the reason, the two ended up exchanging blows. Some insist it was a standoff and others insist that Lee won, but most agree Wong wasn’t the victor. Lee claimed he won later, but was shocked that it took him 20 minutes — an eternity in fighting — and vowed to reinvent himself and his teaching from the ground up.
There’s no disputing the fight made martial arts and entertainment history. “Birth of the Dragon” is aptly named, as it focuses on the epic battle. Lee went on to develop Jeet Kune Do, his own martial arts style; he is still widely regarded as one of history’s greatest martial artists. And his newfound determination after the match with Wong helped catapult him into television and movie stardom.
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The flamboyant, controversial martial artist is arguably as influential today as he was before his death 44 years ago. Films like “Enter the Dragon” are on constant rotation on television, and such projects as “Birth of the Dragon” help to keep his legacy alive.
In celebration of Lee’s sort-of return to the big screen — Philip Ng (pictured above) plays Lee in “Birth” — and as this is the month his greatest and final picture was released, here’s a look back at the martial arts magnum opus, “Enter the Dragon,” and why it and Lee continue to have so much influence in Hollywood.
The film helped launch numerous other martial artists’ careers. In 1972’s “Way of the Dragon,” Lee shared the screen with other martial artists, including international karate champions Robert Wall and Chuck Norris. For “Enter the Dragon,” he upped the ante considerably by including not only Robert Wall again, but veteran character actor and Shotokan karate student John Saxon as a co-star.
The movie also raised eyebrows for Lee’s other co-star: world middleweight karate champion Jim Kelly, one of the first African-American actors ever to star in a martial arts film. He faces off in the flick with Australian martial artist Peter Archer.
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“Enter the Dragon” was the first Hong Kong martial arts film to be produced by Hollywood. Lee seized the opportunity to help other Chinese actors break into American film, including Shih Kien, female martial arts movie star Angela Mao, and Bolo Yeung, who still appears in numerous Hollywood productions.
Martial arts superstars Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, both of whom were unknown stuntmen at the time, even appear briefly in the movie. Hung plays Lee’s hapless sparring partner at the beginning of the film, while Chan appears later for all of 15 seconds; he attacks Lee from behind and quickly gets his neck fatally and loudly snapped.
The stunts were insanely dangerous. Before Bruce Lee’s work on the big screen, most martial arts films from China or Hong Kong were, to be blunt, dreadful — stilted, chop-socky fighting, pathetically unrealistic weapon sequences, “wire fu,” and everything in between that signifies production done on the cheap.
Lee despised that level of artistry and insisted on choreographing his own taut, realistic fighting scenes. They remain a gold standard to this day. The filmmakers were happy to let him handle choreography; they were far more interested in protecting the budget than the cast and crew. Safety equipment, for instance, was expensive — so they didn’t bother with it. Extras and stunt people, after all, were cheap and easily replaced.
During one scene in “Enter the Dragon,” Lee defends himself against an attacker wielding broken bottles; later he throws an opponent through a plate-glass window, and neither are costly breakaway glass windows or bottles, but rather a real plate-glass window and real bottles. Later in the movie, Lee fights the story’s villain in a room filled with mirrors and smashes dozens of them with his bare hands and feet, leaving blood visibly smeared on the glass.
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The special effects budget was similarly nonexistent: During the film, the villain tries to kill Lee with a hidden cobra. You guessed it — it was a real cobra. Lee captures the animal with his bare hands, later throwing it into a room of opponents as a diversion. The performer actually got bitten during the second scene, but producers had at least gone to the trouble of finding a cobra with its venom sacs removed.
The fight scenes were intensely real for the performers. Robert Wall’s character attacks Lee with a broken bottle, as mentioned earlier. Wall missed a cue, though, and was out of position. Instead of thrusting the bottle at Lee and missing, he jammed the broken glass into Lee’s fist, injuring him seriously enough to halt production while it healed.
When filming resumed, Lee returned Wall’s mistake with a deliberate one of his own. The fight scene ended this time with Lee delivering a side kick to Wall’s chest, but instead of pulling his kick so Wall could throw himself back to the ground, Lee delivered a full-power blow that smashed into Wall like a runaway truck.
Not only did the filmmakers leave the scene in the movie, they also showed it in glorious slow motion — so viewers can enjoy every nuance as Wall hurtles off his feet backwards into a crowd of extras, knocking down four more people like bowling pins.