Bruce Lee - A Retrospective Part 1: The Big Boss
Dateline December 2013
Part 1: Introductions
Welcome one and all to this series of retrospectives focused on the feature films of the late great martial arts legend; Bruce Lee.
I was born the year Lee’s action debut The Big Boss, came out in Hong Kong cinemas, and thus, I am not quite old enough to have been aware of him while he was still alive. I was all but two years old when he died. It was as a kid, growing up in the late 70s, that I became interested in him in the way that most schoolboys probably did (and no doubt, still do). Fast forward forty odd years, and I find that my fascination in the man has not diminished one iota, quite the opposite in fact. What began as mere schoolboy idolisation of the undisputed king of Kung Fu has grown via teenage fandom, personal martial arts study and extensive further reading; into a more holistic appreciation of the many faceted nature of a very interesting human being. The movies, of course represent just one of these facets (albeit a culturally significant one), and this brings us right back to the nature of these retrospectives. I will of course be covering all the films myself, so we can therefore expect, extensive brain splurges on Lee’s four completed, starring role movies, plus a special (and I predict, rather lengthy and confusing), fifth piece, covering the strange fruit that is the ever bizarre Game of Death. A film still generally considered canon, despite its terribly dubious credentials; we will discuss the special circumstances surrounding its creation, and posthumous 1978 release in as much detail as we can stand. As is my wont, there will be personal memories, and anecdotes here and there, as and when it feels good to share, and the usual unstable equilibrium of objectivity and subjectivity will wiggle around throughout I’m sure.
So, four bonafide classic movies plus one sort of crazy concept experiment, or whatever Game of Death is. I am one excited and very honoured writer, and with your good selves along for the ride, I’m looking forward to completing the task with an entertaining read. I hope that my long standing status as a fan, and my familiarity and love for these movies, as well as a certain acquired knowledge of the history and background surrounding them; gives me insight enough to pull it all together. I guess we’ll all find out by the end.
Part 2: Setting the scene
Introductions, and mission statement over, I feel a little contextual scene setting is required, just to get us all in the mood:
It’s well documented that, after a frustrating period in the 60s almost (but not quite), making it in Hollywood as an actor; Bruce Lee moved his young family to Hong Kong. One really cannot give Bruce, or indeed, his wife Linda, enough credit for making this brave move, particularly when we consider how remote and disconnected the world still was back then. The Hollywood of the late 60s, and early 70s was still a depressingly non-progressive reflection of much of America’s equally non-progressive, and long established attitudes to racial stereotypes. As an actor, Bruce’s Chinese ethnicity meant that there were very few options he could (or would), explore. Few (if any), roles offered him, were the kind of positive, powerful or heroic characters that would suit what Bruce so naturally brought to the equation. As a result, things had somewhat lost momentum for him there. Various documentaries and biographies over the years, have asserted that the lead role of ‘Caine’ in the ground breaking TV series Kung-Fu, being given to (non-Chinese) actor David Carradine, was one frustrating disappointment too many. Linda strenuously asserts that Lee’s original martial arts/wild west concept; The Warrior, which he pitched to various studios, was lifted wholesale, and became Kung Fu. Other biographies have muddied the water yet further (think Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), with their depictions of the subject. These things may make good dramatic beats in the movies, but the truth of them is always much more complex, and nuanced (as things in real life usually are). However, we mustn’t get bogged down further in the particulars of it all here. I urge those of you interested, to research it yourselves, and make up your own minds what you believe. It’s certainly true, that Bruce was considered (and officially rejected), for the role of Caine. Make of all this what you will, but one thing is certain; Kung Fu would have been a very different show, had Bruce been cast instead of the soft spoken Carradine. I’d like to have seen that show, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
OK, moving on.
Suffice to say, for one reason or another, Bruce found himself the wrong side of thirty, and massively disenchanted with Hollywood, to the point where a kind of critical mass was reached. He became convinced that fully relocating to Hong Kong (rather than just visiting), could well be the answer he was looking for. There, he believed he might find a movie making environment more conducive and welcoming to him, and his ethnicity no hindrance. The opportunity being to hone his acting craft, and gain invaluable moviemaking experience. Writing, Directing and Producing were also more attainable skills there.
I’m not sure if he had further insight in this way, but he would also be building a professional and public profile that in a few years, Hollywood might just find a little harder to ignore. Once in Hong Kong; rather than having to start from scratch, Bruce found that he was already somewhat famous. The old US Green Hornet TV show had been successfully syndicated there, and was even ‘unofficially’ known as ‘The Kato Show‘ (a nod to the emphasis and popularity of Bruce’s character on the show). Evidently, he had his foot in the door before shooting a single frame. He soon hooked up with film producer Raymond Chow, and so began the next stage in his remarkable professional evolution.
So, without any further historical procrastination; Let us focus the time machine sharply on 1971, and jump straight into the first fruit of Bruce’s association with Mr. Chow. His first starring role movie: The Big Boss (also known as Fists of Fury for many of our American readers, I’ll explain why some other time).
Part 3: The movie
A brief observation, if you’ll beg the indulgence:
Over the years, I have noticed, while talking to folks about Bruce Lee’s movies, that for those folks less familiar with them than yours truly; the first three (if not all of them), can blend together quite profusely, lacking distinction in the mind. The previously mentioned confusion over some of the film’s titles in different territories, muddying the water still further. Growing up, I had the same problem with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies. Until I became properly familiar with all of them individually; certain scenes, lines, situations and characters tended to merge together and form a kind of fluid, indistinct whole. I would remember the gigantic .44 calibre AutoMag handgun for instance (as distinct from the more famous classic Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum), but wouldn’t remember if it was The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, or Magnum Force that it appeared in (Trivia fans: it was actually Sudden Impact). Staying with the Dirty Harry analogy; I’m sure many folks would be surprised to learn, that the famous catchphrase “Go ahead, make my day”, was also from Sudden Impact, and did not appear in the three (yes three), previous Dirty Harry films. Hard to believe now that catchphrase is so indelibly linked to the character. For those of you that might be experiencing exactly this type of confusion when considering Bruce Lee’s filmography in general, and The Big Boss specifically, or those who perhaps have never even seen the movie; here’s a super quick capsule recap of the plot:
Bruce plays Cheng, a young man of high moral fortitude, yet fragile temperament; who discovers, he’s working for some very bad men, engaged in very bad things on the down low. People die, and Cheng awesomely begins kicking all the ass required to make them pay.
Now, if you require a little more detail than that (and I suspect some of you would appreciate it), here’s a slightly more descriptive plot recap:
Bruce plays Cheng, a Chinese Shaolin dude (and for Shaolin, read ‘very very skilled in kicking 16 kinds of ass, but sworn to non-violence’). Cheng has come to live with his uncle and cousins in Thailand. He takes a job at a local ice factory (one of those iconic movie locations folks always seem to remember), as many of his aforementioned cousins also work there. Turns out, said ice factory is a front for a ruthless drug smuggling operation.