If Bruce Lee was alive today, he would be three months shy of his 80th birthday. And most likely still be able to kick your ass.
The godfather of Mixed Martial Arts (Dana White’s words, not ours) became a global icon thanks to his starring roles in films such as The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Enter the Dragon. August 19 marks the anniversary of the latter’s international release, all the way back in 1973. Sadly, just last month, we lost the last of that terrific triptych that headlined the iconic movie, after John Saxon (Roper) passed away to join Lee and the late Jim Kelly (Williams) in that kung fu kwoon in the sky.
Even those who have never watched the flick have heard of Enter the Dragon, but - more importantly - even those who have watched it countless times (guilty as charged your honour!) can learn something new.
Thanks to Matthew Polly’s superb - nay definitive - biography of Lee, and Fiaz Rafiq’s fantastic compilation of conversations in ‘Bruce Lee: The Life of a Legend’ we’ve plucked together the top ten most incredible facts about the film that was going to be called either ‘Blood and Steel’ or ‘Han’s Island’ but was mercifully changed to the Enter the Dragon we know and love today.
You’ve Seen The Finished Film. Bruce Lee Hasn’t
Lee died, aged just 32, on July 20, 1973, a month before the film was widely released, and just over a week before its premiere in Hong Kong. The only opportunity he got to view his magnum opus was in a preview screening with director Robert Clouse, without music, fades or dissolves, or sound effects. After the film ended, Lee looked over to his director and simply said, “We’ve got it.”
It Made Money. Lots Of It.
Enter the Dragon was initially budgeted at a paltry £250,000. It eventually went - like all the best movies - way over budget, to around £850k. But it was a worthwhile investment. The film went on to gross an estimated US$350 million worldwide (equivalent to more than $1 billion nowadays adjusted for inflation). Having earned over 400 times its budget, it is one of the most profitable films of all time.
Bloodless And Bulletless
The film is a notorious all-action spectacular with a BBFC ‘18’ age-rating but in fact is relatively bereft of bloodshed. It’s far more of a bone-cruncher. It’s also the action flick wherein not a single bullet is fired in the entirety of the movie. The focus on martial arts means that the setting of the fist-to-fist, foot-to-foot battles was vitally important. Assistant director Chaplin Chang revealed that all of the outdoor fight scenes - including the opening spar - were all filmed on tennis courts. More spinning back fist, than spinning back hand.
Cameos For Jackie Chan And Sammo Hung
Speaking of the opening fight, ever noticed who is at the mercy of Lee in this bout? Why it’s only Sammo flaming Hung, star of the 90s’ greatest television show, Martial Law. Lee faces off against Hung’s, wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-old protégé of the Shaolin Temple, who’s surprisingly athletic despite his chunky stature. Best thing of all, the fight choreography was pretty much unscripted.
“During rehearsal we didn’t do anything, we just talked. ‘You punch, I punch, yada, yada. Okay ready? Action,’” Sammo said, “One take. One take. It was very fast, only a day and a half.”
The more well-known fact is the, blink-and-you-miss it, appearance of a certain Mr Jackie Chan. He would be one of the key men responsible for continuing Lee’s legacy, in bringing martial arts to a global audience in the 80s and 90s. Filming Enter the Dragon, the young Chan was accidentally struck in the face during his action scene. During the fight in the underground lair Chan, playing a guard, was struck full force by a fighting stick that Lee wielded. Lee immediately apologised and promised Jackie that he could be in all of his movies, a promise which tragically he never got to fulfil.
Pick Your Quote
Enter the Dragon? More like enter the soundbite. The movie has a plethora of recognisable phrases that would give Casablanca a run for its money.
“My style? You can call it ‘the art of fighting without fighting’.”
“I don't waste my time with it. When it comes, I won't even notice; I'll be too busy looking good.”
“Mr Han, suddenly I wish to leave your island.”
“Man, you've come right out of a comic book!”
“You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.”
“Boards, don't hit back.”
“It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon...Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
“Bull Shit Mr Han Man!”
Those Sex Workers Are Not Acting
The villain Han lays claim to a secretive island flooded with beautiful women, that the aforementioned antagonist has plucked from the streets and allows his tournament competitor’s to copulate with. However, the cocotte casting proved to be problematic. No Chinese actresses were willing to play prostitutes in an American film. So real sex workers were hired. And they were paid more than the stuntmen, who consequently went apesh*t when they found out.
Bruce Lee And The Broken Arm
One of the main plot points of the movie doesn’t actually happen in the movie’s timeline itself. We see part of Lee’s motivation for heading to the island is revenge on Han’s henchman O’Hara, who’s played by Bob Wall. Though a friend of Lee’s through his business partner Chuck Norris, Wall had made the mistake of pissing Lee off on set.
Their fight scene called for Wall to break two glass bottles and jab one at Lee, who would then kick the bottle out of Wall’s hand and follow up with a punch to the face. After several rehearsals Bruce’s kick missed, Bob failed to drop the shattered bottle, and Bruce’s fist slammed into its jagged edge.
“Bruce was very angry with Bob Wall, “ recounted Chaplin Chang, who drove Lee to the hospital. “He said, ‘I want to kill him.’”
Lee’s protagonist was to sidekick Wall hard enough in the chest to send him flying into a crowd of Han’s men, to which Bruce gleefully adhered. “They put a pad on Bob,” recalled stuntman Zebra Pan, “but he took off like he’d been shot when Bruce kicked him! And Bruce insisted on 12 takes!” The force of Lee’s kick was so great that Wall flew into the crowd, breaking a poor, unassuming stuntman’s arm.
“We’re talking complex break - bone through skin,” said Wall. More unhappy stuntmen!
Jim Kelly And His Hong Kong Playground
Williams’ death is arguably the most tragic moment of the movie, with the unnerving imagery of a powerful African-American being draped, dead, from the ceiling. It became Jim Kelly’s signature role, and his afro-infused iconography infused the united worlds of martial arts and black America to this day (Afro Samurai, anyone?). But it almost wasn’t Kelly’s to own at all. At the very last minute Kelly replaced Rockne Tarkington (who?), who quit the film three days before production was due to start, because he thought the pay was too low. It was Kelly’s debut, allowing him to become one of the most definitive presences in the Black Action Cinema of the 1970s. He also had an insatiable appetite for the ladies, and the leisures being a film star provided. Honk Kong proved to be his playground.
“Jim Kelly screwed everything that moved,” said the film’s co-producer Paul Heller in conversation with Matthew Polly, “He ended up in the hospital with bloated testicles. We had a harness for him to hang over the acid pit for his death scene, but he couldn’t wear it, because he was so sore. We had to specially make a cargo net for him.”
The Film Most Likely Killed Bruce Lee
Despite what the IT technician from The Office may believe, Bruce Lee’s ultimate opponent proved, somewhat unremarkably, to be heatstroke. Lee worked his Brucey bottom off and filmed Enter the Dragon in ridiculously hot conditions, plus he had had his sweat glands removed, believing it would look silly if he perspired on screen. The climatic mirror sequence - spontaneously devised by director Clouse when he and his wife visited a clothing boutique - raised the temperature even higher. For the climatic duel, two truckloads of mirrors were purchased for $8000. By the end of the shoot, his already exceptionally lean body had lost 15% of its weight. Four months later, Lee died whilst in the company of his mistress. He displayed multiple symptoms of central nervous system dysfunction in the aftermath of filming, caused by being constricted in ridiculously confined and overheated conditions.
One Of The Most Important Films Of All Time
The Chinese-American community remains woefully neglected. Even in 2020, western actors of Chinese heritage have to fulfil a set role that places into only a handful of categories, of which we won’t recite here. But Bruce Lee changed the overall perception. He single-handedly introduced a whole new genre to western filmmaking. On screen, he wasn’t subservient, he was powerful. He was never underfoot and he is largely responsible for 20million Americans practicing a form of martial arts today. His almost perfect physicality - revolutionary in Hollywood at the time - is now the watermark for silver screen heroes.
Remember, Enter the Dragon is not just another kung fu action flick. It is the kung fu action flick.