It comes as a shock that forty years have passed since I first saw ‘Enter the Dragon.’ Time flies.
Then came a pleasant surprise. A hasty viewing a week ago on DVD revealed that Lee remains unsurpassable as a martial artist. Fourteen years older than Jackie Chan, I suppose he could still be turning out films if he hadn’t died so tragically the same year that Enter the Dragon was released. But I prefer to remember him as I see him in the film – young, vital, and so graceful even when unleashing lightning strikes on his clueless opponents.
Personally, Lee’s small size was a big attraction for me, as I could never mentally relate to the muscle-bound action heroes who followed Lee – Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Lee looked vulnerable. He said he learned martial arts to protect himself as a schoolboy from the vicious street gangs of Hong Kong.
Martial arts films were a novelty back then. It was ‘Enter the Dragon,’ screened at the New Olympia some time after its international release, which attracted me hugely to the martial arts film genre. Lee was well-known in Asia before Enter the Dragon, but somehow that was the first time many of us got to see him. Compared to the average Hong Kong martial arts film, Enter the Dragon was polished and elegant. It was unlike anything seen before, and nothing like it has been made since. It made Asian martial arts fashionable, and good business in the US, and much of the credit goes to the towering figure of Lee. In 2004, Enter the Dragon was designated “culturally significant” in the US, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Lee, born in 1940, was already an established martial arts star and legend in Hong Kong before Hollywood risked its money on him. He had his first film role as an infant, at the tender age of one year, in ‘The Golden Gate Girl.’ By the time he was twenty, he had acted in that many films, progressing from child actor to action hero. When Enter the Dragon was made in 1973, he had made nine more (the period 1960-69 being a hiatus, time spent studying and teaching martial arts in the US) including Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon and Game of Death.
Game of Death, filmed in Italy, was written and directed by Lee himself. It was an excellent film, and that final battle between Chuck Norris and Lee is a classic, a memorable juxtaposition of raw power (Norris) and cheetah-like grace and striking ability (Lee), with a power more spiritual than physical.
It’s all the more impressive today because I’m certain that the power of either artist was not fuelled by steroids. Today, when all sports are tainted by the use of performance enhancing drugs, it’s a safe bet that competitive martial arts at the international level too, has become a victim. That’s why to watch Lee simply carrying out a breathing exercise is such a marvel. You can actually see his torso expanding, and that has nothing to do with computer graphics.
He was the first Asian star to succeed internationally (in commercial cinema, because Toshiro Mifune succeeded, at an altogether different level, in Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai) and paved the way for Jackie Chan’s (born 1954) and Jet Li’s (born 1963) international careers.
He had studied in the United States and his wife was American. But it’s his incredible martial arts skills which got him selected as the star of Enter the Dragon, along with Jim Kelly and John Saxon in supporting roles. Saxon Faded into obscurity but Jim Kelly made one interesting martial arts film, Black Belt Jones. He died in June this year of cancer.Lee is a Shaolin temple monk sent by Hong Kong (then British) intelligence to uncover the mysterious Chan who runs a martial arts school in his own island.
It has typical Hong Kong film ingredients (Lee wants to avenge the murder of his sister by O’Hara, Chan’s brutal bodyguard), and Hollywood commercial staples such as female nudity. But Enter the Dragon, made by Warner Bros. in collaboration with Golden Harvest of Hong Kong and Lee’s own film company, has a lush sophistication unseen before in any Hong Kong film – exotic locations, colourful stars, terrific theme and score by Lalo Schiffrin, and memorable lines for Lee, including his sarcastic assessment of a young disciple’s kicking ability early on: “It lacks emotional content.”
It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Therefore, it’s pointless to tell more about it. I have never been able to confirm the story that Lee was injured in the scene where O’Hara attacks him with two broken bottles. If true, it proves that Lee wasn’t infallible, which comes as a relief. After all, it’s proof that he was human like the rest of us, because his death isn’t really proof of his mortality. His martial arts skills (such as sending someone with a rubber mattress wrapped around himself flying twenty feet away with a kick) remains unsurpassed. Today, with martial arts films in a never-never land, actors flying high on wires (post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and computer graphics so dominant, we don’t know what to believe. But, even when Lee is standing still, just a muscle on his face twitching, he is eminently believable.