In 1978, Hong Kong film studio Golden Harvest released Game of Death, Bruce Lee’s long-anticipated martial arts film. It was completed five years after Lee had died. Ever since it was first screened for the public, this Bruce Lee film has been and still is considered one of the biggest debacles in film history, and the reason is because Bruce Lee is hardly in it.
Prior to his death, Lee was completely absorbed in filming scenes for his planned movie, The Game of Death. During production, he received news that would effectively call for him to halt filming momentarily. Whatever the reason, it had to be a good one—Lee had high hopes and tremendous plans for The Game of Death, the likes of which could only be actualised with the utmost dedication and focus—not to mention the fact that he had already started.
But Lee deemed the reason worthy of his attention, and soon Lee would be on the set of another movie, Enter the Dragon, leaving his Game of Death production unfinished, though only, in his mind, for the time being.
Enter the Dragon was set to become the first Chinese martial arts film produced by a Hollywood studio. Warner Bros., in partnership with Golden Harvest, wanted Lee to play the protagonist role. He would also be heavily consulted as a fight choreographer.
Lee hadn’t regularly appeared in American studio productions since he played Kato in The Green Hornet television series from 1966 to 1967. When the show was eventually cancelled, opportunities grew scarce. Most reasons pointed to racism on the part of film executives, who were reluctant to cast a Chinese actor in non-stereotypical roles, the likes of which Lee wanted no part. (Another unfortunate instance had film executives effectively stealing Lee’s idea for a television series, producing it without him, changing the title from Lee’s intended The Silent Flute to the more straightforward Kung Fu, and casting a Caucasian actor with no martial arts experience in the lead role that Lee intended for himself.) Growing frustrated with Hollywood, Lee returned to Hong Kong where, to his surprise, he was recognised on the streets from his role as Kato, and he was already regarded as a star.
It only took two leading performances with Golden Harvest (The Big Boss and Fist of Fury) to catapult Lee into full-fledged stardom. From there his clout and bankability in Hong Kong, the opposite of what he dealt with in America, allowed him to enjoy complete creative control over his next film, Way of the Dragon. His directorial debut was his first real chance to inject his personal martial arts philosophies into a film everyone would see. And almost everyone did: Way of the Dragon set a new box office record in Hong Kong, and its success led to a contract for a fourth Golden Harvest film, again with Bruce Lee in complete control. This film, of course, would be called The Game of Death.
Though he had always been concerned with how Asians and Asian culture was represented in film, he was eager to bring about accurate representations now that he was in a position to do so. And though he had participated in a couple of small-scale Hollywood productions since The Green Hornet, Enter the Dragon would be a return unlike those; not only was he a star, but he was also a creative power, sought after and to be reckoned with.
In that regard, this return to Hollywood somewhat worked like a racially-complicated Prodigal Son tale. Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 to a Chinese father and a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian mother. His family moved back to Hong Kong when Lee was still a baby. Lee grew up in the Hong Kong district of Kowloon, and it was there that he simultaneously went to school, participated in minor film roles as a child actor, and got into fights with other boys in back alleys. His father’s decision to enroll his son in martial arts training to defend himself was indeed a pivotal one, though perhaps the first pivot appeared to his father as evidence of a mistake. His son, now quite skilled as a fighter, had beaten up another boy, who happened to be the son of a triad family, or ‘Chinese mafia.’ Fearing his son’s life might be in danger, his father sent Lee back to America to finish school.
Before landing the role of Kato, Lee may have regarded acting as a thing of his past. As a young adult he was fully dedicated to martial arts; by age 27 Lee opened three schools (one in Seattle, one in Oakland, and one in Los Angeles), teaching his constantly evolving version of the ancient Chinese martial art of Gung Fu (commonly known as Kung Fu). He regarded other martial arts styles as too traditional, too boxed in, and too regimented; as he continued to develop a style of his own, he began to think that way of Gung Fu itself. Unlike traditional Gung Fu schools in China, Lee’s schools taught students who were both Chinese and not Chinese. When word spread throughout Chinatown in Oakland, Lee was challenged to a fight by another Gung Fu instructor, with the agreement that if Lee was defeated, he must stop teaching Caucasian and other non-Chinese students. Lee won the fight, and while there was no footage of it taking place, the only detail up for debate was whether it took Lee three minutes or twenty-five minutes to beat his opponent.
Lee was just as much a student as he was a teacher. His private library consisted of everything from Western and Eastern philosophy to weight training and fitness manuals. He was concerned with developing the whole self, both mind and body, in order to pare it down to bare simplicity, directness, and necessity, which in effect would eventually become his own martial arts style, no longer under the umbrella of Gung Fu, or anything else for that matter.
Lee called it Jeet Kune Do, which translates to ‘Way of the Intercepting Fist.’ It expressed and emphasised constant fluidity, both in technique and in philosophy. Even after naming his style, for example, Lee would come to disclaim the actual name, as he felt it no longer fit what his style eventually became. But he had to start somewhere, and in naming the style as such, he evidently started in the concrete. Jeet Kune Do revolved around cunning reaction, so cunning that a certain move made by a Jeet Kune Do fighter would actually occur before the move it was meant to react to. Jeet Kune Do continued to operate and evolve on the basis of paradox; for Lee, Jeet Kune Do represented the endless interactions between yin and yang: constant fluidity, constant evolution.
Bruce Lee died unexpectedly after filming Enter the Dragon. Six days later, the film premiered for the public, and its impact along with the actor’s sudden and mysterious death skyrocketed him into posthumous worldwide fame. Lee died from cerebral edema, the reason(s) of which doctors could only officially rule as ‘death by misadventure,’ a phrase so cryptic that to this day the cause of his death still elicits various scenarios. The most widely accepted scenario was a fatal reaction to a painkiller he consumed after complaining of a headache. It is believed that components of the painkiller set off a reaction to medication that Lee had been taking for years following a back injury he suffered in 1968.
Dying days before the height of his fame eventually caused a stir around the film Lee never got to finish, The Game of Death. Whether it was an act of friendship or an attempt to capitalise on Lee’s now-iconic status, Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse resurrected the unfinished movie to disastrous results. Before leaving the project for Enter the Dragon, Lee shot approximately 100 minutes of Game of Death footage. Illustrating Lee’s meticulousness, as well as the degree of seriousness to which he approached this particular film, more than half of the footage consisted of retakes. Clouse took Lee’s footage, edited it down even more, and in Frankenstein fashion constructed a new storyline around the original footage. Clouse then shot new footage using two Bruce Lee lookalikes, mostly in shadows, with their back turned to the camera, or wearing dark sunglasses that the real Bruce Lee had been photographed wearing. During editing, Clouse made the decision to include footage from older Lee films, such as Lee walking through a door, or reacting to dialogue. In one scene, a cardboard cut-out was even employed. The shoddy attempts fooled no one, and when the reconfigured Game of Death was released to the public, many considered the film a disaster, in bad taste, and an insult to the late actor’s original, intended vision. Even so, many people watched it, even if just to see the original footage of the real Bruce Lee, which in the final version of Clouse’s Game of Death clocks in a total of about twelve minutes.
Had he continued living, we would have seen the types of martial arts films Bruce Lee strove to make. Both Enter the Dragon and his original footage and concept for The Game of Death signified a specific direction he wanted to take. We were beginning to see a new kind of martial arts film, with a new kind of atmosphere and a new kind of master. While Enter the Dragon operates somewhat on a Kung-Fu/exploitation hybrid, the scenes involving Lee are completely apart, both in energy and in aura. And while Lee didn’t write the screenplay, he had a significant role in his character’s development and actualisation, which impacted the whole movie considerably. In Lee’s past films, his characters are clearly skilled, and they often walk through fight scenes barely untouched. Lee’s character in Enter the Dragon is, in comparison, almost otherworldly. He is more than unmatched; his detached demeanor almost makes him nonhuman, like a ghost or even, perhaps, a god among men.
In his original concept for The Game of Death, it is less so his character that is otherworldly than it is the setting and the story. Lee’s plan was to use this film to exemplify the martial art philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. From what survives of his filmed footage, as well as the notes and plans uncovered from his found notebooks, we can easily glean that Lee was making a film largely symbolic in nature, all the while simultaneously rooted in the realism of hand combat. The scenes in the five-tiered pagoda had the feeling of a martial arts purgatory, and they were so involved and intricate in movement that, independent of the story Lee never got to film, they seem otherworldly, existing apart from Earth but rather a more spiritual plane.
And while Lee’s character in The Game of Death is more human than his character in Enter the Dragon, he still proves himself to be the best of the best. After all, Lee’s scenes were originally meant to showcase Jeet Kune Do. Each tier of the pagoda is guarded by a master of a certain martial arts style. By employing his own unpredictable style (in one scene he refers to his style as ‘broken rhythm’) against his opposites, he is able to outwit, outsmart, and ultimately defeat them all.
All his characters suffer no shortage of self-confidence. They never appear scared or unsure of themselves. (The only instance of uncertainty, and a small one at that, can be found in The Big Boss, where Lee’s character is unsure about whether it is appropriate or inappropriate to kick everyone’s ass.) They range from charming to cocksure to almost all-knowing, eliminating any shred of stereotypical Asian male timidity. And while it is clear that Lee himself had confidence in his abilities, he remained hard on himself. Embodying these otherworldly, invincible men might have been Bruce Lee’s chance, through the lens of film and storytelling, to become the ideal model he was striving to reach.
Had Bruce Lee lived, he may have eventually gotten there. At 32, he was already quite close.