Originally released back in December of 1972 (hey, this can be my Christmas article for this year as I don’t have time to do a proper one), Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon in the US) was the best film he made. Now, this isn’t my favourite film of Lee’s, that would be Fist of Fury. I’d even say that the iconic Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s most popular and most famous film too. However, I would happily argue that The Way of the Dragon was his best film.
Bruce Lee always wanted to tell stories that were deeper than your average kung-fu flick at the time. His opus would’ve been The Game of Death, which was to delve into the teachings of martial arts and Lee’s own philosophies. Alas, as you know, Bruce Lee died before he could finish work on that film and his vision died with him. The closest we would ever get to a deeper Bruce Lee film was The Way of the Dragon. For this picture, Lee didn’t just star in it. He wrote, produced and even directed the film, this gave him full creative control over the project. The end result was a film that had some great fight scenes and served as a showcase for Asian culture to the rest of the world.
Okay, sure, the plot of The Way of the Dragon isn’t exactly stellar. If anything, the plot is the weakest part of the film. Clichéd, trite and crammed with Italian caricatures and stereotypes (an Italian character actually exclaims ‘Mamma Mia!’ at one point). Basically, Bruce Lee travels from China to Italy to help protect his uncle’s friend’s restaurant from an evil mob boss who wants to take over the property by force. However, under that paper-thin story is a film with layers that many people miss. By the time 1972 came around and when The Way of the Dragon was released, Bruce Lee was a big star in China. A far cry from just a few years earlier when he was a struggling bit-part player in American TV shows. Lee changed Asian cinema forever and his influence is still felt today.
With this film, Lee got to show off his comedy chops, it wasn’t all about kicking bad guys in the face. See the opening of the film with Lee’s character, Tang Lung arriving in Rome. When Lung goes to the restaurant to get some food, he can’t speak or read Italian. So he just randomly points at the menu and ends up ordering loads of bowls of soup. It’s the type of gag that you might find in a Charlie Chaplin flick, but given a Bruce Lee twist. Unfortunately, if you watch the English dub of the film, the joke is lost as both Lee’s character and the server are speaking in English, meaning that the miscommunication gag does not work as originally, he is speaking in Cantonese and she in Italian. There’s a lot of this ‘fish out of water’ humour in the film and all of it is lost with the English dubbing. Always watch these films with the original dialogue, trust me.
One of Bruce Lee’s aims with this film was to show an Asian audience a bit of European culture. Bearing in mind that when The Way of the Dragon was being filmed, Lee was not an international superstar, yet. Enter the Dragon had not been released, or even filmed in 1972 and Bruce Lee was still very much only known in China. Asian films back then were only ever made in Asia and for an Asian audience. And so, the audience had never really seen much of the world outside of their own front door. Hence the film’s Italian setting and this is why there are a lot of establishing shots (a few too many), shots of the streets of Rome, plazas, statues, the famous Colosseum and more. These were used to help show off Rome to the audience back in China, who would never have seen anything like that before. Nora Miao’s Chen Ching-hua character taking Bruce Lee’s Tang Lung on a tour to see the sights was done more so for the Asian audience so they could see Rome, more so than for any kind of character or story point.
Lee even managed to inject some of his own philosophies into the film and especially the Tang Lung character that he plays. Lung is humble, honest, loyal and above all else, tough. He only uses his skills if absolutely necessary. If anything, this was the closest that Bruce Lee got to playing himself on screen. Lee had become a bit ‘dismayed’ by how his last two films were made. Produced by the legendary studio Golden Harvest, Lee was never allowed to be as creative as he wanted to be. The studio picked the writers, directors and actors. As great as The Big Boss and Fist of Fury (my favourite) were, they weren’t really Bruce Lee films. They were just films with Bruce Lee in them. For The Way of the Dragon, Lee teamed up with (also legendary) film producer Raymond Chow and founded Concord Production Inc. together.
Now a co-founder of his own film production company, Bruce Lee would be the creative driving force and Raymond Chow would be the head of the admin. Long story short and after Lee’s death, Linda Lee sold her husband’s shares in the company to Chow and Concord Production went bust by 1976. The studio only had two completed films too, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon (co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.). Okay, so Concord also owned the original, unfinished footage from The Game of Death and produced a documentary called Bruce Lee: the Man and the Legend following his death. And I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here. The point is that Bruce Lee had full creative control with The Way of the Dragon, something that he didn’t have with his previous films.
As a director, Lee’s first film is far from perfect. There are scenes where characters literally line up to deliver their dialogue (you can even see them look at the floor for their marks) and it feels a bit over-practised and more than a tad ‘stage play-ish’. Very unnatural. But, Lee does use some great camerawork and includes some very interesting shots and angles. Taking a few ideas that he picked up while working in America and blending them with more traditional Asian filming techniques. The Way of the Dragon was a real coming together of cultures and styles.
The Way of the Dragon was a low-budget flick too. Remember, this was the first film for a new production studio. Both Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow had to put up their own money to found Concord Production Inc. and pay for this film themselves. Originally, Lee wanted to set the film in the United States, but the budget wasn’t there to cover the cost and Italy was cheaper. That low-budget does show a few times throughout the film. Another reason that there are plenty of establishing and lingering shots of Italy and Italian fountains, etc (other than to show an Asian audience some European culture) was due to those budget constraints. A lot of the time, Lee didn’t have filming permits or permission to film on location. So, he would often linger on a statue (as an example) just to get as much on film as possible before anyone came asking for a filming permit. He had to use what he could and as much of it as possible, for free.
As previously mentioned, Bruce Lee chose to use a bit of comedy for the film. The scene where Tang Lung inadvertently picks up a (I’m not sure if she was or not) prostitute. They go back to her place and she disappears for a few moments, while we get a brief sample of Tang Lung’s kung-fu skills. The (maybe?) prostitute reappears and is now (almost) butt-naked. Lee’s comic timing here is wonderful as he makes a swift exit out of embarrassment. This more light-hearted tone is vastly different to the mostly humourless The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. The comedy also sets up Lee’s character well and lets you know that he is a likeable guy under the fact that he could kick your bum-cheeks with ease.
Also, to help give the film a wider appeal, Lee hired several non-Asian martial artists. Bob Wall (later to appear in Enter the Dragon) was one such casting choice. Then, of course, there was the casting of the living legend that is Carlos Ray ‘Chuck’ Norris. Norris was (at the time) multiple All-American Karate Champion and very much respected within the martial arts world. He and Lee first met at a karate competition while Lee was in America working on The Green Hornet in the late 60s. They struck up a friendship, worked out and trained together. When Bruce Lee became a co-owner of a film production studio and began working on The Way of the Dragon, he knew that he wanted his friend Chuck Norris as the big bad guy for the film’s climactic fight. Also, having such a well-known and respected American martial artist in his film, Bruce Lee knew that would help gain some international praise and help sell the film outside of China.
There was another angle to using American fighters in this film. It gave Brue Lee an opportunity to express one of his many philosophies:
“Using no way as a way, having no limitation as limitation.”
Having the bigger and more brute-like, heavier fighters go up against the smaller but sleeker, more fluid fighting style of Lee was a way for him to show that there were no limits. No matter how small you are, you can overcome even the biggest opponents Or, to use Lee’s much better and more poetic example of this:
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.”
Let’s get into the action now and look at how Bruce Lee shot the fights themselves. Again, using a mix of classic Asian and American filming styles, Lee created something very unique for the time. A double nunchaku fight is all well and good. But you need good choreography and a keen eye for what makes a great shot to make it look impressive on film. With his previous flicks, Lee couldn’t even do his own fight choreography. It was Han Ying Chieh who did the fight choreography on The Big Boss and Fists of Fury. Though Lee did get to make ‘suggestions’ with Fists of Fury and did influence several of the scenes. But with The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee was in full control.
You can really tell too as there is a real step up in quality when it comes to the action here. This may have been Bruce Lee’s first (and only completed) film as a director. But, when you look at the fight scenes from his previous films and compare it to The Way of the Dragon, there’s a real feeling that Lee wanted to push what made a good action scene. Take a look at the climatic fight at the Colosseum. Now, while establishing shots of the Colosseum were genuine the interior was not. You don’t need to be an expert to tell that the end fight took place on a set and not in the actual Colosseum itself. A rather poor-looking set, if I am being honest. Again, this goes back to the fact that the film was low-budget and that they didn’t have filming permits. It was cheaper (and safer) to shoot the scene in a controlled set than pay to film a lengthy action scene in the Colosseum itself.
Now, some The Way of the Dragon fans would probably point out to me that there are some brief shots inside the Colosseum itself. Yup, there are. But, they were filmed illegally. Bruce Lee and his crew had to sneak cameras in, pretending to be tourists and they shot what little they could without being caught. When you watch the film these days, with a good HD transfer, you can really tell the set and matte-painted backgrounds from the real Colosseum footage.
Anyway, the fight itself. It has been suggested that Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris had a ‘real’ fight. Real as in that they actually hit each other but it was still choreographed, not that they had a falling out and decided to punch each other in the face. The two were good friends and trained together in the 60s, so there must’ve been a lot of trust between the two. Some of the hits do look like they connect (several, not so much), it is possible that some of the final fight was really a vigorous sparring session with some camerawork and editing to make it look more real than it was. Or, it could’ve been a real fight, of course. Chuck Norris has been asked about the fight and he said that:
“I enjoyed working with Bruce Lee in the film. It was a lot of fun, the fight scene is considered the classic martial arts fight scene of all time. So, it’s nice to be involved in a fight scene that everyone loves.”
Honestly, nobody knows if they did really fight and the only person who can answer that (Norris) never fully answers the question when asked. He just says it was great to work on it. I kind of like that though, it’s a nice little movie mythology.
The big fight took up almost a quarter of the shooting script because Bruce Lee put so much detail into the choreography. It has been said that the climatic fight took around a collective 45 hours to shoot too, as Lee wanted it to be as perfect as it could be and did multiple takes until he was 100% satisfied. That’s a lot of punching and kicking each other in the face… if they did fight for real. Arguably, it is the best Bruce Lee fight on film and lasts over 10 minutes of screen time. All of that work that he put in really does pay off.
One of the things that I adore about the final fight is how they don’t just face each other and get into it right away. There’s a slow build-up, from Bruce Lee running around the Colosseum, looking for Chuck Norris. To, when they finally meet, face-to-face, then there’s the disrobing and warming up as these two giants, or gladiators of martial arts, ready themselves for battle. It’s a fantastic build up of tension that Bruce Lee uses here. At the time, with most Asian kung-fu flicks, the good guy just goes in fists flying and takes the bad guy out. Even Lee’s previous, films were guilty of this. Here, we the viewer are teased, tormented and made to wait for the big showdown. Before a single blow is landed, you know that you are in for something special because Lee builds the excitement and anticipation.
This climatic fight is where Bruce Lee’s direction is at its finest. He may have been a bit stiff with some of the dialogue scenes earlier in the film and directed his actors as if they were in a stage play. But here with this fight, the martial arts master showed us how to shoot a great fight scene. There are a few times when Lee’s direction does slip back into typical Asian kung-fu fare. The snap-zoom, where the camera suddenly zooms in on an actor’s face, is a staple of Asian cinema at the time and Bruce Lee does use it quite a bit too. But then he also does things that were unheard of at the time.
There’s a decent portion of the fight that is shown in full slow-motion and with a good medium-distance camera, keeping both men in frame, so we can see these two titans actually fight. If you think about modern cinema now, that is never really used. Most of the time with fights these days, it’s all fast, frantic and close-up camera work. This is done to hide any possible imperfections and (usually) the fact that the actors are not fighters. Throw in a load of jump cuts and you have pretty much any modern-day fight scene. Here though, Lee wanted you to see everything, to see him and Chuck Norris display actual martial arts skills and in slo-mo too. Lee had confidence in both himself and Norris to deliver a fight that looked like a fight.
There’s also a great touch in this fight where Lee’s Tang Lung character is seemingly losing. Or, at least, struggling to win. This is because he starts the fight using a fixed martial art, Chinese boxing. After realising that this style is not working against the man-mountain that is Colt (Norris), he switches to a more fluid style of fighting. He starts bouncing around on his toes and becomes more ‘Bruce Lee-like’ and then, the fight begins to change. This (again) was Lee using his philosophy of adapting, using no way as way… being water, my friend. It even gets to the point where Colt tries to adapt to a more ‘relaxed’ form of martial arts, you see him bounce around on his toes a bit too as he tries to match his opponent. Of course, it does him no good because, well, he’s not Bruce Lee, is he?
In the end, Colt’s face is blooded, his bones get broken and yet, he still tries to fight. That is when Tang Lung realises that this fight isn’t going to end in a knockout, this was to be a fight to the death. He even does a little shake of the head, a warning to Colt to not do this… yet he does. Left with no choice, Tang Lung breaks Colt’s neck. The camera zooms in on his face and there’s a look of disbelief and regret. A great bit of subtle acting from Bruce Lee that says a lot without a word of dialogue. Still, it’s a very fitting end that a fight to the death was held in the historic Colosseum (or a set of it). This fight really was very brutal for the time. It also felt realistic in terms of kung-fu cinema of the 1970s. Yeah, it’s a bit hokey now, a tad silly in places. But for 1972 this fight was truly ground-breaking and remains one of the best fight scenes caught on film.
Now, 50 years later as I write this article and reflecting on The Way of the Dragon, only now does the massive loss of talent that was Bruce Lee hit me. This film was far from perfect but it does showcase that the man could write and direct a film, outside of the punching and kicking that he was famed for. As I said at the start of this, Fist of Fury is my favourite Bruce Lee picture and Enter the Dragon is, by far, his most popular. But The Way of the Dragon was his best. The melding of American and Asian film-making, the use of humour and Lee’s foresight to use the sights of Rome and respected martial artists to be his opponents was a stroke of genius. Then, let’s not forget his subtle use of his philosophies.
It’s a damn shame that he died when he did, that we will never get to see Bruce Lee’s vision for The Game of Death as he wanted it to be. His opus that would’ve delved even deeper into his own philosophies and love for marital arts. I think that Lee would’ve gone on to have had a great filmmaking career if he had lived. Just imagine all of those 80s and 90s action films written and directed by Bruce Lee and starring Brandon Lee that we will never get to see. We will just have to take solace in his only completed film as a director, The Way of the Dragon. Bruce Lee’s flawed masterpiece.
Well, that is almost it from me for this year. I have one more article I’ll be publishing between Christmas and New Year, my now annual Indie Game Round Up 2022. But until then, I hope you have a good Christmas