ENTER THE DRAGON – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute


ENTER THE DRAGON – AFI Catalog Spotlight

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on Bruce Lee’s final and most successful film, ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), which was released 50 years ago this August just one month after Lee’s untimely death at age 32. Made for a slim budget of $850,000, with grosses over $2 billion worldwide since its release (adjusted for inflation), ENTER THE DRAGON remains one of the most lucrative productions of all time and is hailed as a masterpiece of martial arts filmmaking. It marked Lee’s first feature with an American studio, but it was filmed in Hong Kong and represented an inaugural Hollywood-Hong Kong co-production. Bruce Lee’s physical strength and philosophical depth provided a stark contrast to the way in which Asian men were stereotyped and typecast in American film, and he paved the way for greater representation in front of and behind the camera. The success of ENTER THE DRAGON encouraged studios to invest in other martial arts pictures, bringing non-white actors into the mainstream of action movies.

In the early 1970s, Hollywood was facing a sea change, with box-office earnings plummeting and the old studio system devolving. As noted by historian Jeff Chang, the unexpected success of films such as SHAFT (1971) and SUPERFLY (1972) reflected the importance of African American audiences, and studios finally began to take notice of previously underserved populations that had been poorly represented on the big screen. At the time, kung fu movies were being paired with blaxploitation pictures at inner city theaters and studios wished to capitalize on this market. Warner Bros. therefore teamed with Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest to produce a picture initially titled BLOOD AND STEEL, with a story idea by producers Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub. The film, directed by Robert Clouse and written by Michael Allin, portrays Lee as a kung fu master using his talent to infiltrate the evil operations of Han, who operates an island fortress for the purpose of trafficking drugs and abducting women to sell them as sex slaves. Lee is supported by Black martial artist Jim Kelly (as Williams) in his second feature film appearance, and John Saxon as Roper, Williams’ fellow Vietnam veteran. Jackie Chan, still unknown to American filmgoers, appears in an uncredited role as a henchman.

As reported in Robert Clouse’s book “The Making of Enter the Dragon,” production was complicated by personality conflicts, language differences and high expectations with an exceedingly low budget. Bruce Lee demanded many script changes to ensure that he, not the white character Roper, was the hero of the story, and that the film accurately reflected Hong Kong culture, as well as the philosophy behind kung fu. This resulted in a clash between Lee and Michael Allin, with Lee ultimately requiring the screenwriter to be sent home and delays in production. Lee, who was accompanied and fortified on set by his wife Linda, maintained a close relationship with the stuntmen, eating lunch with them as opposed to the producers and above the line crew at the local hotel. Stuntmen in Hong Kong were not supported with the same kind of technologies that were commonplace in the U.S. such as breakaway glass and air bags to buffer falls; they were actually risking their lives to depict the action. Up to 400 background actors were employed in the tournament scenes, with men that originated from real life rival gangs, and fights often broke out on set. Lee himself was injured in a kung fu sequence with actor Bob Wall, who was threatening Lee with a broken glass bottle. Lee accidentally sliced his finger, requiring stitches and production to be shut down for several days. He was also bitten by a cobra. Director of photography Gilbert Hubbs had never shot a feature on 35mm before, unbeknown to Clouse, but he managed to film the entire movie using two Arriflex cameras with only three Panavision lenses. Props, designed by the uncredited Ann Clouse, who was also Robert’s wife, were notably “primitive” due to a lack of funding and resources; she came up with the idea for Han’s museum, displaying his skeletal hand. Although the iconic room of mirrors scene was reminiscent of Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), Clouse reported that he never saw the film, and got the idea while shopping at a Hong Kong boutique with Ann. The mirrors added $8,000 to the budget, and shooting took two days, the final days of the production. All dialogue was looped in later during post-production, as was common practice for movies made in Hong Kong at the time. After viewing a nearly completed cut, Warner Bros. knew they had a hit on their hands and invested in music and marketing. Before Lee’s death, the studio was already planning a sequel. ENTER THE DRAGON—the title that Bruce Lee fought to have for the film—fulfilled his ambition to become an international star, but he did not survive to reap the rewards of his hard labor.

Still, ENTER THE DRAGON had a lasting influence on popular culture, from video games (such as the foundational Street Fighter) to hip-hop (including the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic first album, “Enter the Wu-Tang”) to the establishment of martial arts studios nationwide. The widespread depiction of kung fu and other fighting choreography in American film owes its derivation to ENTER THE DRAGON. Nearly 30 years after his death, Bruce Lee was listed in Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of the century” in 1999. Due to its cultural significance, ENTER THE DRAGON was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2004. As of 2018, a remake was in the works. A restored print will be screened this month at the Cannes Film Festival.

Watch the original trailer for ENTER THE DRAGON here:

Watch actors John Saxon, Bob Wall and Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon discuss ENTER THE DRAGON at the Academy’s 40th anniversary screening here:


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Comments (1)

David Vielma

Enter The Dragon is a classic staring Bruce Lee, now I heard of a remake was going to be made but haven’t heard anything as of yet so hopefully they don’t make a remake because you can’t duplicate Bruce Lee in any movie period especially Enter the Dragon period.

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