Monday, January 21, 2008

The incomparable Bruce Lee

It may be difficult for anyone but men my age to truly appreciate martial artist Bruce Lee, but we’ve yet to see the likes of him again. The closest approximations may be Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard in boxing, Nadia Comanenci in gymnastics, Michael Jordan in basketball and Greg Louganis in diving. That is, a mastery of not just the fundamentals of their chosen sport, but the physical ability and grace to transcend it as no one else can, coupled with a fluidity of motion and genius for entertainment that others seek, but cannot find. However, none of these great stars I mention above, can seriously rival Bruce Lee, although, in truth, he was not a competitive athlete like they are, but was somehow above it, as well as a great entertainer.

Although he made his living as a film star, being, at one time, the highest drawing actor in the world, he may have some claim to being the greatest martial artist in memory. This is a difficult thing to say, of course, but my opinion, formed by watching him on film, is bolstered by actual martial artists who knew him. Lee did not really compete in tournaments as an adult, although he had a number of legendary street fights, perhaps more legend than fact. What we don’t know we don’t know.

There are some surprising facts about him. Although he had to suffer from his Chinese ethnicity in America, he was actually a quarter German on his mother’s side. It’s amusing to learn that he was a Hong Kong cha cha champion in 1958. He was also, possibly, a Hong Kong Interschool boxing champ (I think – it’s not clear and I can’t find confirmation). An eyewitness to a legendary boxing match with another very tough high school boy named Gary Elms (a friend of the witness) claims that his friend could not lay even one punch on Bruce in three rounds. To Elms’ credit, Bruce couldn’t knock Gary out (although he repeatedly knocked him down) like he knocked out the last three opponents he had faced, each in the first round.

That fight, not in the street, was the only one for which I could find an eyewitness who could describe it in detail. The others were purportedly against masters who were insulted by Lee’s iconoclastic attitude or martial artist/actors who challenged him on set. We are told that he defeated them all in rapid fashion. There are no films of these fights.

Seeing Bruce Lee in action made you a believer. His body was something out of a super hero comic book. Although he was not a big man, perhaps 5’ 7”, his latissimus dorsi fanned out like wings. When he posed with muscle flexed, he looked like he was made out of knotted steel springs. There are, of course, many highly developed athlete actors, including the huge body builders like Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk) but nobody quite looked like Bruce Lee.

His speed was something literally unbelievable. It is often reported that directors had to change the speed of cameras in order to avoid his onscreen moves appearing as a blur. I can’t say whether that is true. His jumping ability and agility was demonstrated by his kicking out a light bulb directly over his head -- in the ceiling. That much has been captured on film. One trick of Bruce’s that has been repeatedly told is a variation on the “kung fu” move where he would grab a coin out of someone’s hand. The difference was, when Bruce did it, he would leave a different coin in the bewildered person’s fist. As he explained, it was a trick, but a trick based on speed.

His power was not completely a product of his speed. There are videos of Bruce at demonstrations knocking a volunteer down with what was called his one inch punch, with his fist starting already next to someone’s mid-section.

Of course, Bruce could not do the superhuman stunts he did in the movies, leaping into trees or beating 20 or 50 other guys single handedly, anymore than Michael Jordan can dunk from half court. But Jordan could dunk from the foul lane, and so Lee could do awesome things with his disciplined body.

Is Bruce Lee’s reputation puffed for the movie industry? I don’t think so. Chuck Norris, a martial arts legend in his own right and six time middleweight karate champion in the ‘60s, occasionally worked out with Lee, and made it plain that Bruce was the greater of the two. Many other martial artists and entertainers whom he trained (he did not train Norris) also raved about his abilities, even found them uncanny.

Watching Bruce Lee handle nunchucks, the twin sticks attached by a thin rope or wire, is to experience a virtuoso performance which does not seem to be a product of film technology. You are not likely ever to see anyone else perform with such speed and coordination (I’ve looked). Google Bruce Lee for video and judge for yourself. Some of the demonstrations he put on are also available on line. Watch him do two finger push-ups, then try and do them yourself. Watch him sidekick a heavy bag which jerks around like a man more than twice his size is punching it.

Had he not died as a young man, Bruce would only be 67 now, and I suspect, still a film star if not a director or producer. He was only 1 when he started his career in a now lost film. He made numerous films in Hong Kong, but was not a name when he came to the United States to conquer Hollywood. He was the owner of a couple of martial art studios when he got his break in 1966, playing Kato, side kick and chauffeur for the Green Hornet, in three episodes of Batman.

According to Burt Ward, when Bruce learned he was supposed to lose his fight to Burt’s character, Robin, he flipped out and started looking for the young actor to teach him a lesson (I never heard Bruce’s version of this, but it doesn’t sound plausible; if so, it’s wasn't very rational). Burt was himself a black belt in karate, but he wasn’t crazy and recognized the difference between the two of them. He avoided Lee until they changed the script to make the fight a draw.

Soon, Bruce had his own vehicle as Kato in the Green Hornet’s own show, on which he repeatedly stole the limelight, gathering virtually all the fan interest. Unfortunately, the show lasted only a year. If you catch the repeats on tv land, you’ll understand why. From there, Bruce got some appearances on shows like Ironside, Blondie (no kidding), Here Comes the Brides, Marlowe, in which he breaks up James Garner’s office, and then, most famously, Longstreet, in which he was the martial arts master to the blind detective.

Bruce also wrote a television screenplay called The Silent Flute. It involved a Chinese Shaolin priest who escaped China, where he was a wanted man, and made his way through the wild West, helping out those in need. Sound familiar? It was turned down because the studios did not believe an Asian could carry the show. Bruce went back to Hong Kong to make movies.

Imagine his surprise, and anger, when he learned that they had changed the lead to a half Chinese man, and gave David Carradine (who is not at all Asian) the lead in Kung Fu. Personally, I have no complaints, as Kung Fu is up there on my list of all time favorite shows. I am not sure Bruce’s personality would have been right for it. But Bruce had every right to be furious and probably should have sued. It was a different era.

Bruce made only a handful of Kung Fu movies, starting with Fists of Fury (1971), The Chinese Connection and Return of the Dragon (1972). In Return of the Dragon (which I seem to remember that America saw after the more successful Enter the Dragon), fledgling actor and Bruce Lee buddy, Chuck Norris got his start. The fight scene ending the movie between the two martial artists was everything a fourteen year old boy could dream about. Just watching Bruce flex his muscles before the fight made you want to scream Kiyaa!

The next year he made another Hong Kong film which I have never seen, and I am not sure was ever released in the West. All I know is that Bruce’s name was in the title. But that same year he got his shot at Hollywood and hit a home run with Enter the Dragon, cementing his status in America. If you have never seen the movie, Bruce is a martial artist who goes undercover on an island controlled by a wealthy Mandarin running a drug business, by entering himself in the island’s martial arts contest. There are great fight scenes all the way through, including one by John Saxon, more actor than martial artist, and another with Jim Kelly, more martial artist, than actor.

Enter the Dragon also featured one of Bruce’s students, a hulking body builder (ten times Mr. Hong Kong) who played the Mandarin’s enforcer, but was offed in the film by John Saxon’s character, not Bruce (Bruce finished off the evil Mandarin, also a master killer with a false arm he could use as multiple attached weapons, in an artistic scene in a room filled with mirrors). Bolo Leung, who is now 69 or 70, is actually still active in the movie business, though much less so, and fifteen years later, but looking the same, he also played the heavy in Bloodsport, getting beaten at the end of the film by then new martial arts phenom, Jean-Claude Van Damme. He even had brief lead role stardom in Chinese Hercules in 1973, the same year as Enter the Dragon, and the heyday of the martial arts in film.

These few films made in just a few years left Bruce by far the world’s top box office draw. He had also developed his own style of Kung Fu known as Jeet Kune Do, the “way of the intercepting fist”. Its basic premise was that “style” got in the way, and that fighting, like every other art, was an expression of the individual. As much a philosophy as a martial art, it incorporated Asian techniques that were very direct in their approach (no fancy fingered stuff that looks so cool on the screen) but also boxing and wrestling from the West. Whatever worked was the premise. Possibly because there are no individuals like Bruce, it has not really prospered, although it has survived. Bruce’s own son, Brandon, was taught by Bruce’s most advanced student, Dan Inosanto.

Bruce’s last film was Game of Death, in which he has a final battle with another one of his own students, basketball great, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was eventually released, although never really completed, as Bruce died during the filming in strange circumstances while at the home of an actress friend.

He apparently died of brain edema (swelling). Possibly he had an allergic reaction to an analgesic she gave him to help with a headache. Claims that his death may have been related to cannabis found in his stomach always sounded silly, but there may be some truth to it, based on an allergy, not the inherent quality of pot. At least some doctors have thought so.

The weird thing is that according to a 1993 movie celebrating Bruce’s life (Dragon: The Bruce Lee story) Bruce’s life was supposedly always in danger from spirits as a result of a family curse. Hence his early death. According to the movie, his son, Brandon, was in danger for the same reason. Brandon actually turned down the lead role in the film (although his sister had a cameo appearance). In a rather strange coincidence, soon after Dragon came out, Brandon, then a martial arts star in his own right (pretty good, although, like everyone else, not his dad), was killed in a freak accident on the set by a bullet fragment from a stunt gun. He was only 28. The irony was such that many people believed it was a publicity stunt, as the film was about a man who came back from the dead, and that Brandon was still alive. It was no stunt. But it was eerie.

I remember being devastated when Bruce died in ’73 upon seeing the story in a small column in the New York Times, which unfortunately also contained a lot of misinformation (I reread it for this post, to make sure). I was also discouraged that a bigger deal was not made of his death by everyone else. Admittedly, I may have overreacted, but, I was only 14, and he was Bruce Lee. There was no one like him. I have no doubt that a lot of other men my age feel the same way.

I have always liked to imagine what great historical figures would be doing now in Heaven if they were here. No doubt, Bruce is up there teaching Hercules Jeet Kune Do and impressing everyone by flying at speeds beyond the dreams of angels.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:52 AM

    Heeee-yahhhh! Great post, grasshopper. Favorite line in Enter the Dragon: "Herro, Mr. Bwaithwaite." And, "...Concentwate!Bettuh."


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .