Welcome one and all, to the fifth (and final), Bruce Lee movie retrospective. A moment’s silence please….
If you have followed this series through from the beginning, then I thank you so much for your time (and staying power). I do hope you have enjoyed my scribblings thus far, and that it has become abundantly clear how dear these movies are to me. Conversely, If this is the first one you’ve stumbled upon, and you don’t mind reading them out of order, then, by all means, please enjoy! May I urge you to check out one or more of the others in the series, ‘cos this film; while certainly an interesting one to talk about; does not represent the best of Bruce Lee’s work, but incredible nonetheless.
It’s been a long, and sometimes arduous journey; we have bossed the biggest of bosses, been furious with our fists, shown the dragon the way things are, and then ermmm….entered it? (ok, now that bit sounds worryingly wrong, and I wish I had thought about how that little bit would play out before starting it.
Moving on incredibly swiftly, we now come to an altogether crazier slice of Bruce cake; and the weirdest entry in the filmography by a country flying side kick.
Infamously cobbled together, and released posthumously nearly five years after his untimely demise; Game of Death, is a tremendously flawed (dare I say at this stage, fatally flawed), yet quite fascinating creature. It acts all at once as perverse swan song, a last curtain call for the great man, a brief lesson in his unique martial arts philosophy (albeit one made far too dilute for most to pick up on), a terrible joke, a train wreck, and a terribly frustrating glimpse of a potentially great film that could have been, and never was.
Put your seat backs in the upright position, tray tables stowed, and strap in, ‘cos this one’s gonna be crazy.
I beg your indulgence, for a little background if I may, I feel it would help make sense of what follows:
It is well known to most fans that after completing Way of the Dragon in 1972, Bruce Lee began writing and shooting his next movie which he had called The Game of Death (make a mental note the use of the word ‘The‘ in the title, it’ll be important later on). Lee had a very specific concept in mind, with the action designed to greatly expand upon what he had started with the Chuck Norris fight in Way of the Dragon. He would build the story around a central concept to cinematically demonstrate the core advantages of his ‘No Way, as Way’ martial arts philosophy. Lee planned to illustrate what he saw as the innate ‘real world’ flaws of ‘set style’ techniques and systems, by dramatically exposing their combat limitations against an adaptive opponent….and he planned to do it in such style!
He imagined a giant, five level wooden pagoda, each floor of which being guarded by an intimidating grand master of a different set style. The idea being that Lee’s character; Hai Tien, with two capable but stylistically inflexible cohorts in tow, would adapt his own combat approach, in order to defeat each successive master. The trio would arduously work their way up to the very highest level, in which a mysterious and ultimate ‘master of the unknown’ would reside; guarding some mysterious item. His companion’s inability to adapt, hastiness, and relative lack of prowess, would ensure that they eventually meet their doom. Hai Tien however, would successfully adapt to find a way to defeat even this mysterious master too. Each battle would be harder fought than the last (the physical floors of the pagoda of course representing metaphorical ascending levels of excellence and mastery). The dialogue, particularly in Hai Tien’s banter with his opponents, and the fight choreography, would focus on mental and physical adaptation, flexibility, and organic unpredictability in overcoming the pagoda master’s set style limitations.
Filming was underway, James Tien (who had featured in several previous Lee movies), and master Chieh Yuan, had been cast as Lee’s cohorts, and several of the pagoda battles completed. At this point, Warner Bros came a calling, which resulted in the swift green lighting of a new film called (you guessed it) Enter the Dragon. As this was to be a big budget, English language, Hollywood financed picture with worldwide distribution; Lee had little option but to immediately put The Game of Death on the back-burner, to be returned to once he was able. He then concentrated all of his considerable energies into shooting what would become to many, his greatest movie. Whether that accolade is deserved or not is most definitely a point of contention, and one which I have addressed further in the retro for that film. What is not open to debate is that Enter the Dragon was a breakthrough movie, and would in fact finally make him the international star and household name he had so openly coveted.
Of course the rest is, oh so tragic history.
Six days before Enter the Dragon had even been released, poor Bruce died; never to see either his own fame hit the stratosphere, or get an opportunity to finish The Game of Death. All the completed pagoda footage (some 100 minutes or so), was shelved, and much of it was later lost entirely.
Enter the Dragon was, as we all know; a worldwide sensation. It paved the way for Hollywood’s continued, and increasing interest and investment in martial arts stars and movies. Bruce Lee became a worldwide superstar and a true legend. This status has not diminished one iota in forty years, in fact quite the opposite. The nature of Bruce’s legend has changed in this time for sure, but I would confidently say he is culturally more prominent than ever, which is truly astonishing.
In the years immediately following his death, and as a result of his ascendant status rapidly achieving the legendary proportions we have been speaking of; something now known to history as ‘Bruceploitation’ began to occur. In a nutshell; this was the practice of churning out films by the dozen, starring all manner of Bruce Lee pretenders (known as ‘Lee-alikes’). I touched on this in the retro for Enter the Dragon. Suffice to say, with all that going on, those that had the power to make things happen thought:
‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow trump all of these pretenders with a kosher Bruce Lee movie, now how could we do that?’
How indeed. Now, forgive my oversimplification of all of this, but at some point those same folks got together and began hatching a plan to try and do something with all that shelved pagoda footage from Bruce’s original The Game of Death project. After all, there was about 100 minutes right? Well, I have no idea how they eventually arrived at the solution they did, or how they ever got the project green lit, or financed for that matter. But In 1978, after no doubt, a colossal amount of spitballing, head scratching (and possibly mind altering chemicals), that plan gave birth to the movie we now know as Game of Death.
Although written, shot, produced, and released five years after Lee’s demise; Game of Death is generally still considered canon, and is always included in ‘official’ Bruce Lee filmographies, box-set collections and the like. This, despite the fact that, to all intents and purposes, Bruce is not really in it (we’ll get to that shortly).
Incidentally, there was a truly objectionable sequel; Game of Death II, that also made it into some of these box-sets. Bruce Lee’s actual involvement in this film was of course nil, his presence in it was formed entirely from stock clips cut from his other movies. It’s beyond crap, and I’m not going to dignify it with a single further word.
When I was a kid, everyone seemed to still really buy in to the mysterious and unexplained aspects of Bruce Lee’s death. All manner of nutty theories abounded; the Triads, the ninjas, the vibrating palm assassination theory, poison, murder, aliens, and generally the nuttiest of nutty explanations, and the foulest of foul plays. Amazingly, many of these theories were actually given at least some degree of credence, and most people had at least some kind of belief that there was something nefarious about it. These days, we have a much more synthesised view, and the myth and mystery has really been all but ‘scienced’ out. This leaves an altogether clearer, more tragically pointless factual account (if not a wholly satisfactory one). I don’t think anyone reputable nowadays, believes any of the more outlandish tales of sorcery and Chinese mysticism, but that’s not to say that you don’t still catch a slight whiff of it hanging about from time to time. Back in 1978 though, the mystery and intrigue was all consuming, and on the ascendance. Bruce Lee’s increasingly legendary, enigmatic persona ensured that. Upon the film’s release, the wholly intentional, promotional misdirection and hype that came with it, merely added fuel to the fire. It did nothing but tap in to the veil of mystery still surrounding Bruce’s infamous ‘Death by Misadventure’. The film even included (in very poor taste I might add), actual footage of Bruce Lee’s huge public Hong Kong funeral, and shots of his open casket (worked into the narrative, as the faked death of lead character Billy Lo of course). I’m not sure what his surviving family thought of that, but to this day, I find it rather ugly and exploitative.
Whatever the absolute truth of Bruce Lee’s death really was (and I’m obviously not exactly qualified, or indeed, tasked to discuss that), the facts surrounding the making of Game of Death were altogether more simple, if completely barmy.
It boils down to this: By 1978 a large amount of that original 100 minutes of footage had been misplaced, and from what was left; just over eleven minutes of it was salvaged, cut together, and deemed suitable to be used to form the dramatic climax of an otherwise completely (and virtually Bruce free), new movie. The title was retained, but now reduced to simply Game of Death, and this is the 1978 movie as we continue to know it today.
Eleven minutes and seven seconds…..
Incidentally, I’ve mentioned the BBFC’s rampant censoring of Bruce’s movies in previous retros in this series, so I won’t wax lyrical here. Suffice to say that it’s entirely possible that poor Game of Death’s paltry eleven minutes got cut down even further on home video in the UK. All the more amazing to me then, that with so little of that footage to begin with; I still loved the pagoda scene as a kid.
Anyway, crazy UK edits aside; that eleven minutes and seven seconds was all the actual ‘Bruce’ they managed to get. Especially after having to cut whatever they might of had of James Tien’s and Chieh Yuan’s roles out completely. Presumably due to the tragic (and eerily similar to Bruce’s) death of Yuan in 1977; they couldn’t write them in to the new film, as new scenes could not be filmed to tie it all together.
So, you want to make a feature length movie, and your deceased lead actor is only in eleven minutes and seven seconds of it….at the end.
Question one then, is how the hell do you get around a problem like that, and make a finished picture?
To answer this and subsequent questions; I’m going to just get into it and explain how it all happened, so like I said: sit down and strap in.
First and foremost, you hire a couple of Lee-alikes. One who can act and fight a bit, and one who can fight a lot, but can’t act for toffee.
If It already sounds like a fundamentally flawed concept to you, you’re not alone. Never mind that neither of the stand-ins actually resembled Bruce particularly well. This last point keeps bouncing back in to my head over and over: Imagine If it had been a white American actor being doubled this heavily in some production or other. I’m pretty sure the producers would surely have either worked harder to find people who could really pull off the deception, or not done it at all (of course logic would favour the latter, except in extreme cases). Perhaps I am being disingenuous, but It seems laughable that anyone back at the studio would look at the daily’s and think things were looking great. Scenes were shot using carefully chosen camera angles, and mixed with inserted stock footage of the real Bruce from his previous movies. Many additional tricks and cheats were also used throughout the film to try and ‘place’ the real Lee in it, but all were various levels of bloody dreadful.
Before we get into this even more; I would ask you to please take just a minute to really get comfortable with the idea that The Game of Death (with a ‘The‘), and Game of Death (without a ‘The‘), is how we will always differentiate between the two almost completely separate projects. In all honesty, it seems like Bruce hadn’t quite decided on the title’s exact format himself, but for our purposes it makes sense to strictly define the two entities this way. Officially then, Bruce’s unfinished 1973 movie project carries the definite article ‘The’, and the 1978 completed movie, does not. If I’ve made complete pigs ear of explaining it for you, I apologise. Suffice to say; everything in the 1978 movie (bar those 11 minutes and seven seconds at the end), including the entire plot, and all character names, are different and bare no relation at all to Bruce’s original concept for the movie.
So, considering how very little footage the makers of Game of Death had access to, and deemed fit for their purposes, it’s actually a wonder that the thing got made at all. It wasn’t like, The Crow, a generation later where, due to Brandon Lee’s tragic death on set, a few scenes here and there had to be fudged together with CG and body doubles. No sir, this is more akin to a scenario, where we would have Brandon tragically dying, after having filmed only the film’s climactic rooftop battle. Then (to continue the analogy), the entire remainder of the movie is shot with other actors standing in for him….wearing beards, dark glasses and standing with their backs to the camera. Absurd right? In the case of The Crow, they would have simply recast, and started again from scratch before ever doing anything as crazy as that. This is however, exactly the scenario that Game of Death presents us with. Such was the magnitude of Bruce Lee’s star status, and the fervour around him. They built an entire movie around being able to put out eleven minutes of Lee’s kosher fight footage. I really can’t think of another instance of anything like that happening, before or since.
In fact there were several things Game of Death brought to the table that seem completely crazy, considering the core concept and end result. Firstly, Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was helming again (he was one of the primary movers in bringing the project to life). It boasted its very own very Bond’esque original score by the great John Barry. It’s technical production values were very high in comparison to Lee’s Hong Kong movies. It featured several distinguished US character actors, including aged oscar winners Dean Jagger, and Gig Young, as well as various well known former Lee collaborators, students and acolytes like Bob Wall and Dan Inosanto. Incidentally, Inosanto features heavily as one of the level masters in the original pagoda fight footage (the nunchaku fight), thus his presence (albeit sparing), in scenes shot by Clouse for the 1978 film, is one of the few things that actually manages to tie the two things together.
A more memorable participant of the pagoda footage, who was conspicuous by his absence was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. For reasons of his own; he declined the opportunity to expand his role of ‘master of the unknown’ (renamed ‘Hakim’ in the 1978 movie), and did not shoot any new scenes for it. The producers got around this in a minor way by hiring a lookalike to stand around in the background, looking extremely tall. I have a great deal of respect for Jabbar for his decision not to participate. He didn’t need the pay check, and I guess he just knew it was going to be a train wreck without Bruce. While we are talking of Jabbar, it must be said that, his presence in the original footage is for me, actually a little puzzling. Bruce’s decision to cast him, bucks his own trend of hiring combat champions, and/or high level masters for key fight scenes. It’s obvious that it is Jabbar’s incredible stature, juxtaposed with Lee’s, and his ‘free’ fighting style, rather than his absolute martial arts credentials that is the key (no disrespect intended). The amazing physical disparity between the two men became visually iconic mind you, but to this day, I’m not a massive fan of parts of Jabbar’s physical performance in the actual fight. Perhaps it’s just that his proportions are not suited to graceful movement, but the combat choreography feels a little hit and miss to me (excuse the pun), not to mention some pretty stiff line reading too.
Speaking of iconic imagery; It’s fair to say that practically every frame of the pagoda footage qualifies one way or another. That eleven minutes is chock full of absolutely indelible, culturally absorbed images. I mean, there’s a whole generation that may not know this, but have you ever wondered why Uma Thurman wears a yellow striped track suit and matching Onitsuka Tiger shoes in the Crazy 88 scene in Kill Bill: Part 1? Watch Bruce in the pagoda sequence, and you’ll have your answer. Incidentally, as well as providing him with a practical, functional outfit, Bruce actually selected his yellow tracksuit and sneakers as a way in which to visually remove his character from the trappings of set style martial arts forms. This was a new move for Bruce, and further underscores his emergent philosophies. I wonder if, had he survived to make more movies; whether his characters would have ever re-donned the more traditional Chinese garb of his previous movies. I suppose it would depend on both the specifics of the movie, and whether Bruce would have felt that The Game of Death was statement enough on this philosophy. Anyway, it’s pointless to speculate.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that despite considerable effort and expense by all involved; the movie they built around Lee’s pagoda footage just cannot hold together in any way at all. All the tricks employed to minimise the need to actually see the lead character, as well as cut stock frames of the real Lee into the rest of the movie are beyond hopeless. There’s the aforementioned stock footage shots (mostly non dialogue reaction shots, head nods, or shakes etc), with the inevitable mismatches in film stock, picture quality and background colour. But we’re also talking about idiotic plot contrivances involving the stand-ins wearing dark glasses almost all of the time, as well as false beards and wigs (I kid you not). There’s even a scene where our ersatz Bruce is seated at a dressing table (with his back to us of course), and what looks like a static paper cutout of the real Bruce Lee’s face is used like a matte painting, to provide a ‘reflection’ in the mirror….It’s so bad, you don’t know wether to laugh or cry. They even tried to use special effects techniques to add a sweat towel around the neck on a stock clip of Bruce, …to place him in a scene..stop stop, in the name of all that does not suck STOP!.
It just doesn’t work, and comes across as something of a dreadful joke. Don’t get me wrong, as a kid I enjoyed Game of Death, and either wasn’t 100% aware, or didn’t worry too much about any of it; but watching the movie more over the last twenty years or so, really hammers home what a truly terrible mess it is. A mess with a fantastic eleven minute bit at the end, to be sure. But a mess nonetheless, and yet we have continued to give it something of a pass in the Bruce Lee filmography.
Ultimately, even though all these tricks and schemes were terrible; I think the single greatest thing that afflicts and cripples any hope that this movie could work for anyone watching it now, is something so fundamental that any sane person would have killed the whole idea before it even got started. Put simply, it is the complete and utter absence of Bruce Lee himself….It sounds obvious of course, but there it is. Here was a man who lit up the screen at all times. He was electric, magnetic, super charismatic and you could not take your eyes off him. Whether hiding behind big RayBans, false beards, wigs and trench-coats, the character of Billy Lo, throughout the entire movie, is of course completely soulless, flat and un-engaging. He cannot, by design, be anything else. There was no way around that, because it’s not Bruce. You cannot get close to the character because you cannot get close to the character (if you see what I mean?).
On this basic and most primordial level, it is total failsauce.
Technically, Game of Death really shouldn’t be considered Bruce Lee canon at all. There’s just not enough actual original ‘him’ in it. In those terms alone, it would be like trying to market a film like Executive Decision as a Steven Seagal movie…oh wait, they did kind of do that. Well, at least that movie had more claim in that respect than Game of Death does.
Alright, so the difference here, and I think the reason why Game of Death has thus far scraped a pass and remains accepted as a Bruce Lee movie; is the quality and content of those amazing eleven minutes and seven seconds. In those precious moments (all 667 of them), we see a young artist honing his first real creative motherlode. Armed with a clear message, massive charisma, an immense and unmatched talent, and an exciting concept of how to present it all to the world. It is such a shame that, within the much greater tragedy of his pointless demise, we would also never know just how good Bruce Lee’s The Game of Death could have been. That ladies and gents, is the real crime, and slap in the face that the 1978 train wreck really represents.
A final note:
In 2000, a documentary by John Little was made called A Warrior’s Journey (re-released on DVD in 2012, and reviewed for Filmwerk by yours truly). I waxed lyrical about the quality of it, as it really is a very good piece of work. However, the jewel in the film’s crown, was a thirty nine minute, all new restoration, and assemblage of the pagoda fight. A substantial amount of Lee’s original 1973 footage, lost for over 25 years, was re-discovered along with his original page notes. These amazing finds were then used to cut the pagoda sequence back together as completely as humanly possible; restoring Tien and Yuan into the mix as well. Considering a load of footage still remains lost, and two of the planned ‘level’ fights, were never even shot, it’s a revelation. I mention it here because, in my humble opinion, this new much longer sequence (which also includes the amazing bamboo, and double nunchaku fight with Dan Inosanto in its entirety), is now the definitive, most complete and rewarding way to view the pagoda footage.
This makes actually watching Game of Death almost entirely pointless, as Little’s assemblage is massively superior. The rest of the 1978 movie is such a car crash, as to now be reduced almost to a mere curio, and a rather bizarre footnote in Bruce Lee history.
Now, as is my won’t after dealing with Game of Death for any length of time, I’m off to go watch Way of the Dragon to recover.
A second final thought:
The completion of this retrospective concludes my personal journey through the Bruce Lee filmography. Those of you that have read one or all of the others, many thanks. Those that haven’t, and are interested in reading further musings on any of them, please search them out.
Bruce Lee remains a most marvellous, and resilient cultural icon. The paper thin, puerile, practically merit-free nature of modern celebrity worship, and their made to order idols, is thrown into sharp relief by the steadfast legitimacy of the man’s greatness. And while I think that in some quarters; there are those who have taken Bruce to their hearts, but rather missed the point of much of his greater philosophy, I am at least gladdened that his power to entrance works on many levels.
Bruce Lee’s power to reach new audiences, and enrapture new generations, shows no sign of diminishing. Re-watching all five of the movies in quick succession, and of course writing about them from the heart, as I have; has given, even me, someone who’s loved Bruce Lee for over thirty years, a freshened perspective on how trailblazing, and rich his contributions are. A couple of TV shows, four feature films, and whatever we call Game of Death; seems like very little, in terms of content or quantity. However, much as all of us, if we could, would turn back time and stop Bruce from taking that bloody Equagesic tablet; changing history so that he didn’t die pointlessly in 1973, and instead lived a long and happy life; we can at least say this. Although his physical life on this earth was tragically short, and he left a wife husbandless, and two young children fatherless; which nothing can make up for; Bruce Lee’s enduring legacy and his small body of work; exhibits a quality of potential, and a depth of worth that in my opinion is unmatched. As Bruce himself once said:
“The secret to immortality is first living a life worth remembering”
Aside from my fundamental belief that every life is worth remembering, regardless of measurable artistic, or financial achievements and notoriety, and how Bruce’s broader philosophy would seem to support this also; It is without question that Lee’s life certainly measures up to this quote, whichever way you interpret it, and then some.