This is all you really have to know about Bruce Lee. He made only four martial arts movies before his death. There are a bunch of movies he made as a child actor, but they are black and white Chinese dramas in Cantonese, so only if you are an avid Bruce Lee fan would you be interested in seeing them. It was the martial arts movies that gave Bruce Lee his fame and that is all most of his fans are interested in. And yet for those of you starting your own Bruce Lee movie collection you may find him credited as the star of dozens of films. All thanks to one incomplete film project Lee had been working on prior to his death which in turn lead to distributors releasing to gullible movie audiences what they claimed to be Bruce Lee’s final movie.
Lets start from the beginning. Bruce was born in 1940 in San Fransisco to a theatrical family who were on tour in the United States. After his family returned to Hong Kong Bruce was featured in his first movie at age one in “Golden Gate Girl”. Between the age of five and nineteen Lee would act in 18 movies as a child actor before moving to Seattle. Officially Lee’s immigration to the United States was necessary for him to retain his American citizenship. Unofficially Bruce was possibly facing a jail sentence for getting into a fight. In the States Lee abandoned acting and instead opened up his own martial arts school. Ironically it was through his martial arts that Lee wound up back in the motion picture business. While giving a demonstration of his Martial Arts style at the 1964 Long Beach Karate Tournament he attracted the attention of a talent scout looking for a Chinese actor for the show “The Green Hornet”. Dazzled by Lee’s lightning fast moves and then finding out that he was a former child actor in Chinese films the scout arranged for Bruce to meet the show’s producer where after a screen test he landed the role of Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick. When the show was cancelled after a single season Bruce found work in bit parts in the television shows “Ironside”, “Blondie”, and “Here Comes The Brides” and a small role as a thug in the movie “Marlowe”. In 1971 he was cast as a reacuuring character in the show “Longstreet” as the martial arts instructor Li Tsung, and a year later was i contention for the role of Kwia Chang in the ABC series “Kung Fu”. It would have been Lee’s first starring role in a television series, but the network decided America was not ready for a show with an Asian actor in the lead role. The character was changed into Kwia Chang Caine who is half American and half Chinese, the part going to the all white actor David Carridine. Despondent, Lee decided to take the advice of fellow actor ( and one of his students ) James Coburn who advised him to go back to Hong Kong and get a role in a movie to prove to Hollywood that he was leading man material.
Hong Kong movie studios had been sending Bruce Lee offers to star in martial arts films ever since he was cast in The Green Hornet. But the only movie studio in China that produced Hollywood quality movies was Shaw Brothers, and they insisted on Lee signing a long term contract that paid him scale. The best offer came from Golden Harvest who realizing what a great box office draw Bruce Lee could be signed him to a two picture deal that would have a budget equivalent to that of their rival Shaw Brothers Studio. The two films were “The Big Boss” shot on location in Thailand, and a period peice “Fist Of Fury”. Both movies shattered existing Hong Kong box office records, and Golden Harvest got Lee to agree to film more movies for their studio provided he got to write and direct them. Lee’s third movie was “Way Of The Dragon” shot on location in Italy including a climatic fight with Chuck Norris inside the Colosseum. Lee began working on a script with James Coburn called “The Magic Flute” which he had hoped would be picked up by a Hollywood studio. But while scouting for locations for the movie Bruce came up with the idea of the main character entering a pagoda and having to fight a martial arts master on each floor with the fights getting tougher as Lee’s character ascended to the next floor. Realizing that the pagoda scene did not fit in The Magic Flute it was decided that it would be the basis of a different movie. The Magic Flute was put on hold as Bruce Lee began filming the pagoda movie in secret. But then the pagoda movie too was put on hold when Warner Brothers studios made an offer to co produce a martial arts movie with Golden Harvest with Bruce Lee as the star. The film was “Enter The Dragon” and would launch Bruce Lee to international stardom. But Lee would never live to see it. At age 33 Bruce Lee died suddenly died while at the apartment of actress Betty Ting. It would latter be ruled a accidental death due to Lee having an allergic reaction to medicine he was given for a headache.
This should have been the end of the story. But Bruce Lee’s fans knew that he still had two unreleased film projects, “Enter The Dragon” and one other movie. Actually Lee had been working on a number of movies at the time of his death. He was also in talks with George Lazenby on working together in an action film, was still planning on filming “The Magic Flute”, and during the down time filming Enter The Dragon did work directing fight scenes on his friend Unicorn Chan’s movie “The Unicorn Palm”. Lee had allowed himself to be filmed directing the fight scenes to be used as promotional material, and after his death the producer decided to edit that footage into the movie. The Unicorn Palm was released with Bruce Lee credited as the star and promoted as the movie he was working on before his death. Meanwhile in the United States none of Bruce Lee’s movies had been released. Most Americans did not remember Lee from the Green Hornet and knew of him for the first time from news reports of the crowds who showed up at his funeral in China and the stars who showed up at his burial in Seattle. “Enter The Dragon” turned out to be a huge hit. National General Pictures bought the distribution rights to his previous Hong Kong movies and began to dub them into English and add English language credits. “Way Of The Dragon” was retitled “Return Of The Dragon” as an attempt to release the movie as a sequel to Enter The Dragon. They also decided to rename Lee’s other movies, so “Fist Of Fury” had an “S” added to it retitling it “Fists Of Fury” while “The Big Boss” was changed to “The Chinese Connection”. The lab that was in charge of burning the new credits onto the master film print accidentally mixed up two of the movies putting the credit for “Fists Of Fury” onto “The Big Boss” and “The Chinese Connection” onto “Fist Of Fury”. No one felt like spending the money to correct the mistake, so for decades the movies were released to theaters, shown on television, and sold on home videos under the incorrect titles. This proved confusing to American audiences when sequels to “Fist Of Fury” were released. Since Fist Of Fury was based on real people and a true story Golden Harvest could not prevent other studios from making their own sequels. One of those sequels “New Fist Of Fury” was made by the same director as the original and had most of the original cast. It was also Jacky Chan’s first starring role. Another sequel “Fist Of Fury II” was initially released with Bruce Lee as the star. The real actor of the movie was Ho Chung Tao who had changed his name to Bruce Lee. He was among many Bruce Lee imitators. When Bruce Lee’s estate tried to legally put a stop to bogus Bruce Lee’s releasing movies in the United States Ho changed the spelling of his name to Bruce Li as it would still be pronounced Bruce Lee but was legally different enough that Bruce Lee’s estate could do nothing about it. Other Bruce Lee imitators changed their names as well. There was Bruce Le, Bruce Lea, Bruce Lai, Bruce Lei, and then once every variation of the spelling of Lee was taken up there was Dragon Lee.
All of these actors at one time or another had released films under the name Bruce Lee. With word out that Bruce Lee still had an unreleased movie unscrupulous producers saw a way to make a quick buck. Movies were made using bogus Bruce Lee’s and released as the movie he had been working on before his death. While it is doubtful that Chinese audiences would have fallen for this trick it is assumed the movies were made specifically for the American and European markets where Bruce Lee was not yet familiar enough a face. Even after these Bruce Lee imitators became notorious producers saw an opportunity. The 1977 movie “The Clones Of Bruce Lee” starred several Bruce lee imitators including Bruce Le, Bruce lai, and Dragon Lee. The film also starred Bolo Yeung. Bolo Yeung’s real name was Yang Sze, but after playing the character Bolo in the movie “Enter The Dragon” changed his name to that of the character. Bolo was hired by several movie studios to play the villain and was a regular in most of the Bruce Lee imitator movies. Since screen villains are only in a third or less of the movie Bolo was able to do more than three times the movies a year as any other actor and for a while all this work lead to him being the richest movie actor in Hong Kong ( a title eventually taken over by Jackie Chan ).
In 1975 Golden Harvest officially announced that they would be completing Bruce Lee’s unfinished pagoda movie, which would be called “Game Of Death”. According to studio head Raymond Chow the movie was nearly completed before Bruce Lee had dies, and all that they needed to do was to cast a look alike to shoot a few scenes to complete the movie. In the years that followed the director of “Enter The Dragon” Robert Clouse was hired to shoot the additional footage needed to complete the movie. Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute the movie and Hollywood stars Dean Jagger, Hugh O’Brian, Dean Jagger, and Colleen Camp were signed to act in the new footage. John Barry was hired to compose the musical score. On June 8 1979 “Game Of Death” had it’s world premiere and Bruce Lee fans were shocked. Most of the move was new footage shot using Hollywood actors and a Bruce Lee imitator. The film opens reusing the closing scene from “Way Of The Dragon” then for another 40 minutes the Bruce Lee character is played by the imitator who constantly stands in the shadows, behind plants, or is conveniently out of focus. The imitator also wears extremely wide sun glasses that act as a mask. Halfway through the movie there is finally more footage of Bruce Lee, but once again it was reused footage from an earlier movie, he scene from the end of “Fist Of Fury”. The Bruce Lee imitator is conveniently shot in the face and has plastic surgery to make him look different. Finally towards the end of the movie for no known reason the lead character’s face turns back to that of Bruce Lee and for the final 20 minutes there is original footage of Bruce Lee fighting Dan Inosanto and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. These scenes are amazing and almost worth the previous hour of watching a Bruce Lee clone. But the ending of the movie is ruined when a combination of footage from the fights and a Bruce Lee clone are used to create a new fight between Lee’s character and Hugh O’Brian.
Bruce Lee fan’s have always wondered what happened to the hours of footage that Golden Harvest claimed that Bruce Lee had shot for the movie. An urban legend among fans was that after Raymond Chow viewed the footage he was shocked to have found that it consisted entirely of nothing but the same two fight scenes shot over and over again, or were scenes with other actors and not Bruce Lee. But according to Bey Logan in his book “Hong Kong Action Cinema” Lee had completed at least the final third of the movie and had enough footage from the earlier scenes that a completely different movie could have been edited and released. Logan claims that others working at Golden Harvest had leaked enough information about the existing Bruce Lee footage that they were able to make their own versions of “Game Of Death” using their own Bruce Lee immitators. They all even dressed their actors in the same yellow jump suit as Bruce Lee wore in his fight scenes and knew that he was suppose to be fighting floor by floor in a pagoda. Chow decided he needed a new plot to make the Golden Harvest version of Game Of Death different that that of the imitators, hence bringing in director Robert Clouse to shoot what amounted to an entirely new movie using Hollywood actors. Rumors that a more complete version of Game Of Death existed persisted for years. Meanwhile Golden Harvest decided to dip into the Bruce Lee well one last time with the movie “Tower Of Death” which was released in English speaking countries as “Game Of Death II”. This time using footage cut out of the original edit of “Enter The Dragon” the Bruce Lee character appears in the first third of the movie before being killed. For the rest of the movie his brother investigates and eventually avenges his death.
There currently exists two versions of “Game Of Death” and two versions of “Tower Of Death/Game Of Death II”. Robert Clouse had shot two fight sequences using the Bruce Lee double and inserting shots of Bruce from earlier movies. Columbia wanted the fight scenes removed as they were obviously not Bruce Lee, but they remained in the Hong Kong version. With “Game Of Death II” American distributors needed a certain number of minutes of Bruce Lee footage before they could legally promote him as the star of the movie. The two fight scenes from the first movie were edited back in, as was footage from movies Bruce made as a child and explained as flash backs to the characters childhood. Two more versions of Game Of Death was released in 2000. “Bruce Lee In G.O.D.” was released in Japan and consisted of all the footage Bruce Lee had shot including scenes involving other characters. There was also all the behind the scenes documentary footage that Bruce Lee had commissioned and new interviews with cast and crew which put together creates a documentary that fills in the missing scenes. In the United States a second documentary called “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” was released that only featured the final fight scenes edited together the way Bruce Lee had intended them.
Many producers realized that much like with Game Of Death you could edit together a new Bruce Lee feature film using old footage combined with new scenes. The first to take advantage of their Bruce Lee footage was Greenway Productions who had produced the series The Green Hornet. Three episodes were edited together to create the movie “The Green Hornet” released one year after Lee’s death. A second Green Hornet movie was released two years later under the title “Fury Of The Dragon”. Released with a movie poster showing Bruce in various martial arts poses there was no mention that this movie would be another compilation of old Green Hornet episodes. After Bruce’s death his childhood movies were relocated in a vault and re-released. A documentary called “The Real Bruce Lee” which consisted of scenes from four of his childhood films and most of a Dragon Lee movie called “Last Fist Of Fury” was quickly edited together. Bruce Lee was credited as the star and the narrator of the movie claimed that the Dragon Lee movie was suppose to be Bruce Lee’s last film, and that producers had to hire Dragon Lee to replace Bruce.Golden Harvest had their own Bruce Lee documentary featuring unseen Bruce Lee footage called “Bruce Lee: The Legend”. But the ultimate posthumous footage movie that puts even the Hollywood version of “Game Of Death” to shame was “Fist Of Fear, Touch Of Death” which was a faked documentary about a martial arts competition to determine who will take over Bruce Lee’s title of the King Of Martial Arts. During the documentary footage is shown of a television interview with Bruce Lee. Even though the original interview was in English the movies producers had it re-dubbed so that Bruce Lee was saying something completely different. Footage from one of his childhood movies was also used claiming it was an actual event in his life. This gave Bruce Lee enough on screen time so that the film could officially be released with Bruce Lee listed as the star.
Dozens of other Bruce Lee documentaries were released over the years, each crediting Lee as the star. Some like “Death By Misadventure” and “Bruce Lee: His Own Words” Others, however, were cheaply made and inaccurate, and relied on public domain Bruce Lee footage such as his funeral and trailers for his movies. In 1981 a television syndicate edited together two more Bruce Lee movies using old footage. “True Game Of Death” had footage of Bruce Lee signing a deal with Golden Harvest, of his funeral, and fight scenes from trailers edited onto the film using cheap digital effects. “Bruce Lee, We Miss You” was a Bruce Li move where he sees the ghost of Bruce Lee, realizes he was murdered, and avenges his death. The original version used an obvious double for Bruce Lee’s ghost, but the televised version edited in scenes from one of Bruce Lee’s trailers in place of the ghost. Instead of a ghost giving hand signals to signify he had been murdered you had an unconvincing split screen with Bruce Lee making his signature cat calls, and from that Bruce Li deduces that Bruce Lee was murdered. Towards the end of the Bruce Lee imitator trend plenty of moves were made where Bruce Li, Le, Liu, and all the rest each solve his murder and exact vengeance. Perhaps the best known of these was “Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave” mainly because of it’s unforgettable title.