The seminal Bruce Lee martial arts extravaganza The Way of the Dragon celebrates its forty-fifth anniversary this week. While it’s often overshadowed by the actor’s bigger budget American-produced successor Enter the Dragon, the picture is significant because it helped solidify Lee as a superstar. It’s also the only one of four martial arts pictures Lee made in his lifetime (1978’s Game of Death was constructed posthumously using previously-unused footage) in which he had the opportunity to write and direct, allowing him full control of his performance and image. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that it featured a now-legendary brawl between two of cinema’s greatest martial arts stars.
The Way of the Dragon was the third film Lee made for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest production company. Each of the films Lee made was a box-office hit in China, and each made more money than its predecessor. The Way of the Dragon would be Hong Kong’s highest grossing picture of 1972.
In casting the film, Lee turned to two of his training partners, Chuck Norris and Robert Wall. Both men were world champion fighters and owned a chain of karate schools together. Norris and Wall jumped at the opportunity to appear in the film, despite Lee’s insistence that Norris gain an additional twenty pounds for his role. This, Lee explained, would make him appear more intimidating. (Norris normally competed at 165 pounds, but he weighed 185 at the time of filming.)
“Bruce had a lot of respect for Chuck,” recalls Wall. “He had a lot respect for both of us, but he absolutely adored Chuck because Chuck was the most famous karate fighter at the time. Bruce really admired his skills.”
In recent years questions have arisen regarding whether or not Norris actually respected Lee. Wall dismisses such notions. “You know the old saying, opinions are like assholes — everybody has one. “Those kinds of statements come from a place of a lack of knowledge. The fact is that Chuck had huge respect for Bruce or he wouldn’t have done the film.” In defending his stance, Wall says Norris would never have allowed Lee to kill him on screen if he hadn’t respected him. “We were world professional champions. Bruce never competed. He wasn’t a world champion. But in the film he’s beating up two world champions, so on film he’s way better than us. Some people’s egos would never have allowed them to appear in that situation. But Chuck did. The bottom line is that Chuck had tremendous respect for Bruce Lee.”
Shot on a tight budget of $250,000 (compared to Enter the Dragon’s $850,000 the following year), Lee had to cut corners on the film anywhere he could. Because of this, Norris and Wall would be surprised to learn that Lee planned to film their actual arrival in Rome (they flew coach) because he couldn’t afford to secure a plane to simulate such a scene later.
“Bruce wanted to shoot inside the Roman Colosseum, but it had been closed for a while,” Wall remembers. “The crooked noses said they would allow us to film there, but they wanted more money than Bruce could afford.” Ultimately Lee and company pulled a few strings and the crew was allowed to film inside the historic landmark for two weeks. “The Colosseum is so rich with history,” Wall says. “It was kind of astounding. It was a very interesting experience to shoot there.”
The film’s plot is simple and straightforward, following fish-out-of-water hayseed Tang Lung’s (Lee) exploits dealing with a relative’s Rome eatery that’s being preyed upon by local Mafioso. But who cares? No one ever went to see a chopsocky flick for its storyline; story is secondary here to action. According to Wall, there was never even a screenplay for The Way of the Dragon. “The script was all in Bruce’s head,” he explains. “There was zero script. If there ever was a script, Bruce didn’t share it with Chuck and I. Everything I’ve ever worked on had a script, but not that film. Bruce just made scenes up as he went. He had his own way of doing things. He was quite bright and was able to do that.”
According to Wall, Lee would frequently challenge actors and crew members. “For instance, if you were Mexican he would look at you and say, ‘I don’t like Mexicans with mustaches,’” recalls Wall. “And then you would say, ‘Well, I don’t like short Chinamen.’ He would crack up, but he liked to put those things out there to find out if you were someone who would stand up for yourself. I always liked that aspect of his personality, but some people took it as egotistism or over-the-top challenging.”
Despite being criticized by some as being egotistical, Lee never shied away from consulting and collaborating with his cast and crew. Lee listened to those around him. If someone offered a good idea, he was not adverse to using it in the film. He also encouraged his fellow fighters to sit behind the camera and watch the fight scenes, providing input regarding their appearance and effectiveness. During this period Norris and Wall showed Lee a few moves and kicks that he didn’t already know, which he later used in the film.
“Bruce wanted the film to be the very best it could be,” explains Wall. “So he was always incorporating new things into it. He was never so egotistical that he didn’t want to learn or take advantage of what was around him. And he pushed everybody. He wanted everybody to be better, and when you worked with him he made you better.” Since neither Norris nor Wall had much experience with acting, Lee taught them how to appear more convincing when taking a hit onscreen. “We were fighters, and as professional fighters the last thing we want to do is show that you hurt us. There were some things we had to unlearn and then relearn working on that film.”
As might be expected, a lot of focus was placed on the showdown between Lee and Norris, which would ultimately become recognized as one of the most legendary fights in cinema history. “I think the way that fight scene was done was terrific,” concludes Wall. “I think it’s easily one of the best fight scenes ever.”
Wall believes much of the scene’s effectiveness comes from the characters’ respect for one another. “I’ve been doing martial arts for sixty years now and I’ve rolled with some of the toughest people on the planet, and they all shared one characteristic: they were some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. True martial artists have a concept of respect that isn’t found in other fighting sports. In martial arts you’re taught respect from day one. Chuck and Bruce and I lived our lives with respect. That was something that was predominant in us.”
The respect Lee and Norris had for one another is apparent in the scene. After an intense and grueling fight in which Colt refuses to back down, the reluctant Tang is forced to break his neck. Feeling sorrowful about having taken his opponent’s life, Tang kneels over Colt’s crumpled body and places his black belt on his chest. “That scene told you all you needed to know about respect and about how much Bruce Lee respected Chuck Norris,” explains Wall.
BBC film critic Almar Haflidason sums up the scene’s lasting impact as such: “Regarded by many as the finest martial arts combat ever committed to celluloid, it’s a masterful display of two fighters at the height of their powers. If any of it looks familiar, then bear in mind that this is the inspiration for a legion of martial arts and action movies that followed.”
At times The Way of the Dragon seems amateurishly slapdash. It also has its fair share of wonky scenes and scenarios, but it never takes itself too seriously. This lends it a charm it wouldn’t have if played deathly serious like a Steven Seagal flick.
The film was later re-released in the United States as Return of the Dragon, and its being dubbed only added to its silliness. “Everyone in the movie speaks English all the time, and yet the pretense is maintained that Lee is speaking Chinese, the Mafia is speaking Italian, and the Americans are speaking English,” observed Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert. “At one point, Lee tells his translator, ‘Tell him if he comes around here again, he will be sorry.’ Then the translator turns to the Mafia chieftain: ‘He say if you come around here again,’ etc.”
Today The Way of the Dragon is recognized as one of the finest films the genre has produced. It is beloved and respected by legions of cineastes around the world. The primary reason for its enduring success is the same as that of Lee’s other films — Bruce Lee himself. “The whole time I knew Bruce, which was almost eleven years, was phenomenal,” remembers Wall. “I miss him to this day. He was an amazing human being. Everything about Bruce was fantastic. He was brilliant, he was charming, he was kind, and he was funny.”
These characteristics translate well to screen. Bruce Lee exuded magnetism and was a star in every sense of the word. Cynthia Rothrock (Lady Dragon), a respected fighter-turned-actress who holds seven black belts in different martial arts, is a huge fan of Lee’s for primarily this reason. “Bruce Lee had something a lot of actors don’t have, which is that attraction, that charisma that comes off the screen,” she explains. “People will watch it and love you, and sometimes they don’t even know why. I find that it’s not something that’s learned, it’s something internal… It’s something that’s very rare to find, and a lot of people will ask an actor, ‘How have you had such a longevity to your career?’ And I think that’s it, that they have that quality where people like them no matter if they’re playing a good person or a bad person. They jump off the screen and there’s a likability factor for the audience.”
Bruce Lee died an untimely death at the age of thirty-two on July 20, 1973, a mere seven months after The Way of the Dragon was released in Hong Kong. Despite having been dead longer than he ever lived, Lee and his films continue to capture the hearts and imagination of audiences around the world. Poet George Eliot once opined, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” It is for this reason that Bruce Lee lives eternal.