Hollywood at the Sixties Crossroad, Part 2: Eyes on Bruce Lee

“A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at.” Bruce Lee

An earlier piece on this website told about the near collapse of Hollywood in the mid-sixties. By 1963 Hollywood had produced the fewest movies it had ever made in one year (121), and it looked as though the studios would collapse and disappear within the next few years. Then came a couple of movies, modelled on French film styles, that had an impact on that outcome and began a turnaround in Hollywood’s fortunes. However, there was one other influence on Hollywood that was left out of that article. That was simply because there was too much un-unified information for one article and maybe because there isn’t unified agreement about it. It has been said that Bruce Lee saved Hollywood.

As mentioned in Hollywood at the Crossroads, Part 1, Hollywood cinema really changed from 1967 onward with the advent of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967), which were later followed by intensely powerful movies like Midnight Cowboy (1970?), Chinatown (1972), The French Connection (1972) and the Godfather (1972). These films, and more, had gravitas and remain great movies till this day. But, although it was unknown to Hollywood at the time, there was an element of growth that was still to evolve. It was the element of physically dynamic action. And it was Bruce Lee who brought it to us in a magnitude we had never imagined.

With no super powers other than his own strength and agility, Bruce Lee was an avenging superhero. He was akin to a real-life Asian Batman - a seemingly unstoppable powerhouse. He appeared as egotistical as any of the young males who bore witness to his exceptional skills through the medium of film, but he was truly strong, confident and courageous.

Bruce Lee wasn’t just an actor. He was also a director, writer and producer. Bruce Lee has been recognised as a great actor, a great kung fu fighter and a great athlete. But Bruce Lee, Hong Kong and East Asia have not always been acknowledged for their part in the worldwide revival of cinema attendance and their influence on the action movie genre. Some of the popular histories of Asian movies will tend to separate them and treat them as though they are a different category and were never a part of the renaissance.

For those of you who don’t know the legend already, Bruce Lee did try his luck in Hollywood during the sixties. Times were beginning to change back then and other ethnicities were starting to appear in TV shows and movies. Bruce Lee scored a role as the sidekick Kato in the television series The Green Hornet, but after that show was cancelled the offers were sporadic. The reality may have been that, in truth, Bruce Lee seemed too foreign, or too Chinese, with too thick an accent to be taken seriously in Hollywood at the time. Before the sixties, most Chinese male players in movies were characterised as either simple coolies or inscrutable sages. All of them sexless secondary roles and sometimes played by white people in yellow face. That changed, for Bruce Lee at least, after he left Hollywood and its rejections behind him, and returned to his childhood home of Hong Kong.

Bruce Lee arrived in Hong Kong in 1971 as a surprisingly well known and well received celebrity. His work as Kato had been popular through re-runs, and was proof, as far as the Hong Kong audience was concerned, that an Asian man could make it in the West as a real character actor. This was a boost for Lee’s confidence and he swiftly and assuredly attracted his first major movie deal.

Bruce Lee’s first lead movie was The Big Boss (1971). Produced by Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest company, it is the moral story of a young man who breaks a drug ring. On its release it instantly smashed Hong Kong box office records. Lee’s second movie, Fists of Fury (1972), the story of a young Chinese man who stands up against Japanese invaders, broke the Hong Kong box office record set by The Big Boss. Then Lee’s third Golden Harvest movie, The Way of The Dragon (1972), beat the previous two Bruce Lee movies at the Hong Kong box office.

By 1973, the Hollywood that had not seen Bruce Lee’s potential, came knocking. Warner Bros - who in 1972 had tested the American market by distributing a Shaw Brothers movie called King Boxer - in conjunction with Lee’s company Concord Production Inc and Golden Harvest, produced Bruce Lee’s fourth full cinematic release, Enter the Dragon. Made on a budget of $850,000 and the first martial arts movie out of Hollywood, it grossed $90 million across the globe, though some estimates put the figure at more than twice that.

In 1971, Bruce Lee films were a big hit in Asia. In 1972, Bruce Lee films were a massive hit in Asia and popular on limited release in Europe. In 1973, Bruce Lee movies were a hit across the world. The box office receipts for Enter the Dragon show that it was in the top ten movies worldwide and may have been in the top five. Sadly, Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32 and did not witness Enter the Dragon’s huge success.

By 1973 there were four consecutive Bruce Lee movies running in cinemas around the globe, sometimes even double billed. Many a young man went and watched a Bruce Lee movie, and many went back to the cinema to watch those movies several times over and they did so even though cinema closures of the sixties may have meant having to travel across town.

You could argue from an evidential point of view that kung fu and Bruce Lee movies didn’t do that well at the box office. There were a lot of good movies around in the early seventies that did a lot better, and kung fu back then was a bit of a novel and special genre, but that misses the point: it was influence. The influence that Bruce Lee and Hong Kong had on Western cinema cannot be underestimated. Kung-fu is no longer a confined genre. Where there is great action, there is great kung fu, you don’t need to look far for a few examples; The Matrix trilogy, the Batman franchise, the Avengers franchise, to name but a few, all feature kung fu.

Did Bruce Lee save Hollywood? Maybe not by himself, but Bruce Lee was transformational. He transformed the stereotype of the sexless Asian male into a man of intelligence, muscle and speed and thereby transformed a cultural representation. He also transformed Hollywood by giving it the evolutionary starting point for the contemporary action movie. And Bruce Lee helped to bring the cinematic experience of movies to the attention of young audiences all over the world.

As for the revival of Hollywood studios, it was more than just a few movies or a few actors that kept Hollywood and cinema alive through the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. Over the time period, several important changes were made. These included abandoning the seven-year contract for actors; devolving work to outside studios; collaborative productions and distributions; multiplex cinemas, and the new revenue streams of pay-to-view and VHS. And perhaps, most importantly, it was the fact that the cinema experience was difficult to replicate in the home. A decade after the near collapse of Hollywood, the arrival of the blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) showed that the Hollywood studios and movies in general were definitely back on their feet.

Stephen Vega

May 2019.