The Immortal Craft is our new column in which we celebrate the epic lives that shaped cinema. They may no longer travel on our plane of reality, but they continue to impact the world with the art they left behind. Here is our opportunity to thank Bruce Lee for radically altering the energy of action in The Big Boss.
America did not want Bruce Lee. Or, at least, America did not want the Bruce Lee that Bruce Lee was and wanted to be. Sidekick was acceptable. Supporting player was fine. A behind-the-scenes martial arts instructor was even better, but Bruce Lee could not be the star.
After a year of playing second fiddle to Van Williams in The Green Hornet, the TV series was canceled in 1967. Lee fought for every second of screentime, and in retrospect, his Kato remains the only remarkable aspect of the show with maybe a tiny exception for the theme song that Quentin Tarantino would repurpose decades later in Kill Bill Volume 1. Ah, but to give such credit to the director after his painfully disrespectful portrayal of Lee in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood sours the stomach (let’s save this emotion for another article at a later date… moving on).
Lee struggled to make an impression in Hollywood. There were a few walk-on roles in Ironside and Blondie. In the movie Marlowe, he’s the heavy hitter Winslow Wong, who tears James Garner’s office apart. In Longstreet, Lee returns for several episodes and even has an opportunity to relate a bit of his Jeet Kune Do philosophy to star James Franciscus. Again, his appearances in these stories are the only thing that makes them worth watching or mentioning.
The Warrior and rejection
At the time, Longstreet’s creator, Stirling Silliphant, was a student of Lee and practiced Kung Fu alongside other disciples such as James Coburn and Steve McQueen. While Lee waited for Warner Bros. to consider his pitch for The Warrior, a Western series following a Shaolin monk navigating various outlaw towns, these lessons were his primary income. In fear of losing the mortgage on their house, his wife Linda worked nights at a telephone answering service.
Warner Bros. eventually rejected The Warrior, claiming American audiences would not watch a Chinese actor. Instead, they rescrambled Lee’s ideas into Kung Fu and cast David Carradine as the lead, complete with yellowface makeup and prosthetics used to slant his eyes. The studio claimed they were already in the process of developing a similar idea when Lee approached them with his pitch. Therefore, the actor’s name appears nowhere in the credits.
In 1969, Bruce Lee, along with Silliphant and James Coburn, developed a script for a film called The Silent Flute. Lee envisioned the project as a way for him to introduce Americans to Eastern philosophy. If ignorance existed in the audience, he would drag them into an education. The impact of these punches contained thought, not mere brutality.
Despite flying to India for location shooting, The Silent Flute could not secure financing and fell apart. Five years after Lee’s death in 1973, Silliphant would complete the script with Stanley Mann, and due to Lee’s posthumous celebrity, AVCO Embassy Pictures supplied the cash. Once again, David Carradine was cast in a role meant for Bruce Lee.
Hong Kong and acceptance
Everything changed when Lee flew to Hong Kong to retrieve his mother. She was lonely and wanted to be with her children and grandchildren in the United States. A mob met Lee the moment he stepped off the plane.
He didn’t understand. Why? He was no one in America.
While virtually ignored in Hollywood, Hong Kong saw his success on The Green Hornet as a triumph. It should have been a quick trip to his home country but transformed into a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong programming. Lee appeared on one late-night talk show after another. There was money here.
Lee reached out to the Shaw Brothers, inquiring if they would be interested in making a film together. The Shaw Brothers offered Lee $2,000 per movie in a long-form contract, which Lee took as an insult. Crestfallen, he flew back to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the son of director Lo Wei caught Lee during one of these Hong Kong TV appearances and encouraged his father to explore the possibility of casting him in a film. Lo Wei agreed and brought Lee’s attention to Golden Harvest studio boss Raymond Chow, who had already heard about the rebuffed offer. Chow had recently splintered from the Shaw Brothers, and his films struggled to compete. He needed a hit, and he saw potential in Lee’s charisma.
A few years earlier, Lee would never have signed a two-film contract in Hong Kong, but he was as desperate as Chow. The money was not as significant as what he thought Hollywood would eventually give him, but the mortgage required payment asap, not tomorrow. Two films for $15,000 at Golden Harvest sufficed, and his wife quit her gig at the answering service.
The Big Boss
The Big Boss was already in production and meant to star action-heavy James Tien when Lee agreed to join. Chow treated the film like a test. As they shot the first third of the script, Chow and Lo Wei (who replaced original director Wu Chia-hsiang almost immediately) keenly observed both actors. When they eventually decided Lee contained the most magnetism, they killed Tien’s character to make room.
In the film, Cheng Chao-an (Lee) is a Chinese drifter who moves to Thailand to work in an ice factory alongside his cousin Hsu Chie (Tien). The two men soon learn that the ice they’re hauling is filled with bags of heroin and they’re jobs are a front for a massive drug trafficking ring controlled by Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh), “the big boss.” Cheng wants to help his cousin defeat the kingpin, but an oath made to his mother prevents him from acting out violently.
The first third of The Big Boss operates like an agonizing pleasure delayer. Sitting from our point in time, we know Lee is destined to spring into action, but the film refuses to let the badass off the leash. Tien is one-hundred percent the hero of the movie until Hsu Chie’s men slaughter him in the boss’ garden, and jam his mutilated body into blocks of ice.
Lee finally erupts into the legend we know during a riot at the factory. The Chinese workers rise against the Thai management, and while Cheng attempts to keep to the sides of the skirmish, a bumbling goon stumbles into his person. In the process, the jade amulet representing Cheng’s promise to his mother tears from his neck. Cheng explodes and rips through the mass of unsuspecting flesh.
Bruce Lee is what separates The Big Boss from the Hong Kong action films that came before. The actors around him came from the Peking opera style, where the fighting was a ballet deserving a languished attention from the camera. Lee was a street fighter. When he fought, he fought to win. Fights should be in one-two-three beats — wham, blam, slam — and end quickly.
Lee’s refusal to partake in the accepted choreography of the system is one of the reasons that lead to the dismissal of Wu Chia-hsiang. There are no three-minute action shots in The Big Boss. Lee sold his attacks in fifteen-second bursts, requiring quick edits, resulting in a profound injection of kineticism. The dance was over. The brawl had begun.
Lee performed unlike any other Hong Kong actor. His style stemmed from his appreciation for samurai films and their Chanbara manner of performance. Think of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai or Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Bruce Lee does not act for the camera or the audience on the other side of it. Bruce Lee acts to the heavens.
His iconic howl when delivering a catastrophic blow is an extension of capturing the attention of those in the cheap seats. No one can miss him.
The result was millions of dollars. No one in China, America, or the rest of the world had ever seen a hero quite like Bruce Lee’s Cheng Chao-an. What swagger he displayed would only build from here, as The Big Boss‘ box office shattered Hong Kong’s previous top-dollar champ, The Sound of Music, by $2.4 million.
Bruce Lee only continued to up his game overseas. His follow-ups, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon, were even more distinct, incorporating his personally perfected Jeet Kune Do fighting technique. The fervor these films stirred in China spread to Hollywood, and Warner Bros. finally wanted in on the Bruce Lee business. Enter the Dragon cemented Lee as an immortal action hero who demanded a quick end to combat — one, two, three — but an everlasting education of the interior.
The Big Boss is not the final statement of the icon. It’s the first gasp, but it’s a magnificent one. Here was a person who knew he had something to offer others but continually met resistance, judgment, ignorance, and hatred. The initial victories came slow and were barely recognizable, but he built from them. Admire the aggressively animated feats of gladiatorial warfare, but aspire to Lee’s tenacious confidence of self and pursuit of edification.