Bruce Lee's Last Words: Enter the Dragon and the Martial Arts Explosion

Fightland Blog

By Sascha Matuszak

Bruce Lee’s final film, Enter the Dragon, was also his greatest. Of all the kung fu films pouring out of Hong Kong during the late 1960s and 70s, only Enter the Dragon pushed through into the global consciousness in a strong way. A few others we have looked at—Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple in particular—were influential films that propelled the genre forward, but none have contributed as much to so many different aspects of society and culture. Enter the Dragon is referenced in all manner of media, the plot line and characters continue to influence storytellers today, and the impact was particularly felt in the revolutionizing way the film portrayed African-Americans, Asians and traditional martial arts.

What would have been the classic Hollywood hero, John Saxon as the rich white aristocrat, is in this film a degenerate gambler and Lee’s eventual sidekick, Roper. Jim Kelly, in only his second film, plays a groundbreaking role as Williams, the black activist-black belt who beats down two cops and then makes a run for it to Hong Kong. He became a prototype for the black hero to come: a badass with style, quotable and defiant.

Han, played by Shih Kien, is a fantastic villain, unrivaled for many many years. Stop for a second and take a look at what Han has managed to do: commandeer an island and build a palatial hideout with an underground drug manufacturing facility. Form an army of martial artists led by an elite band of female slave-warriors who also do drugs and sleep with his friends. Recruit the most ruthless thugs in the area through an infamous kung fu tournament. Find some legal loophole the British will abide by so he can keep doing all of this evil within a 45-minute boat ride from up and coming Hong Kong. That’s supervillain status.

It would take a super hero to defeat him. Luckily, that’s exactly what we have.

Bruce Lee was the not the first Asian hero in Hollywood—that distinction belongs to Sessue Hayakawa, who I’ll explore another time—but he was the first to come out after decades of Asian men being boxed into asexual, obsequious, or inscrutable enemy roles by Hollywood producers. Lee was ripped, wise beyond his years, and proud of his Chinese heritage. Never once do we see his confidence waver; he needs no advice from a white mentor. His martial skills are immaculate and there is really no moment in the film where he is even slightly in danger of being defeated, even towards the very end in the epic final battle. His mind and body are just too strong.

With Enter the Dragon, Asian philosophies reached young Western audiences for the first time, exemplified by the idea of wuwei, the Taoist tenet of “non-being” or “non-action” that influenced later Zen Buddhists and many a martial artist. Americans in the 1970s were searching for different spiritual systems to replace the one that seemed to have failed the West. Enter the Dragon introduced some of the Asian system in a way that wasn’t just fascinating, but also powerful and with a clear leading man to embody the fullest extent of that system’s power.

Enter the Dragon was also the spark that lit the worldwide martial arts blaze of the late 1970s and 1980s. When Shaolin Temple was released in Mainland China, millions of Chinese took up martial arts and thousands more trekked to Henan and knocked on the temple doors, starting a process in motion that led to the modern Shaolin Temple. Enter the Dragon had a very similar effect on kids in the US. Theaters began playing kung fu films on a weekly basis, dojos sprang up all over California and New York, spreading inland like wildfire. Another process was set in motion, this one leading eventually to films like Bloodsport and The Matrix, a slew of instructor’s manuals and books on Jeet Kun Do, and a martial and fitness culture that would give birth to modern MMA.

Countless threads make up a movement, but for most cultural and social phenomena, there is a seminal event, a book or speech or in our modern world a film that encapsulates the movement’s message and stands out over time as a symbol and banner. For modern martial arts, Enter the Dragon is that work of art.

The film was jointly produced by Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers, one of the very the first Hong Kong-Hollywood collaborations. The movie had an estimated budget of $850,000 and grossed $25 million in the US and $90 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, Enter the Dragon was and still is the highest grossing martial arts movie of all time.

The success propelled Golden Harvest ahead of the iconic Shaw Brothers studio, a rivalry that would eventually push the Shaw Brothers out of martial arts films and into side businesses around the world. Golden Harvest became the go-to production company for Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, both of whom played small roles in Enter the Dragon: Sammo gets beat up in the opening sequence; Chan gets beat up later in the film, during the underground fight scene.

That scene in particular, when Lee gets caught by guards while inspecting Han;s underground lair, is an iconic display of Bruce Lee’s martial skills. He moves through the weapons system until he reaches the nunchuks. Just a few frames of Lee whipping that weapon around blew everyone’s mind. One hundred thousand hustlers ran out their doors to start manufacturing nunchuks as soon as the movie ended.

A small sidenote: the Chinese title is 龙争虎斗 (Long Zheng Hu Dou) which means “Struggling Dragon, Fighting Tiger” and the phrase is used to refer to an epic battle between two evenly matched forces.

The Film

The film opens with Lee beating down Sammo Hung in a demonstration for Shaolin monks (tapping him out with an armlock). He then shifts to monk mode in a famous conversation with the abbot:

Abbot: I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight. I have several questions. What is the highest technique you hope to achieve?

Lee: To have no technique.
Abbot: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Abbot: And why is that?
Lee: Because the word "I" does not exist.
Abbot: So, continue...

Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

A British investigator, Braithewaite, tells Lee about a former Shaolin disciple turned kingpin, Han, who is running a drug and prostitution ring from an island near Hong Kong. The government wants Lee to infiltrate the island, participate in Han’s martial arts tournament, gather evidence, and then report back so the authorities can have the legal authority to raid the island.

Lee addresses the absurdity of this plot line directly, by asking Braithewaite, “Why doesn't somebody pull out a .45 and, bang, settle it?”

Braithewaite goes into a somewhat plausible explanation concerning jurisdiction and gun laws, but the point the movie might be trying to make is a time-honored one in Chinese wuxia storytelling: the gun is a dishonorable weapon. True warriors use their hands or a blade—“a more elegant weapon, for a more elegant time”— and avoid using firearms. A dozen other movies make use of this trope, with sneering masters somehow disarming or otherwise disabling gun wielding thugs with no class. Indiana Jones capping the Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark is the gunslinger’s response.

But in Enter the Dragon, it’s Braithwaite, the white British inspector, who answers Lee’s almost rhetorical question with, “Any idiot can pull a trigger.”

The journey to the island via junk is a very interesting scene. Shots of the harbor from 1972 and 73 show fleets of old wooden junks tied up alongside the occasional aluminum boat. The harbor hasn’t been built out and the iconic Hong Kong skyline is just a twinkle in a developer’s eye at this point. It’s a great look at China pre-1980, when Hong Kong was just beginning to play a large role in global finance and the Mainland was still a vast rural commune under the thrall of a teetering dictator.

There aren’t many shots of boat people, but the few that made it into the film are an interesting look back in time. This scene also features the shimmering flashbacks that give us a look into the characters’ backstories. Lee is here to help the British and restore the honor of the Shaolin Temple, but when he learns that his sister was murdered by a Han henchmen, it becomes a revenge mission as well.

Williams, played by martial artist Jim Kelly, is an activist beat down to cops. Roper, played by John Saxon, is a rich playboy who’s into the Mob for big money. They all meet on a large junk with a Kiwi bad guy named Parsons who gives Lee another chance to espouse some philosophy:

Parsons: What's your style?
Lee: My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.
Parsons: The art of fighting without fighting? Show me some of it.
Lee: Later.
Lee: Don't you think we need more room?
Parsons: Where else?
Lee: That island, on the beach. We can take this boat.

Parsons jumps in the boat and Lee plays the line out and gives it to some young crew members, who laugh as the small boat takes on water and Parsons yells futilely to let back on board.

When they reach the island the four are greeted by Tania, the sexy head henchwoman who brings them to a reception room modeled on every exotic throne room ever imagined. Two sumo wrestlers struggle against each other in the center of the room as acrobats and musicians jump around and play wild tunes. Women drape themselves over everything; smoke and curtains and tapestries in red and gold ...

When Han shows up he has his lady ninjas with him and he tells everyone how happy he is, announces the beginning of the tournament, and then his ladies skewer fruit out of the sky with darts. He smiles, turns, and heads back up to his secret chambers.

After a long night inspecting what Han’s island has to offer, the men head down to the main training grounds to fight it out. The tournament fights are fun to watch. Williams dispatching his first opponent, Roper playing possum in order to make a few extra bucks. Han surveys the fights from a small throne, surrounded by his elite bodyguard.

The clincher of the day is Lee versus O’Hara, the thug who forced Lee’s sister to commit suicide. The end of this fight produces one of Lee’s signature “losing it” moments in which every qi molecule in his body shoots out of his feet into O’Hara’s face, with some excess exhaled out in a shaking, high-pitched wail of woe. 

There are some unforgettable, eerie scenes in this film: the death of Williams, for example, while high prostitutes laugh uncontrollably to a psychedelic funk soundtrack. Or Roper’s revelation, when he he sees Han’s true self for the first time in a much edgier take on a Bond-style scene beside a vat of acid. The underground fight scene between Lee and a dozen guards, which also features a look at human guinea pigs kept in cells for Han’s experimental drug business.

Enter the Dragon was revolutionary in so many ways. Aside from the social and cultural impact, the film itself crosses so many lines and does so in a way that is both plausible and jarring. You could believe that some mastermind could keep women high on dope on an island, recruit thugs via a martial arts tournament, and conduct experiments on ragged prisoners. Somehow Enter the Dragon feels gritty and real, not over the top like a Bond film, despite the exotic setting and often shakily choreographed kung fu fight scenes.

On the final day of the tournament, a seared Roper must fight Lee, but when they refuse, Han hands the honors over to Bolo. I have to admit here that Bolo has always been my favorite kung fu character. Man of few words. Diesel. Ruthless. He nevertheless loses to the wealthy playboy and ends up just another casualty.

Han loses his mind and has the entire school attack Lee and Roper. Chaos ensues. Lee kicks hapless thugs multiple times in the face. The training grounds turn into a pitched battle between Han’s kung fu thugs and the guinea pigs released from the underground lair by secret agent Mei Ling. The final battle between the “Struggling Dragon and the Fighting Tiger” takes place in a room of mirrors. Han’s weapon is a prosthetic hand with claws; Lee’s weapons are impossibly quick strikes and a focused mind.

The outcome is never in doubt.


Check out these related stories:

Pranks, Porsches and Jeet Kune Do: The Friendship of Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee

Return of the Dragon: How Bruce Lee Predicted the Future of Fighting

The Philosophy of Bruce Lee Is Alive and Well in New York City