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  • Carrie Specht

Bruce Lee: A Global Cinema Icon


One of my students wrote an impressive final paper for my History of Cinema class. The assignment was to write about a movement, film or person that had an impact on cinema. Who knew a college junior today would recognize the influence of an icon from the 1960s?

Bruce Lee is typically known as being arguably the premier martial artist and philosopher of the 20th Century. What is often forgotten is his lasting and significant impact on the film industry, particularly during the late 70's. Contributing largely in the field of action and martial arts movies, his influence can be seen heavily through the ages. From references in films like Kill Bill to the modern action movie, Bruce Lee's life, like many great and true artists is one that has a remarkably further reaching scope now than it did when he was alive.

Born on November 27, 1940 in Chinatown, San Francisco, Bruce Lee was raised in Hong Kong. Always a troublemaker, Lee sought out training with the legendary Yip Man who was a renowned master of the martial arts style of Wing Chun. The style's focus on simplicity and practicality not only gave Lee the focus he needed to stay out of trouble but it also shaped his life for the rest of his days. Outside of his experiences with martial arts he also had early exposure to the entertainment business. His father was one of the most prominent Chinese film actors and Cantonese Opera performers of the day. By the time Lee was eighteen he had already appeared in twenty films and had been crowned the Cha Cha champion of Hong Kong. Upon reaching adulthood, Lee moved to the US west coast. He attended Edinson Technical School and later the University of Washington. He majored in Drama but also took many courses on psychology and philosophy. The impact of these courses on Lee's life cannot be understated. It was at this time that Lee was teaching his own variation of Wing Chun to local students. His delving into the human psyche at the university led to him constantly trying to find a more complete form of martial arts. Ultimately Lee became enamored with the concept of self-expression.

No matter what Bruce Lee did, he always strove to achieve the purest form of self-expression. Whether he was acting, weight lifting, or training in martial arts he worked towards ultimate self-expression in part by applying what he learned in school. The beauty in Lee's philosophy was that he didn't seek to attain this goal by complicating what he did. Rather he equated it to a sculptor removing layers from a block of stone until the statue they seek to create is all that is left. Lee always tried to simplify what he did, and get to the root of his activities. As a martial artist he sought to remove what he felt was unnecessary to practical self-defense. As an actor his best example in how he simplified the film industry was in how he approached fight scenes. Prior to Lee, fights in movies (particularly in the kung fu genre) felt like the actors dancing as opposed to fighting. It was Lee's opinion that fight scenes should be brutally elegant, and that the audience should understand that there are consequences to getting punched in the face. The result was that fight scenes in the film industry took on a more realistic approach that has certainly been a big component in action films today.

As Lee's proficiency and all around excellence in martial arts grew, so to did his status as an actor. Achieving massive success in Chinese martial arts films as well as making cameo appearances as a Kung Fu guru in American films such as Marlowe and Longstreet, Lee was on his way to becoming a bonafide star. His career truly blossomed however when he starred in Warner Bros. Enter the Dragon. Hailed for his masterful job as a martial artist and actor in the film, Lee helped inspire one of the early martial arts frenzies in the US. Though his goal had always been to achieve superstar status as an actor, he would not live to see it come to fruition. Sadly, Lee passed away just before Enter the Dragon really took off in the States. This was the film that would make him the pop culture icon he is today.

Prior to Bruce Lee's rise to fame it was common for Chinese people to be stereotypically portrayed in a negative light in American films. Indeed their portrayals were as inaccurate and disturbing as those of Native Americans in most Western films. One of Lee's well-documented goals was to change such assumptions and to gain respect for his fellow countrymen in the film industry. One of the best examples of this is his victory over then martial arts world champion and future action star Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. Though it was not Lee's intention to create such symbolism in the climatic fight scene of that film, many critics see it as a parallel to his eventual success, not just for himself but also for all Asians as a group. This is evidenced by how the smaller Asian triumphs over the larger, white American. In Way of the Dragon Norris typifies how most of the world saw Americans: as large, hairy, and imposing figures. Though Norris initially puts up an excellent fight, Lee triumphs through sheer skill and ingenuity. Once again, it cannot be stressed enough that it was not Lee's intention to create this symbolism. He simply wanted, as the star of the movie, to find someone who would prove an equal to his character in terms of martial arts ability. Norris was a friend and training partner of Lee's at the time, and he fit the bill perfectly. He was the reigning World Champion of martial arts and therefore a worthy opponent.

Though he is mostly known as a prodigious martial artist and philosopher, Bruce Lee is undoubtedly one of the most influential people to have impacted the film industry. By striving for ultimate self-expression he brought greater respect for his countrymen by banishing disrespectful stereotypes of Asians in film with his portrayals of strong, and flat out cool, heroes. He also altered the way fight scenes and martial arts movies were approached by doing away with the dancing nature of fight scenes in favor of those that created drama by making the audience feel like they too were being hit along with whoever was fighting onscreen. A unique individual who never saw the complete fruits of his labors, Bruce Lee is truly a global icon.

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