In 1973, a group of American and Chinese filmmakers gathered together in Hong Kong to make a film that was supposed to transform Bruce Lee—then a Hong Kong action star best known to American audiences for a few TV appearances—into an international sensation. They faced a star’s nerves, language barriers on set, and a script that didn’t take shape right away, but ultimately they created a masterpiece.
Today, 45 years after its release, Enter the Dragon remains one of the greatest martial arts films ever made. It cemented the legend of Lee after his untimely death just weeks before the U.S. release, and it remains an essential pillar of the genre for longtime fans and novices alike. So, to celebrate nearly 50 years of Lee’s legend, here are 11 facts about the film, from live cobras on set to some unlikely inspirations.
1. THE FILM GREW OUT OF BRUCE LEE’S FRUSTRATION WITH HOLLYWOOD.
In the late 1960s, Bruce Lee was a martial arts instructor-turned-actor with an eye on becoming a major star after appearances in television series like The Green Hornet and Ironside. Hoping for an even bigger TV break, in the early 1970s Lee began discussions with Warner Bros. for a series about a Shaolin monk in the American west, an idea that would eventually become the hit series Kung Fu. Lee contributed to the project on a conceptual level, but Warner Bros. ultimately gave the starring role to David Carradine, in part because they did not believe a Chinese star would connect with American audiences.
Frustrated and stagnant in America, Lee accepted an offer from Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow to come make martial arts films with him. Lee was encouraged in this endeavor by Warner Bros. executive and eventual Enter the Dragon producer Fred Weintraub, who believed that with the right film to show to American executives Lee could eventually achieve international stardom. In 1971 and 1972 Lee released three films from Chow’s Golden Harvest studio—The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury), The Chinese Connection, and The Way of the Dragon—all of which made him an immediate superstar in Hong Kong, so much so that he had to wear disguises to walk around in public. That was enough to finally convince Warner Bros., and in late 1972 Weintraub and producer Paul Heller were able to offer Lee a film then-called Blood and Steel, which would eventually become Enter the Dragon. It was a long road, but it all grew out of Lee’s frustrations with American executives and their failure to recognize his talent.
2. THE LOOK WAS INSPIRED BY A COMIC STRIP.
Enter the Dragon was made quickly, on a tight schedule, and with a budget much more constrained than what we commonly associate with action movies today. As a result, Heller and Weintraub had to start concerning themselves with getting sets built in Hong Kong even before Michael Allin’s script was completely finalized. To do that, Heller looked to his childhood and to a comic strip about adventures in China that he’d loved, Terry and the Pirates.
“It was high chroma reds, blues, golds, and it just lent itself to this project so closely,” Heller said.
So, with Terry and the Pirates in mind, Heller began working with a sketch artist to design various sets, including Han’s (Kien Shih) underground layer, the banquet hall on the island, and other key areas of Han’s domain. From there, the sketches were turned over to set builders in Hong Kong, and construction was underway.
3. LEE CLASHED WITH THE WRITER OVER THE SCRIPT.
Once Lee’s success in Hong Kong was felt around the world, Weintraub and Heller decided the time was right to strike, and Heller drafted a young writer named Michael Allin to script Blood and Steel, specifically as a Bruce Lee vehicle.
“It was wonderful because I didn’t know anything about martial arts, I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong, and I was learning along the way,” Allin later recalled.
Though he wasn’t particularly well paid for the script according to director Robert Clouse, Allin was flown out to Hong Kong to be present on the Enter the Dragon set, which meant he was around for key changes to the script. According to Clouse, Lee—who was acutely aware of his Chinese identity and its importance to his fan base—wanted to alter the screenplay to better reflect his heritage and his philosophy on martial arts, and sought to work with Allin on the changes. Allin apparently responded to this in a “smart alecky” way, and the clash in approach between the two men was enough to get Lee to demand that Allin leave Hong Kong. Allin, according to Clouse, was instead simply moved to a different hotel by Weintraub, and when Lee found out about it he was furious and refused to continue shooting.
“It took quite some time to smooth things out so everyone could work together again,” Clouse later wrote. “But Bruce never totally forgave the producers.”
4. THE CREW STRUGGLED WITH OUTDATED EQUIPMENT.
Because Enter the Dragon was an American co-production made in Hong Kong with American filmmakers in key roles but much of the rest of the work being done with local talent, there were various culture clashes at work throughout the production. This meant a language barrier for many people working on the film, of course, but it also meant the Americans—including cinematographer Gilbert Hubbs—were often shocked at how little care and expense went into the minutiae of the Hong Kong production system, from the camera equipment to the film processing lab, which Heller described as “the filthiest place I’ve ever seen.”
“The crew was, like the equipment, taking a step back in time,” Hubbs said. “The tools for lighting were very simple. In Hollywood you had a lot of tools to control light, and over there I think we had window screens, black paper, rope, and clothes pins.”
Somehow, through all of that, the American and Chinese crew members found a way to work together.
5. LEE DIDN’T SHOW UP WHEN FILMING STARTED.
Lee knew there was a lot riding on Enter the Dragon. This was the result of years of struggling to make himself into a major international star, and now he was on the cusp of that stardom. Unfortunately, knowing how high the stakes were meant that he was reportedly too nervous to show up as filming began, and according to Clouse he kept coming up with excuses as to why he couldn’t start work.
“We started shooting the picture, and Bruce did not show up, and what we had heard is that he was nervous, and he was nervous,” Weintraub recalled. “Meanwhile, we started shooting the movie because I wanted to get going and we had Warner's money and the guy from Warner Bros. kept calling. I said ‘Oh I’m telling you, it’s really turning out great.’ I didn’t have a bit of footage on Bruce.”
To use the time without Lee as wisely as possible, Weintraub and Clouse shot scenic footage around the city, some of which ended up in the film’s opening title sequence. When Lee finally did arrive on set, he was shaking so badly that his first shots had to be done sitting down. Once he loosened up, though, the production was off and running.
6. EXTRAS TRIED TO PICK FIGHTS WITH LEE.
For the massive scenes involving Han’s many soldiers and tournament participants on the island, up to 400 extras were used. According to Clouse, the young men were often members of rival Hong Kong street gangs, and battles that began as acting would often escalate into real clashes. When he wasn’t needed elsewhere, Lee hung out with these extras, many of whom decided to begin mocking his supposed martial arts prowess. Clouse’s recollection is that Lee laughed most of these jabs off, but sometimes a particularly insulting extra would offer a real challenge and had to be taught a lesson.
“Bruce wouldn’t move as the kick would invariably fall short. Then Bruce would lash out two or three times, not trying to kill him, but to ‘mark’ him. Draw blood, as it were,” Clouse recalled. “I saw one fellow who didn’t seem to have a mark on him after this exchange. I didn’t believe he had been hit until he opened his mouth and revealed it was full of blood."
7. LEE WAS INJURED MORE THAN ONCE DURING FILMING.
Though he was often the one doing the injuring when the extras dared to cross him, Lee suffered his own share of injuries while making Enter the Dragon. One such injury came during the fight with Oharra, played by Bob Wall. In the scene, Oharra breaks a bottle to use as a makeshift weapon and attempts to cut Lee, which sounds common enough, but Hong Kong film studios did not have sugar glass available, so it was a real glass bottle Wall was using. Wall recalled that the scene was shot eight times, and each time Lee told him “come at me as fast as you can.” In one take, Lee pivoted his body just so, and his right knuckles collided with the bottle. Clouse recalled that Lee required 12 stitches for the wound.
Another injury had the potential to be even more frightening, and came in the moment when Lee was handling a live cobra. According to Clouse, the snake was purchased from a local shop in Hong Kong, and the filmmakers had been told it would be defanged. Because it was important that the cobra look like a cobra and flare out its signature hood, Lee would slap it on the head between takes in order to agitate it. A few takes into shooting, the cobra figured out what was going on and bit Lee’s hand, revealing it was definitely not defanged.
“We had taken the man on his word that the snake had its poison sack removed and apparently it had been done,” Clouse recalled.
8. THE ICONIC MIRRORED ROOM WAS NOT IN THE SCRIPT.
It’s impossible now to imagine Enter the Dragon without the iconic final fight between Lee and Han, which takes place in a mirrored room that replicates Lee’s movements several times over as he delivers his famous kicks. Once upon a time, though, this was nowhere in the script, and only came about because Heller noticed the effect mirrors had at a Hong Kong hotel where he was eating one day.
“I took Bruce and showed it to him. He thought it was too fragmented, that you couldn’t get any action that would mean anything out of it,” Heller recalled. “Bob Clouse and I really fought hard for it, and we created this mirrored room.”
Clouse and Heller pushed ahead with the mirror concept, and once they showed the set to Lee and he was able to move around in the space, he became a believer. A special “closet” made of mirrors with a hole cut in one side for the camera lens was built, so that the cameraman would always blend into the rest of the scene, and filming of the famous sequence began. According to Hubbs, though, working for hours on end in that environment created a unique set of challenges.
“I remember that I would always have to touch, because if I’m looking at something, they might not be there, they might be over there,” Hubbs said. “I found that I could only be in there for a couple of hours, and I’d have to go out and sit down and look at a wall and real dimension, because it’s like there was a fourth dimension in there.”
9. LEE CHOREOGRAPHED THE FIGHT SCENES HIMSELF.
Lee was not just the star of Enter the Dragon. He also played a key role in how it was staged, as the screenplay would often describe action sequences by simply saying “This Will Be Choreographed by Mr. Bruce Lee.” As Heller recalled, Lee would often walk through the various sets, particularly Han’s underground lair, and look for details and props that he could then incorporate into each sequence, with the help of Clouse. Together, they worked closely to engineer the film’s iconic fight sequences, and by the time early footage from the film was available, Lee was so excited that he didn’t want Enter the Dragon to end. According to Weintraub, he later went back to Hong Kong to shoot the early sparring sequence at the monastery with his friend Sammo Hung.
10. IT FEATURES A YOUNG JACKIE CHAN.
Lee is not the only Hong Kong movie legend present in Enter the Dragon, though the other major legend he shares scenes with wasn’t yet known to the world. Jackie Chan, then working as a stuntman, played one of Han’s henchmen during the climactic battle sequences in the underground lair, and while his character ultimately died after Lee broke his neck, Chan was also briefly injured by the Dragon in real life. According to Chan’s recollection, he was supposed to rush Lee, who would then strike at him with a stick, and Chan would then pretend to be struck and fall to the ground. Chan charged, Lee struck, and he really connected with Chan’s head. When the director called cut, Lee rushed to the young Chan’s side, and while Chan wasn’t really hurt badly, he did still enjoy getting a hug from the legend.
11. A REMAKE IS IN THE WORKS.
Enter the Dragon was released on August 19, 1973 in the United States to immediate success, grossing more than $21 million in North America and becoming one of the biggest films of the year. Lee got the international stardom he wanted, but unfortunately he didn’t live to see it. He passed away on July 20, 1973, in Hong Kong, at the age of just 32. Because of this, and because of the power of Enter the Dragon, he became a star of mythic proportions, something which continues to this day.
That doesn’t mean Enter the Dragon can’t live on without Lee, though—at least not if you believe certain filmmakers. In the summer of 2018 it was reported that Deadpool 2 director David Leitch is in talks to direct a remake of the film, which as of July was still looking for a writer. There’s no word yet on when the film might be released or who would star, but whoever it is will have some Dragon-sized shoes to fill.
Blood and Steel: Making Enter the Dragon (2004)
The Making of Enter the Dragon by Robert Clouse (1987)