11 Legendary Facts About Enter the Dragon

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

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.

Warner Home Video

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.

Warner Home Video

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. 

Additional Sources:
Blood and Steel: Making Enter the Dragon (2004)
The Making of Enter the Dragon by Robert Clouse (1987)

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.