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Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee had a tough run at home: archives show a suspicious film press

To celebrate Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday, we delve into our archives and learn that the South China Morning Post gave Bruce Lee’s movies a tough run

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 7:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 12:15pm

Bruce Lee is considered a legend of martial arts and movie making. He is credited with creating a new kind of kung fu and being the first Asian actor to win credible roles in film. 

But the press was not always kind to Lee. A look into the South China Morning Post archives reveals that our own coverage didn't give the star the treatment he received posthumously. 

The Post’s 1970s film reviewer, Noel Parrott, had a long history with the paper and was around to note Lee’s rise as an international star, and the aftermath of his death.

Lee fanatics will note the Post was late to the party, as his film career began in Cantonese language films as a three month-old baby in early-1940s San Francisco.

Parrott was clearly a man with a sense of humour. And to some his transparent reviews of the acting quality of Lee’s kung fu films would have been very entertaining.

But to the fans he must have seemed to miss the point.

The Post sincerely called The Big Boss “probably the biggest thing to hit the Mandarin film business since the invention of fake blood” as it broke box-office records in its first three days and took more than The Sound of Music in Hong Kong.

“The acting is very good indeed, with newcomer Bruce Li (or is it Lee? The studio seems to spell it both ways) is a talented young fellow and is well-enough supported by his cast.”

“He boxes better than he acts, but this is not necessarily a drawback in Chinese films,” the Post intoned, still unsure of the reasons for its popularity.

The enthusiasm was not absolute: “It’s good, all right, but it isn’t great,” the Post ended its review. “Maybe all that advance publicity did it.”

High praise.

For Fist of Fury, the US release of The Big Boss, the Post looked to Vincent Canby in New York to be its cultural portal. Canby spent his column inches making fun of violent sexual overtones in the film’s title and writing about karate, which is not Lee’s martial art method.

In fairness, the Canby piece wasn’t so much dismissing Lee’s film so much as the action genres when he compares kung fu movies to spaghetti westerns.

Clearly the Post’s reviewers had a low opinion of Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and didn’t think it could produce a worldwide sensation.

And by the time of Way of the Dragon, it was Parrott’s turn.

The audience was “turning out in droves” for another “box office record breaker and perhaps, for the first time, deserves to be”.

His begrudging acceptance of the successful Hong Kong film continues.

“While there is nothing brilliant about any part of the film — and that includes the boxing — it succeeds in being very entertaining,” he wrote in January, 1973

It wasn’t all backhanders delivered to a film that would become liquid gold, in some parts of his review he’s funny, but a tone of sneering judgement pervades.

Later that year in October, after Lee’s death on July 20, 1973, Parrott takes a far more respectful tone having seen the Hong Kong box office results of Lee’s previous films.

He may also have decided that the deceased star deserved a new level of praise.

“Although there are no certainties in the film world it does not really take much courage to predict huge success and popularity for this one,” he writes.

Alas, no. Enter the Dragon was a relative flop at home compared to previous films, though it was a huge success internationally.

“The story, though, leaves more than a little to be desired,” wrote Parrott, before nearly understanding the point of a Kung Fu action film.

“Bruce Li, while he is far from being any great shakes as an actor, does have a knack for staging exciting fight scenes and this is what his fans are most interested in, after all.”

By 1978, when the Golden Harvest studio cast Lee posthumously in Game of Death, the Post’s review redeemed itself and got on the right side popular opinion.

Game of Death was a disappointing flop as it used unused footage of Lee from Enter the Dragon, and stand-in actors, to complete a movie made in his name but without his style.

It was seen as an attempt to cash in, and Parrott told it straight.

“With The Game of Death we have, in effect, an epitaph for Bruce Li, the best known, if not the greatest, cinematic kung fu exponent of all time. And sadly, it is a far from fitting one,” he wrote.

“Golden Harvest has toyed with a legend and … they have cheapened it.”

The years after his death did a lot for Lee, they made him a legend. And the Post’s film reviewer finally understood him, and got it right.