Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss: the film that made a martial arts legend, even if everyone involved hated making it
It’s nearly 50 years since Bruce Lee finally broke out as a star in The Big Boss. The Hong Kong martial arts legend was a child star with plenty of acting credits to his name, and his television portrayal of Kato, The Green Hornet’s assistant, in the 60s US action series was iconic. Yet it wasn’t until he finally got the lead in the The Big Boss that Lee established himself as an actor worthy of the highest billing.
Originally, Lee was not meant to be the star of the movie. When he signed with production studio Golden Harvest in June 1971, pre-production of the film – originally titled King of the Boxers – was already underway. James Tien, who had recently switched from Shaw Brothers to Golden Harvest, had already been earmarked as a future star and the lead actor for The Big Boss.
At this time, Lee was still in America. He had several projects he was trying to get off the ground – most notably The Silent Flute and Kung Fu. Although these two concepts would belatedly be green lit – without Lee’s involvement – in 1970 the prospects looked bleak. Lee was not keen to give up on Hollywood but he was struggling with money and a lack of work. It was in April that year when Golden Harvest supremo Raymond Chow first got in touch with Lee and talked to him about returning to Hong Kong to work on kung fu movies.
Neither side considered such an arrangement a priority. Lee wanted to remain in America and was wary of Chinese filmmakers and their perceived lack of professionalism compared to Hollywood. For his part, Chow was keener on luring wuxia star Cheng Pei-pei, the “Queen of Swords” and a friend of Lee’s in California, back to Hong Kong and hoped closer ties with Lee would help him accomplish this.
Eventually, both sides compromised. Lee accepted Chow’s contract despite it not containing the original terms he asked for, and Chow accepted he would only be getting Lee and not Cheng.
Lee agreed to fly to Asia and spend four months there making two movies. To prepare himself, he watched a number of Hong Kong kung fu flicks before flying, which were unimpressive. “They were awful,” he once said, adding that they seemed, “very superficial and one dimensional”.
When Lee arrived in Thailand, where The Big Boss was being shot, his opinion of things did not improve. Production was taking place in Pak Chong, a tiny village some 160km (100 miles) north of Bangkok. Lee wrote letters home to his wife, Linda, despairing of the situation: “The mosquitos are terrible and cockroaches are all over the place … The food is terrible, this village has no beef and very little chicken and pork. Am I glad I came with my vitamins … I miss you a lot but Pak Chong is no place for you and the children. It’s an absolute underdeveloped village and a big nothing.”
Lee’s feelings about his work on the film set were no more positive. “Who is this guy?” thought Zebra Pan, a stuntman unfamiliar with much of Lee’s prior work according to Matthew Polly in his biography Bruce Lee: A Life. Many of the crew were pals of James Tien and were suspicious of Lee’s arrival, fearing – correctly – that this man from Hollywood would upstage their friend.
One of the biggest sources of disagreement on set was the nature of the action scenes. Kung fu movies up to this point had been based on the traditions of Cantonese opera with its intricate, flowing sequences and wide variety of moves. Lee, however, had never studied that tradition. He was more a rough and ready street fighter. What Lee wanted to put on film was a quicker, snappier, more realistic style of fighting.
This put Lee on a collision course with the film’s original director, Wu Chia-hsiang, who preferred to adhere to strict tradition and what he knew best. The two butted heads and both complained to Raymond Chow back at Golden Harvest.
“You’ve been swindled,” Wu complained to Chow. “You told me this guy was very good, but he can’t fight. All he knows are three kicks. I call him ‘Three Leg Lee’.”
“This director is rubbish,” Lee chimed in for his part. “When I fight these underlings, I should get rid of them with three kicks. If it takes a long time to dispatch these peons, then what should I do when I meet the head villain? I’ll have to fight him for a whole hour.”
Ultimately, one had to go. Having invested a significant sum in Lee already – reportedly Lee’s salary was the highest item on the budget outside of fake blood – the axe fell on director Wu.
His replacement was Lo Wei. This should have made things easier: Lo Wei had advised Chow to hire Lee in the first place and his wife had visited California to convince Lee to join Golden Harvest. However, Lo was still old school and demanded respect from his actors, and Lee’s more relaxed, Hollywood background was a bad match. There was initially much friction on-set as Lee, in a significant breach of etiquette, refused to call Lo by his title, Director Lo.
Lee’s first impressions were not positive. In another letter to his wife he remarked: “The film I’m doing is quite amateur-like. A new director has replaced the uncertain old one; this new director is another so-so one with an almost unbearable air of superiority.”
Director Lo was still faced with a problem of who was to be his leading man. He decided to play Lee and Tien off against each other. One day Lee might do all the action scenes, then the next he would have the Little Dragon look on as Tien took centre stage and featured in all the shots.
The tactic seemed to pay dividends as Lee gradually became more pliable and receptive to Lo’s way of working. He wrote home: “The shooting is picking up steam and moving along much better than it was. The new director is no Roman Polanski but as a whole he is a better choice than our ex-director.”
Eventually Lo would conclude Lee had to be the main man. The director would later claim that when he arrived in Thailand to take the reins, the screenplay for The Big Boss was a mere three pages of paper. This bare-bones outline allowed Lo to make a decision whereby James Tien’s character would be killed off so that Lee could take over and be the sole star for the second half of the film.
The rest is history. Lee’s pure charisma and new rough and tough style of kung fu entranced audiences in Hong Kong. Lee and Lo used long takes during fight scenes to demonstrate the authenticity of the action. The China Mail estimated that 1.2 million Hongkongers, out of a population of some four million at the time, saw The Big Boss in cinemas, breaking the box office record previously held by The Sound of Music.
In a 1988 interview, Lo was critical of his work, stating: “Now that I think about it, The Big Boss really was a crappy film. I didn’t have much time. I just wanted to get it done, no matter how sloppily or whatever.”
Lee was eventually much more optimistic. Although he was nervous on the night of the film’s premier, his excellent work during production had won over the film crew. While in Thailand, messages had been arriving in Hong Kong from Hollywood about Lee’s role in Paramount’s television series Longstreet. This had the effect of convincing sceptics at Golden Harvest that Lee was indeed a genuine star in America.
That might have been a slight exaggeration at the time, but Lee was confident he would get there. When he finally met Raymond Chow face to face at the end of shooting The Big Boss, Lee was prophetic. “You just wait”, he said, “I’m going to be the biggest Chinese star in the world.”
Bruce Lee’s first Asian box office hit changed his life, but it wasn’t the easiest film to make – especially for the co-star who got killed off early to make way for the new tough guy in town