Bruce Lee: How His Film ‘Enter the Dragon’ Made History

Bruce Lee didn’t become a movie star in America until after his death, though he worked hard to bring martial arts and Asian representation to the big screen.

When he passed away in 1973, he missed out on seeing the huge impact of Enter the Dragon, a film that’s a certified classic for many fans of Lee and the action genre. It helped catapult him to stardom.

ESPN’s airing of the Be Water documentary shed light on Lee’s drive and creativity in the entertainment industry, but behind the scenes, there were a few reasons why Enter the Dragon was a historic project.

Bruce Lee's 'Enter the Dragon'
Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’ | Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’ was first American-Hong Kong collaboration

For years, Lee toiled to have one of his ideas made into a feature film with martial arts at the center. At the time, there were no Asian leads in American cinema, and he was typically met with resistance from studios that didn’t want to produce kung fu movies.

He had a reputation in Hollywood as a fight coordinator for movie stars and for his role on The Green Hornet, but Lee struggled to get acting parts. That’s what prompted him to write his own scripts.

Though he partnered up with several screenwriter and producer friends, projects would often get tabled or shut down.

Lee went overseas to Hong Kong to make martial arts movies, and after becoming a huge success there, returned to the US to leverage his fame. It worked, and Warner Bros. agreed to do a film with him.

The late Fred Weintraub respected Lee and helmed the project as a producer for the studio alongside famous Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow. Weintraub celebrated Enter the Dragon as the very first co-production between America and Hong Kong.

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It was Lee’s American film debut

Lee was in the middle of working on Game of Death when the opportunity arose for Enter the Dragon. He put it on the back burner and got to work on what would become his official US film debut.

As many of Lee’s fans know, he never got to finish Game of Death and he died before Enter the Dragon’s premiere in America.

The beloved martial arts movie earned more than $300 million at the box office and with Lee as the leading man (and writer/fight choreographer), paved the way for Asian representation.

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Movie extras were from rival gangs

Enter the Dragon was filmed in Hong Kong, and for several scenes, hundreds of extras were used. Many of them were from opposing street gangs and fights kept breaking out on set. It was hard to manage, and it was one of the reasons that Weintraub almost gave up.

Additionally, said extras kept challenging Lee to brawls to test his mettle, and he would sometimes entertain them, ready to win. This frustrated the crew who wanted to focus on filming, and they were eventually able to convince Lee to stop giving in to the confrontations.

Linda Lee’s presence on set kept ‘Enter the Dragon’ from crashing

Linda Lee (now Linda Lee Cadwell) accompanied her husband on set and found herself in the role of mediator. She and Weintraub said there was a culture clash between the American crew and the Hong Kong crew, but Linda helped temper the communication issues.

In the documentary Bruce Lee: Tale of the Dragon, Weintraub stated Linda was the glue on set and she saved the movie. If it wasn’t for her, he would have left.

He said, “The key that kept it together was Linda, his wife. Every time it looked like the whole thing was gonna fall apart, and I was almost sometimes ready to leave town, Linda would come over and talk to me.”

He added that without her, there wouldn’t have been an Enter the Dragon and she was very important in Bruce Lee’s life.

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