Still Kicking

Thirty years after Bruce Lee's 'Enter the Dragon,' the mainstream martial arts movie survives as his legacy


August 24, 2003

By Steve Knopper

Everybody remembers the broken glass. After Bruce Lee humiliates the menacing Oharra in the martial-arts classic "Enter the Dragon," the bearded, scarred bad guy smashes two bottles and comes after Lee. One savage Lee kick in the groin later, actor Bob Wall is forever recognized in public places around the world.

"They'll say, 'I thought you were just a killer!' And, 'I hated you - but you're such a nice guy!' And I say, 'We're in Hollywood - they call it acting,'" says Wall, 63, a partner with actor Chuck Norris in World Black Belt Inc., a Los Angeles martial-arts association. "It's astounding. My wife always thinks I pay people off."

Thirty years after its release, "Enter the Dragon," the film that turned martial-arts hero Lee into an international superstar, retains the ability to stick with you like a deep thigh bruise. In addition to Wall's intimidating Oharra, other memorable moments include the house-of-mirrors cat-and-mouse game at the end, John "Roper" Saxon's gambling, big-haired Jim "Williams" Kelly's chilling demise and Lee's spiritual confidence.

Adding to the 1973 film's mystique was tragic timing - Lee died at age 33 of a cerebral edema a month before the premiere - and an American public primed for martial-arts movies. Although Lee had made several big films in his Hong Kong homeland and starred as Kato on the '60s TV series "The Green Hornet," "Enter the Dragon" was Lee's first film released in the United States and gave him worldwide stardom.

"When that movie came out, business doubled. We couldn't keep them out of the school," says Joseph Droual, headmaster of New York Martial Arts Hombu in Huntington and a martial-arts teacher for 33 years. "After his movie and the other sequels came out, it lasted, probably, a good six or seven years."

"Enter the Dragon," of course, touched off a huge boom in martial-arts movies that continues today, helping post-Lee masters Jackie Chan, Chow-Yun Fat and Jet Li, Chuck Norris and Steven Segal make a nice living in Hollywood. Lee and lesser imitators, such as David Carradine in the '70s television series "Kung Fu," ensured that a generation of viewers grew up making "heeeeyah!" and exaggerated fist-striking-flesh noises.

It didn't take long for "Enter the Dragon" to influence other forms of popular culture. "We used to watch the Saturday afternoon matinees on Ch. 5 - we used to watch Bruce Lee and Bruce Li and all the other cats," says Inspectah Deck, a Bronx rapper whose group, the Wu-Tang Clan, styled itself after the Shaolin monks of Lee's films. "Then we used to go outside and imitate the moves on each other. When that movie dropped, nobody ever thought of doing roundhouse kicks or anything like that. Not in real life."

Born in San Francisco, Lee grew up in Hong Kong, learning to fight after a street gang beat him up in the '50s. He trained in a wide range of martial arts, particularly kung fu and American boxing, winning various championships before moving back to the United States for college. In between fights, he auditioned to play Kato and quickly became more notable than the TV series' top-billed star, Van Williams, who played the Green Hornet.

Viewed today, after years of imitations and parodies such as "They Call Me Bruce?" "Enter the Dragon" can seem choppy and exaggerated. Kelly's character, in particular, plays the stereotypical role of the headstrong, cocky black man. (Neither he nor John Saxon would comment for this story.) But Lee's charisma, then as now, redeems the movie, and his physical grace remains inspiring.

In one famous scene, for example, he encounters a deadly cobra, deftly puts its head into a sack and hangs onto it for a later purpose. In another, he fights on despite bleeding from cuts all over his body. But most memorable for Long Island native Howie Solof, a shifu (instructor) at the Boulder, Colo., Hung Mei Kung Fu Association, is Lee's opening dialogue, establishing his character as a spiritual man, not a pure killer.

"It helped enhance that mystique about Eastern philosophy and its approach to martial arts vs. the Western punch-and-kick stuff that was happening at that time," says Solof, who had been studying tae kwan do at the time. "It wasn't quite the same as going to the boxing gym. I had a sense there was a greater spiritual connection and depth for study for martial arts."

But despite its respect for the spiritual roots of Asian martial arts, "Enter the Dragon" - and its subsequent imitations - had the long-term effect of reinforcing cross-cultural stereotypes. "It is a double-edged sword," says Gil Asakawa, a longtime Denver journalist who writes, an online pop-culture column from an Asian-American perspective. "People like Jackie Chan and Jet Li are a good thing for Asian-Americans because they raise the consciousness and make us not seem so alien and foreign.

"But it's a bad thing because the first image people think of is 'hooowwooooo!' and they make that sound and do that thing with their hands. When people do that, they do it because of Bruce Lee, who's been dead for almost 30 years," Asakawa says. "It's really weird - the guy has had such an enormous impact. He busted open the door for the entire genre, but by doing so, he set the stereotype for us."

The film also had another negative effect - "The Bruce Lee Curse," which supposedly led to the death of the late actor's son, Brandon Lee, on the movie set of "The Crow" in 1993. Bruce Lee was one of those fascinating pop-cultural figures, like James Dean or The Doors' Jim Morrison, who died far too soon and unleashed decades of unsubstantiated rumor. One Web site speculates that the Chinese mob was responsible for his death.

Some of the rumors are smaller, though - and the amiable, talkative Wall, who played Oharra, is happy to dispel them. Yes, Wall's character broke real glass bottles at the end of his big fight scene with Lee. And yes, after filming the scene seven times, Lee injured his hand on the glass and had to break from filming for a week. But Lee wasn't angry at Wall, and Wall certainly wasn't responsible for choosing the real glass.

"The director, God rest his soul, was just a bean brain," Wall says of the late Robert Clouse. "And he didn't have fake glass, and I had to use real bottles."