Monday, April 4, 2011

Back When Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting!

The first love affair between American mainstream moviegoers and the martial arts film genre was a short one, lasting from 1973 to 1975. Ironically, it was a TV series that piqued the curiosity of American audiences and, unknowingly, primed them for big screen battles with crunching fists and crushing feet. That TV show was Kung Fu, of course, which debuted as a made-for-TV movie in 1972 and evolved into a weekly series later that year. Future martial arts superstar Bruce Lee tested for the lead role, but lost the part to David Carradine. The amount of fight footage in the series was actually minimal and often filmed in slow motion.

Hands that glow in 5 Fingers of Death.
In 1973, though, moviegoers got a taste of the real thing when Warner Bros. imported the Shaw Bros. Hong Kong sensation 5 Fingers of Death (known elsewhere in the world as King Boxer or Tian xia di yi qyuan). For martial arts film aficionados, the film still serves as a prototype of some of the genre’s most popular plot devices: conflict between rival martial arts schools and a defeated hero who overcomes his opponent by learning a new fighting technique. For casual moviegoers, though, it was the exciting, tightly-choreographed fight scenes that kept them glued to the screen. But there was one thing missing in 5 Fingers of Death--and that was a charismatic leading man with whom American audiences could identify.

Lee fights a rival school by himself
in The Chinese Connection.
Bruce Lee filled that void nicely with Fists of Fury (aka The Big Boss), which was released the same year. Some filmgoers recognized Lee from his short stint in the 1966-67 superhero TV series The Green Hornet. That introduction didn’t prepare them for Lee’s big screen animal intensity, his stunningly choreographed fight sequences, and his quiet charm. By the time Lee’s second film, The Chinese Connection (aka Fist of Fury), was released that same year, he was an international superstar. His meteoric rise came to a shocking end when he died of unknown causes in 1973. By that time, Lee had completed two more films: the English-language Enter the Dragon (his biggest U.S. hit) and Return of the Dragon (retitled statewide from Way of the Dragon to capitalize on Enter the Dragon).

Wang Fu as the One-Armed Boxer
in Master of the Flying Guillotine.
In the wake of Lee’s death, kung fu cinema struggled to another superstar. The first performer to be marketed as the heir apparent was Wang Yu, renamed Jimmy Wang Yu for English-language audiences. Ironically, Wang Yu had been a huge star in Hong Kong cinema before Bruce Lee in hits like The Chinese Boxer and Golden Swallow. Despite his Asian fame, Wang Yu projected a bland personality and stiff fighting style--especially compared to Lee--and Americans never embraced him. However, he encountered some minor success stateside by directing and starring in two exciting “tournament films”: The Chinese Professionals (aka The One-Armed Boxer) and Master of the Flying Guillotine (aka One-Armed Boxer 2). Both films feature him battling multiple villains, each with a unique fighting style. As for Wang Yu, well, he loses an arm in the first film and still manages to crush his opponents using the “iron fist” technique. The second film expanded the premise and features better fights in better locations. It has since evolved in a cult film with fans like Quentin Tarantino, who used a music clip in Kill Bill.

Angela Mao in Enter the Dragon.
The only other Asian stars to achieve even fleeting fame with Western audiences were Angelo Mao and Sonny Chiba. While Angela Mao lacked the feminine appeal of future Asian action stars like Michelle Yeoh, moviegoers enjoyed watching a young woman beating up men twice her size. She scored three modest hits with Lady Whirlwind, When Taekwondo Strikes, and Hapkido. Their success earned her a small role in Enter the Dragon and even an interview on television’s 60 Minutes. As for Chiba, he achieved notoriety in 1974 when his Japanese import The Street Fighter was the first film to rated X solely for violence.

Other established Asian stars, like David Chiang and Ti Lung, tried to keep the kung fu craze alive in America. And ABC even tried to a launch another TV series with Men of the Dragon, a pilot with Jared Martin that appeared on the ABC Movie of the Week in 1974. But, without Lee, popular interest in the kung fu craze fizzled as quickly as it had begun. It would be almost two decades before U.S. would embrace another martial arts superstar: Jackie Chan.


  1. Your post is a wonderful start to a month of reviews about a genre with which I have never been familiar. The review I am doing is of "Samurai Rebellion", which seems to be more on a par with the television Kung Fu. It has great depth of story, perhaps less actual martial arts than some, but scenes of it which are very powerful.

    I have always wondered how Bruce Lee died. It was mysterious, wasn't it? I would be interested to know more about it. He was indeed charismatic and a wonderful physical presence. My sons couldn't get enough of these movies!

    Considering how popular those movies were, it is strange that 2 decades went by before they came back so big and more stars were born because of it. Good start, Rick -- I'm looking forward to more!

  2. Wonderful post on one of my absolute favorite film genres. When I was younger, a local cable channel used to show quite a few kung fu films, such as Chang Cheh's THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. This was back when Hong Kong movies were cut and badly dubbed, and you had to train your eyes to follow characters as they were chopped from the screen (though, even with widescreen subtitled prints, you had to do the same thing with subtitles as they fell off the screen).

    It's a real shame that the first kung fu craze lasted such a short time. Your description of Wang Yu was spot on, and though I enjoy watching his films, I can understand why he didn't achieve the same amount of success in the U.S. as Lee. An actor like Ti Lung, on the other hand, I'm surprised didn't become a star over here. He was charismatic, a great actor and martial artist, and, for good measure, boyishly good looking. I think perhaps audiences were searching for another Bruce Lee, which is why so many actors imitated him or were asked to do so (even Jackie Chan -- one of his early films is titled NEW FIST OF FURY).

    Rick, this was a superb read. These movies are a huge part of my life, and I will always have a fondness for them. I'm looking forward to this month at the Café!

  3. Sark, I hold a special fondness for martial arts films, too (obviously!). I saw one Ti Lung movie during the first U.S. kung fu film invasion and it was released theatrically as SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON. It also starred David Chiang, who was in Hammer's entertaining kung fu/Dracula film THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. I thought Chiang and Ti Lung were personable performers and stylish artists.

    Becks, I'm sure these films played specialty theatres in the big cities during the latter 1970s and 1980s...but I never got to see them. I know several people that think RUMBLE IN THE BRONX was Jackie Chan's first U.S. release. But there were several attempts to launch his stateside career, starting with 1980's THE BIG BRAWL.

    I'm looking forward to this month's theme. I hope some of our regular visitors--who may not be kung fu film fans--decide to check out some of these enjoyable movies.

  4. This is a fun idea for the Cafe to explore, Rick. I was thinking that it was fun to see David Carradine come full circle from being the mild "Kung Fu" character to Bill in the "Kill Bill" films. Bruce Lee had enormous charisma and it was sad that he died so very young. Great post and I look forward to reading the blogs on this genre this April.

  5. Pretty good overview, but no mention of my favorite, Gordon Hiu. He started around this time.

  6. Rick, this is a good introduction to this month's theme. You provide a lot of good background information that some non-Kung-fu admirers might not know.

  7. Rick, I have seen quite a few of the films you mentioned in your article. I am a big fan of Bruce Lee, Michelle Yeoh, and several others. I loved the movie Kill Bill. I am also a big Chuck Norris, Steven Seagul , and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jet Li, Cynthia Rothrock, and Jeff Speakman...if these actors count as kung fu movie stars. I am not sure about that. I enjoyed your article very much.