Written by Michael Allin and Bruce Lee
Directed by Robert Clouse and Bruce Lee (uncredited)
USA and Hong Kong, 1973
For most people, Enter the Dragon is a quintessential action film. The first Chinese martial arts film co-produced in Hollywood, it launched the genre, not to mention its late leading man Bruce Lee, to Western audiences. Not only does it compass elements of a thriller and an action film, but it is also culturally relevant.
Shaolin member Lee (Bruce Lee) is invited to a competition against other martial artists organised by Han (Shih Kien), a mysterious man who is being investigated by British Intelligence for drug trafficking and prostitution. While other competitors such as Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly) are respectively evading the mob and the law, Lee participates to regain the honour of the Shaolin temple and seek revenge for his sister’s death.
Enter the Dragon is considered a stepping stone for martial arts aficionados. While reaffirming Lee as a major Hollywood star, it also features early performances from members of the Seven Little Fortunes performance troupe such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah. All four actors have since carved a strong career in the martial arts genre, with their collective filmography containing some of the most prolific martial arts action films in history.
It is easy to form a visual connection with Enter the Dragon. From Lee’s fight in the temple to the credits sequence that captures 1970s’ Hong Kong, it is visually striking from the get-go. The shots of the exterior markets, junk boats and planes flying into the former Kai Tai Airport, which meant that they had to fly very low over the region’s surrounding areas, open up a relatively unfamiliar culture to new audiences.
In the 1970s’, Asian shows were badly dubbed in English, gaining a reputation for inconsistent mouth movements that didn’t match the dialogue. However, being a Hollywood co-production, Enter the Dragon is predominately set in Hong Kong yet the characters in the film speak English, even if they are Chinese. This strikes a chord with second-generation Chinese whose English is considered their first language. Highlighting the lack of a culture and language barrier, Enter the Dragon is seen as the first form of mainstream media featuring Chinese people that Western audiences can relate to.
Additionally, themes of racial discrimination do not overrule the plot or feed the cultural differences between the characters, where they are Caucasian, African-American or Asian. However, it also feeds the stereotype that Asians are renowned for knowing martial arts, partially due to Bruce Lee’s domineering presence in the film. As Lee wished to use the film to share his own perspective on Chinese culture and his personal philosophy on martial arts, his physical prowess and his distinctive combat noises shaped him into the icon that he is known as today. After the film’s release, an influx of aspiring martial artists followed, hoping to follow in Lee’s footsteps, as well as a number of parodies that seem to strip the theme of Chinese nationalism that Lee aimed to instil in the film.
Enter the Dragon is more than a classic action film, or an essential martial artist film. It is also an education.