Awed pathos might come with the territory when dealing with talented, charismatic celebrities who die younger than expected, and any biographer of Bruce Lee has a long line of mythological worship to struggle against reproducing. That A Warrior’s Journey, a 2000 documentary directed by Lee historian John Little, opens by emphasising the international extent of Lee’s fame at the time of his untimely death is indicative of both its biggest fault and its main draw.
Faults first. The expository sequence of A Warrior’s Journey contextualises Lee’s 1973 demise, aged just 32, by situating his status as the world’s most exciting martial arts film star within an increasingly receptive US film industry and an economically growing Hong Kong equivalent. Furthermore, archive imagery of a buoyant Lee at the height of his career is underscored by Doug Copsey, who tells us in an even, accessible voice-over that such fame was the means by which Lee had, apparently, finally overcome the professional and cultural bigotry, economic and emotional hardship and the dogged struggle to retain artistic integrity that had marked earlier years.
This check-list required of Lee’s success is presented only to heighten the tragedy of his death, not so much overshadowed by it as aiding and feeding off of it in a reciprocal process of myth-making – or myth-reproduction (the narrator notes, with accompanying close-up, what Lee wrote in his diary on the day of his death). Triumphalism meets mystification, certainly, and Little adds to the pathos by having the rest of his documentary unfold as an illustrative flashback retracing the career of its star up to that starting (or end) point.
But there’s also another reason why the film begins as it does. At the time of his death, Lee had returned to Hong Kong, after filming Enter the Dragon with Warner Bros., to finish shooting The Game of Death, a project for which he undertook eight roles (director and producer; actor, writer and choreographer; and contributing input to set design, cinematography and lighting). Because the film was never completed, its existing footage is something of a treasure to Lee fans – especially since for some time it was considered lost – and the presentation of the 33-minute centre-piece of that film is A Warrior’s Journey‘s unique selling point.
Predictably if understandably, though, the main attraction is delayed, with the first two thirds of the film providing an efficient biographical overview of Lee, tracing’s his development as a lecturer in the nuances of eastern philosophy and the beginnings of his interest in kung fu. Drawn to kung fu as a more complete martial art than karate or jiu-jitsu, Lee formed his own, “non-classical” brand of it that brought together three principles: the economy of motion, simplicity and directness. Referring to non-contact rehearsals and competitions as “organised despair” and “dry-land swimming”, Lee brought to martial arts influences from Newtonian science, western fencing and the stategies of boxing. The only litmus test for martial arts was, for him, their practicable efficiency of landing a blow.
Fearing students were misconstruing his philosophies and making a virtue of them, he closed his three martial arts schools in 1969, narrowing his teaching to a select few students. If this was the beginning of an ultimately more receptive approach to different martial arts styles, Lee’s catalyst for shifting away from the need to systematise a single fighting technique was ironically a back injury sustained in 1970, from which he was told by medics he might never fully recover: effectively bed-ridden for six months, Lee turned to the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti in particular and confirmed his belief against a single, gospel truth with regard to fighting style – effective fighting was thenceforth approached as relative to an individual style that played to one’s strengths.
Proving medics wrong, Lee became fitter and more adept at martial arts than ever and, with a newfound spiritual confidence in his own capabilities, planned The Game of Death to be a showcase of both different styles as exemplified by others and his own adaptibility in conquering them. In the 33-minute sequence from the film – which doubles as the documentary’s own climax – this diversity is displayed concisely and excitingly. Dressed in that iconic yellow suit – itself a means of challenging acceptable dress codes for martial arts – Lee bests three different opponents at their own respective game, utilising any means he must in order to conquer them.
Edited together from Lee’s script and film notes, the sequence is an extended pay-off following an hour or so of exposition, which is narrated in the present-tense and includes interviews with Linda Lee Caldwell, Taky Kimura, Ji Han Jae and towering Game of Death co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – though annoyingly, these talking heads are never credited in-film. The fight sequence extends beyond the 11-minute version that was incorporated into the 1978 exploitative hash-job of the same name, which padded the material to a feature’s length through look-alikes and stand-ins. This ought, by any stretch, to be settle the balance for good.
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey – which was originally included as a bonus on the 2004 special edition of Enter the Dragon – is released as a stand-alone DVD by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on Monday, March 12. Front Row Reviews is also holding a competition to give three copies away; click here to enter.