Bruce Lee: The Legend (1983) Review

"Bruce Lee: The Legend" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Bruce Lee: The Legend" Japanese Theatrical Poster

Writer: Russell Cawthorne
Producer: Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho
Narration: James B. Nicholson

Cast: Bruce Lee, Raymond Chow, Nora Miao, Linda Lee Cadwell, Hugh O’Brian, Betty Ting Pei, Gig Young, Chuck Norris, Robert Clouse, Chuck Norris, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Andre Morgan, Fred Weintraub

By Matthew Le-feuvre

In 1973, still fresh from the trauma of Bruce Lee’s abrupt and unforeseen death, Golden Harvest decided to produce a full length documentary entitled Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend. Although its aim at the time was an unbiased attempt too show the real personality behind the mythical iconography, unfortunately – admidst all the frantic hysteria; the obsessive behaviour and shallow superstitions – this tribute feature ended up fueling an inferno of controversy, rather than dispel the waging tongues of discontent – namely the media, whom quite drunk on sensationalism reviewed The Man, The Legend as “exploitive” and “capitalistic.”

Understandably, their argument was valid, particularly in regards to incorporating actual sequences of Linda Lee at the height of her grief, as well as extensive footage of Lee’s Hong Kong funeral service. On the other hand, it was a revealing glimpse of Bruce Lee’s humanity or immortality, via transcendence, but somehow Raymond Chow was targeted and pre-judged as an insincere man; an egocentric mogul determined too milk as much box office returns as possible from an all too eager public willing to exercise collective expenditure for the sake of their lost idol. The Same could be said of Lo Wei or the Shaw Brothers.

Sadly, Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend intriguingly morphed into something by way of a double edged sword, an anaemic production that couldn’t really satisfy anyone at any conscious level, either with exclusive interviews, commentary or teasing wisps of ‘then’ unseen Game of Death footage or plot concepts for an unrealized philosophical treatise called The Southern Fist.

Various parts looked and felt as though they were hurriedly edited solely for padding without any significant continuity or explaination for insertion: Wong Shum Leung’s (Bruce Lee’s former second Wing Chun Sifu) Game of Death screen test, for example, is not entirely clarified on first viewing as it was predominantly staged on an interior Enter the Dragon set, featuring Wong and Lee’s adoptive brother, Wu Ng, sparring and performing close trapping techniques. Confusing as this may well be, if extra attention had been focused on proper narration and/or construct, perhaps critics would have been, moreover, receptive to this slightly muddled presentation.

Instead, for reasons of his own – be it creative, economic or financial – Raymond Chow decided to shelve The Man, The Legend indefinitely. However, a decade on, Golden Harvest executives again consigned themselves to remaking a broader, more in depth profile, albeit shortening the original title to just Bruce Lee: The Legend.

Freed from the convention of time and budget constraints, technical motifs of book-like chapter visuals and succinct, yet informative narration opens Bruce Lee: The Legend with a rousing musical score and a superb montage of Lee-action sequences. From there, it gently flows into a carefully edited kaleidoscopic gamut of ‘then’ rare footage, diversifying from Lee’s selected childhood filmography/U.S. television credentials to his subsequent Hong Kong film entries. Interspersed with unavailable stills/photographs and eye witness testimonies, personalities such as the aforementioned Raymond Chow and Nora Miao intimately discuss their friendship, as well as celluloid analogies between Lee’s life experiences and the pictures he made for Golden Harvest.

These absorbing insights not only celebrates Bruce Lee’s enduring legacy, but successfully differentiates the ‘Man’ from the illusion of ‘Star fodder’ – a commodity tagging or representation Lee personally found morose and superficial, as inferred to the late Pierre Burton.

Interestingly, all this mammoth responsibility fell into the capable hands of writer/producer, Russell Cawthorne (the very same man who cameoed in Game of Death ’78 as Billy Lo’s plastic surgeon), an introspective individual, who has often quoted that his associations with Lee were always one of electric.

Indeed, condensing a person’s life into a mere eighty minutes is understandably a challenging task to accomplish, yet Cawthorne’s enthusiasm and objectivity blooms within the context of this unique observation where latter biographies – obviously modeled on The Legend – seem mundane, paceless and absent of passion; bar exception is Toby Russell’s Death By Misadventure (1994), the extensive works of Walt Missingham and John Little’s A Warrior’s Journey (2005).

Today Bruce Lee: The Legend may appear dated and stylistically mechanical (no digital or CGI software here folks!), particularly for contemporary fans. Nevertheless, Cawthorne has left no stone unturned, especially when dealing with sensitive or controversial issues – Lee’s untimely passing or the unfinished Game of Death project: both ongoing and debatable subjects that emerge with regularity.

Still, despite the disadvantage of many alternative prints (some versions have omitted (A), Lee’s screentest; (B) certain Game of Death outtakes or (C) Enter the Dragon montage with revamped musical score.), nostalgically, Bruce Lee: The Legend is as ever a commendable examination into one of the most important, multi-faceted icons of the 20th century, brimming with edifying poise and (a) regality not found in current or extant documentaries produced on the “Little Dragon.”

Matthew Le-feuvre’r Rating: 10/10

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