Early twentieth-century America certainly had its own "martial arts" cinema tradition. Douglas Fairbanks, whose films influenced the Shanghai martial arts movies of the 1920s, virtually invented the swashbuckling, action-adventure genre featuring acrobatic stunts and demonstrations of martial arts like fencing and archery (for example, The Mark of Zorro , 1920; The Three Musketeers , 1921; Robin Hood , 1922; The Thief of Bagdad , 1924; and The Black Pirate , 1926), setting the tone for the later swashbuckling careers of Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Burt Lancaster.
Yet it was Asian martial arts that really caused a stir upon their introduction into American films in the postwar era. American GIs returning from Asia and the increased Asian presence in the US following the liberalization of the Immigration Act of 1965 began the spread of martial arts across the country. Films like White Heat (1949) and The Crimson Kimono (1959) drew the connection between the GIs' encounter with Asia and the importation of martial arts into the US. But it was Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) that clearly established both the Asian connection with martial arts and the image of a one-armed man easily dispatching opponents bigger and stronger than he. One might argue that this World War II veteran, so memorably portrayed by Spencer Tracy, in turn influenced the famous disabled warriors of the Japanese and Chinese martial arts cinema. Later, Bruce Lee, teaching Hollywood celebrities his evolving kung fu style in the 1960s, memorably introduced the Chinese martial arts through his co-starring role in TV's The Green Hornet (1966–1967) and through guest appearances in film and television. While working in Hong Kong for Golden Harvest, Lee expressed interest in starring in the made-for-TV movie Kung Fu (1972), but with David Carradine in the starring role of the half-Chinese, half-American Shaolin priest may have demonstrated that if America was not ready for an Asian-American television star, it was ready for Asian martial arts. Its four-season run on network television gave American audiences a glimpse into many of the traditions of Shaolin kung fu while enabling the term "grasshopper" (the nickname Master Po gives the young Kwai Chang Caine) to enter comic parlance for a continuing source of humor across genre and media.
The independent smash success, Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971), further helped pave the way for the martial arts genre in the US. Billy Jack, a disillusioned Vietnam War veteran, is a master of the Korean martial art hap ki do, and he uses his deadly skills in the protection of a counterculture, racially mixed school. The theme of corrupt law enforcement running up against an alienated veteran highly trained not only by US Special Forces but also in traditional Asian martial arts set a pattern for a new generation of protagonists.
Bruce Lee is to the martial arts film what Charlie Chaplin is to the silent comedy, what James Dean is to the teen film, and what John Wayne is to the Western, with something of all of them in his timeless screen persona. Decades after his death he remains an icon of international screen culture, still invoked in films the world over.
Lee's family moved to Hong Kong from San Francisco after World War II, and Bruce became a child star in the low-budget Cantonese cinema. Legend has it that he lost street brawls constantly, which inspired him to study Wing Chun kung fu from one of the local masters. Philosophy studies at the University of Washington helped Lee refine the connections between his martial arts and his way of life. His US show-business break came with the role of Kato in the 1966 television series The Green Hornet . Legend also has it that Lee's martial arts moves were too fast both for his costars to react to and for the broadcast image to reproduce. Lee also began to teach celebrity clients his evolving martial arts style. Hollywood, however, was not yet ready for him.
A trip to Hong Kong in 1971 revealed to Lee that he had become something of a major celebrity based on The Green Hornet , which was called "The Kato Show" in the territory. Former Shaw Brothers production chief Raymond Chow, building up his Golden Harvest Studio, offered Lee a much more flexible and lucrative deal than his former bosses, and they produced Tang shan da xiong ( The Big Boss , 1971). More realistic, less polished, and more contemporary in attitude than anything the Shaw Brothers were making, The Big Boss was a smash success. It was quickly followed by Lee's most important film, Jing wu men ( Fist of Fury , aka The Chinese Connection , 1972). Set against the background of the Japanese occupation of China, the film expresses Lee's rebellious spirit and the best demonstration yet of Lee's flexible martial arts style—including the spectacular use of a little-used weapon in previous martial arts films, the nunchaku, or nunchuks, which came to be as much associated with Lee as his bright yellow track suit.
Lee directed Meng lon guojiang ( Way of the Dragon , aka Return of the Dragon , 1972), employing former karate champion and friend Chuck Norris for the film's famous climax in the Roman Colloseum. Then Hollywood called with Enter the Dragon (1973), and Lee had his first big-budget smash, but by the time it was released he had died of a cerebral edema. Lee's Hong Kong films show his spirit far better than the slick James Bond–inspired high jinks of Enter the Dragon , though arguably the film enabled Lee to reach a wide audience that he has never lost.
Jing wu men ( Fist of Fury , aka The Chinese Connection , 1972), Meng Lon Guojiang ( Way of the Dragon , aka Return of the Dragon , 1972), Enter the Dragon (1973)
Lee, Bruce. Tao of Jeet Kune Do . Burbank, CA: Ohara, 1975.
——. Words of the Dragon: Interviews, 1958–1973 . Edited by John Little. Boston: Tuttle, 1997.
Lee, Linda, Mike Lee, and Jack Vaughan. The Bruce Lee Story . Burbank, CA: Ohara, 1989.
The Kung Fu film and TV series demonstrated American interest in Asian martial arts, and Bruce Lee's starring role in Enter the Dragon confirmed it, making Lee a star in Hollywood. Lee's film also set another trend
in motion: the use of multinational, multiracial casts. White, black, and Asian characters in Enter the Dragon seemed calculated to bring in the widest possible audience. That all three actors were trained in the martial arts, especially Jim Kelly in his screen debut and, of course, Lee himself, brought a level of intensity and believability to this otherwise fanciful story, which also borrowed a common Hong Kong film structure: the martial arts tournament.
Alienated Vietnam veterans, real martial artists, and the tournament structure would help build a true American martial arts genre, but not before a reliable audience could be identified. Such an audience came from the African American community, which consumed both the Hong Kong imports in the wake of the success of films like Five Fingers of Death (1973) and Lee's early efforts. Kelly's stardom (for example, Black Belt Jones , 1974) and many low-budget co-productions with Hong Kong studios featuring black and Asian stars (the career of actor Ron Van Clief as "the Black Dragon" is exemplary) show the appeal of kung fu films to black audiences—audiences who would very much help the future careers of white stars like Cynthia Rothrock (whose career began in Hong Kong) and Steven Seagal beginning in the late 1980s.
The rise of the American martial arts film genre, whether through blaxploitation or the films of Chuck Norris in the late 1970s, kept Hong Kong martial arts films off American screens compared to their stunning success from 1973 to 1975. Norris's role in Good Guys Wear Black (1978) continued the theme of post–Vietnam era images of highly trained veterans using their violent skills to exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam and to display the cinematic suitability of martial arts. By the middle of the 1980s, martial arts had made its way so far into the mainstream that Rocky director John G. Avildsen could turn his attention to a far more unlikely action hero in the diminutive form of Ralph Macchio and turn The Karate Kid (1984) into a smash success and another iconic cultural marker. Its training sequences, clear differentiation between the right and wrong way to use martial arts, and climax at a martial arts tournament clearly confirmed that a definitively Asian form had claimed an American counterpart.