The James Bond Connections of Game of Death
james bond bruce lee
Game of Death is a martial arts action film directed by Robert Clouse and has something of a complicated and knotty history that requires some explanation. It was released in 1978 several years after Bruce Lee's sad premature death and is the great what might have been of his career. In the early seventies Lee had come up with the idea for a film that he believed would be his ultimate kung fu masterpiece. Inspired by a trip to Nepal, he conceived a premise that would have him as a hero who has to retrieve a priceless spiritual treasure that has been stolen and is now being held on the top floor of a mysterious pagoda.
The pagoda would have several different levels and each floor (which would have its own name like Temple of the Unknown etc) would be protected by a martial arts master from a different discipline. In order to get to the top of the pagoda and find the stolen artifact, Lee's character would have to combat a variety of martial artists who all fight with a different style. The film would have a fundamental message beneath all the kung fu mayhem that Bruce Lee believed in and always preached; in order to flourish and succeed one must always be prepared to adapt to the fresh challenges and conditions you face.
It still remains something of a mystery exactly how much footage of Game of Death involving Bruce Lee exists but it's clear that he had made a decent start on the film and was taking it very seriously. Game of Death was shaping up to be an instant cult classic but Lee was then called away to go and make Enter the Dragon - his first Hollywood backed picture and one he simply could not refuse under any circumstances. Sadly, Lee suddenly and mysteriously died in 1973 before he had a chance to go back and complete Game of Death and left only a handful of fight sequences and some behind the scenes footage.
When Lee became a global superstar and pop culture icon through the potent combination of the fantastic Enter the Dragon and passing on at a young age, it was inevitable that sooner or later Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest would see the potential of the footage he had shot for Game of Death and try to find some way of making money out of it now that their cash cow was no longer around.
The problem was that they only had about fifteen to twenty minutes of useable footage of Lee fighting in the pagoda and so had to construct a fairly shameless and tasteless brand new film around it that had absolutely nothing to do with Bruce Lee's conception for Game of Death. The only happy thing to report is that more footage of Lee shooting Game of Death has since been unearthed and is available on Game of Death and Bruce Lee box-set DVD extras. You can see him practicing and filming the fight scenes, goofing around on the pagoda set, and just generally get more of a feel for what he was trying to do and what Game of Death might have been like had he lived to finish it. Game of Death outtakes or raw rehearsals featuring the real Bruce Lee in his dapper yellow tracksuit are preferable to anything that Robert Clouse's 1978 Game of Death throws at us in the (many) scenes where Lee is absent.
Clouse's Game of Death begins in a most bizarre and misdirecting fashion. A snazzy James Bondish title sequence and stirring music by John Barry. Yes, that John Barry. "It was just fun to do a Bruce Lee movie," Barry was quoted as saying at the time. "It was a strange type of film to do, and he's kind of a cult figure, you know. And so it was interesting to do." This was probably a very diplomatic answer. It is heavily speculated that Barry didn't want to do the film but had no choice when they threw increasingly large amounts of money at him. At this time he was having to work abroad because of high tax rates in Britain so maybe he just had some bills to pay. Barry is said to have made his score deliberately over the top (he obviously wasn't taking it very seriously) but - all the same - his music is great fun in the film. His score is much better than the film actually deserves!
One is immediately aware that 1978's Game of Death is a more professional and expensive production than the Golden Harvest films made with Lee in the early seventies. It was their most expensive film to date and they even managed to rope in a few American actors like Colleen Camp and Dean Jagger. Rumour has it that Steve McQueen and Muhammad Ali declined offers to appear in the film and you can only applaud their sound and wise judgment. The most obvious annoyance here is that the scant and authentic Game of Death footage they've assembled involving the real Bruce Lee doesn't amount to much and is consigned to the end of the film.
So about 85% of Game of Death presents us with an entirely new (and tedious) film involving Billy Lo, a martial arts film star who is being harassed by a crime organistion headed by Dr Land (Dean Jagger). Billy Lo is supposed to be Bruce Lee but he's mostly played by Tai Chung Kim in an assortment of beards and fake disguises. Anyway, Billy refuses to buckle to these crooks and they try to kill him by sneaking real bullets into a gun on the set of one of his films. There is a very dark irony to this scene now as Lee's son Brandon was killed in an accident on the set of his film The Crow involving firearms.
Lo survives but requires plastic surgery. A very convenient way to further brush under the carpet the fact that Bruce Lee is hardly ever in this film. You soon realise that Game of Death 1978 is a complete rip-off and that Bruce Lee is not going to be in this film much but to make matters worse they keep inserting brief snippets of him from Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury as if that is somehow going to fool us into thinking we are watching a new Bruce Lee film. The most ridiculous moment comes when Kim has (and I'm not making this up) a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee's likeness superimposed over his face!
Game of Death 1978 is absolutely shameless and pointless and the tasteless nadir of the picture arrives when they have Billy Lo faking his death and then show real footage from Bruce Lee's actual funeral. Despite the higher producton values these bizarre attempts to shoehorn Lee into the film through archive footage drag the film down to Ed Wood levels of head scratching ineptitude.
It doesn't even work as a camp guilty pleasure despite the ripe acting from some of the supporting cast. Bob Wall pops up as a heavy but Tai Chung Kim as Billy Lo (despite looking a bit like Lee and obviously knowing his stuff when it comes to fighting and martial arts) is just plain dull in the lead and makes one appreciate Bruce Lee even more. Bruce Lee was charismatic just standing around doing nothing but Kim just doesn't have the "It Factor" of the late star he is filling in for.
This version of Game of Death is only worth watching for the fight sequences at the end involving the real Bruce Lee with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Dan Insosanto. After completing production on Way of the Dragon, Lee heard that his friend Jabbar (the 7ft tall American basketball star) was in Hong Kong and got in touch in relation to Game of Death. Jabbar had first met Lee in 1967 and soon became one of his students. Even though he didn't have a script yet, Lee thought that Jabbar would be perfect to play the last floor guardian in Game of Death. A giant with a formless and unpredictable martial arts style who will present his character with a most unique challenge.
bruce lee james bond
The pair met up and shot a highly entertaining and unusual fight sequence for Game of Death with Lee wearing the iconic yellow tracksuit with black stripe that would later feature in Kill Bill. Lee's snazzy and modern looking jumpsuit is a deliberate counterpoint to the white karate clobber and headbands worn by his opponents in Game of Death. His message was that you should look beyond mere tradition and be ready to embrace the new. The fight with Jabbar is brilliant. What a great film this could have been if Lee had completed it when he was still alive - and what a wonderful experience by the way to watch a Bruce Lee fight sequence backed by a stirring John Barry action beat!
Lee had intended Game of Death to be a spectacular showcase for his many friends in the world of martial arts and planned to contact several famous fighters from around the world to appear in the film. As it turned out though he only filmed further (fairly) complete material with hapkidoist Ji Han Jae (who didn't consent to his footage appearing in the 1978 version) and then a nunchaku duel with Dan Insosanto (which, frustratingly, was always removed from British television versions of Game of Death). James Tien was also featured in some sequences as he was to play Lee's sidekick and friend in the film.
By viewing all of this hithero restricted footage through extras we get more of Bruce Lee than the 1978 film gave us and learn what Lee wanted to do in the film and how he wanted it to look. After viewing this footage in complete isolation from the Robert Clouse film you get a much better feel for the atmosphere Lee was striving for and what it might have been like if it had ever been completed. Some of Lee's students and Dan Insosanto recall their memories of the sequences that were shot and you also get an alternative approach by Lee to defeating Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Great stuff.
If you buy Bruce Lee box-sets with Game of Death there are also deleted scenes and documentaries that supply a lot of interesting biographical and anecdotal material. Did you know for example that George Lazenby was going to be in Game of Death? Although he had fallen on hard times, Lazenby had been James Bond only three years before and met Raymond Chow to discuss making some Golden Harvest pictures with Bruce Lee. When Lee died, Lazenby did the planned pictures alone. If you enjoy geeky trivia of this nature then you'll find a fair amount on DVD extras and you also get a commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Loga.
"I was so flat broke at the time," said Lazenby, "I had to take the bus from the Hyatt Hotel to Golden Harvest Studios. It took me about three hours! When I finally got there, I met Raymond, and Raymond called Bruce, who was in the editing rooms, and Raymond said “Look, I’ve got George Lazenby here. Come and meet him”. And Bruce was like - I’m not interested…
The first time I really met Bruce we were going to have lunch. His car pulled up and in the back seat were Bruce and the reigning Mr Hong Kong (Bolo Yeung), and in the front were Bruce's wife Linda and his secretary. Bruce said “Get in the car,” I say “But there’s no room”, so the secretary gets out, and I get in. I think she’s going to get into Raymond Chow’s car behind us, but she gets back in on my lap!. Then off we go.
When we were in the car, Bruce was talking away about his Philosophy, and so on, and he talked about the fact that there would never be peace in the world until we got rid of different religions, because different religions caused chaos, and I said “That’s not you, that’s Krishnmurti”. He was surprised I knew Krishnmurti and even more impressed that I'd actually been to visit Krishmurti in India. After that we were like brothers.
We hadn’t booked at the restaurant, so they had to wheel out this big round table, so we could have lunch. Now, Bruce could tell that I was broke, so he turns to Raymond Chow and says “Give George (U.S) $10,000" and Raymond goes “What! Why?”. Bruce goes “We’re going to make a film with him,” and Raymond goes “What film?”. Bruce goes "never mind what film. Just write the cheque." I later found that Raymond Chow had a 49.9 percent share in the (Concord) company, and Bruce had a 51.1 percent share, so Bruce was calling the shots. Raymond wrote the cheque. After lunch, the typhoon warning had been taken down, and Bruce took me to the HK Shanghai Bank to cash the cheque, then took me to his tailor and had they fit me for a suit, which they made the same day..
I was going to be in Game Of Death, and then, the way he talked about it, we were going to be in a whole string of pictures together. He told me that I'd be playing the hero, and that he’d never kill me off in his films. He’d call me at three in the morning, and say “What about this idea?”, and I'd be half asleep going “What…?!”. In the morning I couldn't remember a word he’d said!. He told me not to worry that I'd never studied martial arts, he’d teach me."
After Bruce died, I thought that was that. Then I got a call from Raymond Chow saying “Look, you’ve got $10,000 of my money" (paid as a deposit for Lazenby's participation in Game Of Death, remember?). He wanted me to make three films for Golden Harvest. I said: "I don’t know any of this Kung Fu", but he told me it wasn’t a problem."
The original tagline for Game of Death was apparently going to be - 'It's Lee, It's Lazenby, It's Bruce vs. Bond!' It is not known what Lazenby's exact role in Game of Death was going to be. There were stories he would play a police officer or a double agent. The best story is that he was set to play an Australian assassin armed with a boomarang! Sadly, Lazenby never actually shot any footage for the film before Lee died so we'll probably never know. Maybe they hadn't decided on his character yet.
Of itself, Game of Death 1978 is mostly a waste of time and should never have been made but the 40 minutes of recovered footage on the DVD extras is a joy and makes the film worth owning for that alone.
- Jake

c 2018 Alternative 007

james bond alpine