Immortal combat

Thirty years after his death, the cult of Bruce Lee is flourishing - and driving a multi-million dollar industry. What is it about the kung fu master that continues to inspire such devotion? Bruce Thomas, a long-time disciple, explains
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The Independent Culture

The other day, I called into a shop on London's Strand that sells autographs. I asked the proprietor whose signature fetched the most these days. He replied that The Beatles were always good value; or the three astronauts who first landed on the Moon - on one piece of paper, naturally. Then, wistfully, he added: "Just get me anything with Bruce Lee's signature on it; then we can start at about £5,000."

Why Bruce Lee? At the height of his powers, Lee was probably the most recognised face on the planet - a global star of more than Beckham-like dimensions. Now, 30 years after his death - at the age of 32, on 20 July 1973 - his reputation shows no signs of diminishing. For a third generation of teenagers, it is still cool to have a T-shirt with Lee on the chest. One Lee website has had more than one and a half million hits so far this year. It is no exaggeration to say that Lee is an icon of the stature of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Elvis Presley. Why? I think it is because, just as we now realise that there will never be another guitarist like Jimi Hendrix, or a songwriter like Bob Dylan, so we are beginning to realise that there will never be another Bruce Lee.

Aficionados of "serious" cinema may find this enthusiasm bewildering, and it is worth recounting Lee's extraordinary achievements, as both an athlete and a movie revolutionary. He was born in 1940, in San Francisco, and brought up in Hong Kong, in an affluent middle-class family. A restless child, he was often in trouble, but managed, thanks to his father's connections, to become a child movie star, appearing in about 20 films in Hong Kong. Then, at 13, to defend himself against school bullies, he began to study martial arts: specifically, a streamlined, close-up style of kung fu known as wing chun.

The discipline had mixed results. At 18, he was sent to live and work with family friends who ran a Chinese restaurant in Seattle, before his "high spirits" caused the Hong Kong police to arrange alternative accommodation for him. His temperament made him a poor waiter. But the informal martial arts classes he held in the restaurant's parking lot proved a great success. Soon he was able to open a school near to the University of Washington. His physical gifts were already astonishing, and he had no trouble attracting students. A natural show-off, he attracted crowds by performing push-ups on a single thumb. He would snatch a dime from someone's palm and replace it with a nickel, before his stooge could snap his hand shut. Or he would kick a cigarette clean out of someone's mouth, without touching him, as casually as if he were brushing a piece of lint from his jacket.

At the age of 20, he experienced a "mid-night crisis", an almost psychotic episode, in which he felt as if he had to fight off a demon. After this, all the repressed energy of his psyche seemed to be released and transformed. He became highly self-motivated and positive in his outlook, enrolling as a philosophy student at the university and reading and applying the principles of count- less self-help books of the day, on subjects such as positive thinking and affirmation.

The results were dazzling. Lee stood about 5ft 7in and weighed less than 140lb. Some of his students were ex-army boxers who were well over 6ft and weighed twice as much as him. So Lee instinctively adapted his martial art to solve this new problem. He travelled extensively to learn new fighting techniques, but for him there were no formal "styles": a punch was simply a punch.

Lee understood the essential elements of combat. He could learn and master new fighting methods almost overnight. His natural genius in this respect was obvious to all who encountered it; his sheer versatility even drew comparisons to Leonardo da Vinci. His approach to combat came to be known as jeet kune do - literally "the way of the intercepting fist". But this was never intended to describe an actual fighting style, which Bruce compared to the blossoms of a tree, but more a conceptual overview, or deep understanding of the roots of combat.

Bruce also developed his already phenomenal speed, until he could land eight blows in one second. Later, in his movie career, the cameras would actually have to slow down his movements, rather than speed them up, because his punches were too fast to capture on film. Allied to his speed was his ability to call upon his internal energy, the oft-mentioned and much-misunderstood power that the Chinese call chi. Eventually, a film of Bruce Lee demonstrating his art at the July 1964 International Karate Tournament - which showed him sending a heavyweight champion reeling to the floor with a punch that had travelled just one inch - found its way to the producer of TV's Batman series. As a result, Bruce was contracted for a sister series, The Green Hornet, in which he played the Hornet's kung fu sidekick, Kato.

Bruce and his wife - Linda Emery, a former Seattle student - now decamped to Los Angeles. A school was opened there, where Lee attracted celebrity students including Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. These new friends tried to help Bruce with the TV or movie break that he craved. But at best he found only cameo roles, bit parts, and fight-arranging jobs. A second series of The Green Hornet was never commissioned. So Bruce pitched the idea for a TV series to be called The Warrior involving a renegade Shaolin monk at large in the Wild West, with himself in the starring role. The studios were unimpressed: they thought he was too "Chinese". But the series was made, and re-titled Kung Fu - with a dancer, David Carradine (who only looked a little Chinese), in the starring role. Kung Fu went on to become the number one TV show of the early 1970s.

This coincided with the bleakest period of Bruce Lee's life. He injured himself in a rigorous morning workout, damaging the nerves in his back. The doctors told him that he might never walk properly again, let alone fight. With only $50 in the bank, he was, he later admitted, "genuinely scared". Linda had to take a job at the minimum wage to keep things going. Bruce, meanwhile, staved off depression by setting down his fighting philosophy on paper in The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, a manual of his techniques and beliefs. It was never intended for publication, although it did come out posthumously. Sales are now approaching one million copies. At about the same time, Lee also wrote a famous note to himself: "Within 10 years I will earn $10m and become the most famous Chinese star in the world." Rarely has a self-affirmation been so spectacularly realised.

Using only willpower, Lee forced himself to start moving and training again. Shortly afterwards, on a trip home to Hong Kong, Bruce found that The Green Hornet had become a smash hit in the East. This gave him enough leverage to get back into the Chinese film industry. He signed to make two films, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, for Golden Harvest studios, for a flat fee of $7,500 per film. The films, notable for their realistic style and the long, single takes in which Lee demonstrated his extraordinary athletic abilities, made millions of dollars on their opening runs, and turned Lee into a national hero. It didn't take long for word to filter back to the US. But Lee was already in Italy, filming Way of the Dragon, which he wrote and directed. Although Way of the Dragon is played as a light comedy, it contains the best fight scene that Bruce put on film - an extended duel with Chuck Norris, one of several established karate champions who were now becoming his students.

His third film beat the box-office records for the first two, and Lee began work on a fourth: a "pure" martial arts film called Game of Death. Filming was interrupted after just three scenes. (These, by the way, have recently been re-mastered as the DVD documentary A Warrior's Journey.) Fred Weintraub, the producer who had turned down Lee's idea for the Kung Fu series, now offered him the starring role in Enter the Dragon, a film to be made for Warner Brothers in a co-production deal. It was little more than a Bond pastiche and, like the other movies, would have disappeared without trace long ago - except for one thing: it contains scenes that are almost transcendental in the beauty of their physical expression. It is as if Nijinsky had, for some reason, appeared on Come Dancing.

Enter the Dragon was made for $700,000, and, on a cost-to-earnings basis, went on to become the most profitable film ever made. One film executive who saw a preview was so pumped up by the intensity of Lee on screen that he told his wife to take the car home, because he wanted to run home.

But before it was released, Lee was dead. The official verdict was that Lee had suffered a cerebral odema as the result of an allergy to an aspirin tablet. Substitute the word "cannabis" for "aspirin" and we will be nearer the mark. The all-consuming disciplines of the Shaolin monastery and the demands of super-celebrity had collided headlong in Lee's body. His almost obsessional training had left him with a body-fat content of less than 1 per cent. Even a Porsche can't be driven at 8,000rpm for long. Something had to give. And it did. Early in 1973, Lee had begun eating cannabis to help him unwind a little. But the "fittest man in the world", whose muscles "felt like warm marble", had a weak spot. On 20 July 1973, his brain haemorrhaged. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.

His posthumous career has proved scarcely less spectacular than his life. At the last count, Enter the Dragon had made in excess of half a billion dollars. There are hundreds of fan websites, including one in India that treats Bruce as a bona-fide messiah and refers to him throughout as "Master". There are the predictable "anoraks", such as Mike Miyazaki, the son of a Japanese businessman, who used his father's wealth to turn his entire apartment into the set of Enter the Dragon, with TV set mounted in the ceiling to play non-stop Bruce Lee movies. There have been conspiracy theories, too, about the alleged cover-up surrounding his death, and about the mysterious death of his son, Brandon, on the set of The Crow in 1993.

But the great mass of his followers are not weirdos, and it is their continuing wonder at this extraordinary athlete that has fuelled the growth of the Lee industry. Many of Lee's personal effects have ended up in a museum recently opened in Shunde, near Hong Kong. At an auction in July 1993, his driving licence fetched $7,200, and the piece of paper with his vow to become "the biggest Chinese star" went for $56,000. (How much could you get for that now?)

The discovery of three new seconds of grainy home movie is considered sufficient to warrant the release of a new DVD. Bit-part actors sell their Super-8 footage taken on the sets of films for tens of thousands of dollars to private collectors who can never distribute it. And because there really is no more undiscovered material, technology has stepped in. Microsoft's X-box game Bruce Lee: Quest for the Dragon is based on the unfinished Game of Death, and will give Lara Croft more than a run for her money. The Korean-based Shincine Films is planning a $50m project using a computer-generated Bruce Lee with new voice simulation technology. "We chose Bruce Lee because there is no figure who commands more respect and excitement,' says the company's CEO Chul Shin, who reminds us that Lee was included in Time magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century".

And so he should have been. Lee's iconic status is not only deserved; it scarcely begins to reflect the immensity of his actual attainments. Far from being a mere action star, Lee was - or, rather, is - the most innovative and gifted martial artist of the modern era, and, millions would argue, its most exciting screen star as well.

'Fighting Talk', Bruce Thomas's Bruce Lee anthology, was recently published by Bentwyck Henry (£9.99). 'Fighting Spirit', the writer's biography of Bruce Lee, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, £12.99