|The following is an article from Bathroom Readers' Institute's 17th edition Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader.
Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong (Image Credit: Inti [Flickr])
Can a dead person star in a movie? Well, if a star unexpectedly dies before film production is complete, what's the studio supposed to do - pass up a great opportunity for free publicity? Not a chance.
In 1970 a filmmaker named Raymond Chow quit his job at Shaw Brothers Studio, Hong Kong's largest film studio at the time, and formed Golden Harvest Studios. Not long afterward he signed an up-and-coming young martial artist to play the lead in his first movie. The actor was Bruce Lee and the movie, The Big Boss, was his first feature-length kung fu film.
The Big Boss shattered Hong Kong box-office records when it premiered in 1971. Lee's follow up film, Fist of Fury, was even more successful. His third film, The Way of the Dragon, did better still when it was released in 1972.
These three blockbusters put Golden Harvest on the map and helped introduce the Hong Kong film industry to the international market. In 1973 Golden Harvest became the first Hong Kong studio to partner with a major Hollywood studio when it collaborated with Warner Bros. on Lee's fourth and "final" film, Enter the Dragon. Today Golden Harvest is Hong Kong's largest and most successful movie studio. They owe much of their success to Bruce Lee.
The Clone Wars
When Lee died suddenly in July 1973, only four weeks before Enter the Dragon debuted on the silver screen, how did the studio honor him? By cashing in on the publicity surrounding his death, of course. And they weren't the only ones: Hong Kong studios flooded the market with Bruce Lee knock-off films as fast as they could make them - movies with titles like New Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, Exit the Dragon, Re-Enter the Dragon, Enter Another Dragon, and Enter the Fat Dragon, starring kung fu copycats like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Liang, and Dragon Lee.
Game of Death (1978)
But by far the strangest of these films was Game of Death, which Lee started but did not live to finish. The only parts that he completed were the fight scenes, including one with pro basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There was no plot line in any of the finished scenes, but Golden Harvest plowed ahead anyway, taking just 11 minutes of the original fight footage and creating an entirely new movie around it, using a body double to play Bruce Lee's character Billy Lo, a movie star who refused to submit to gangsters who control the Hong Kong film industry.
How do you make a movie using a dead actor? Golden Harvest tackled the problem in a number of different ways:
- Lee's double was filmed in wide angle shots, from behind, or in the dark whenever possible.
- Reaction shots of the real Bruce Lee, recycled from his earlier films, were spliced into the scenes with Lee's double.
- In one scene they literally cut out a still photograph of Bruce Lee's head and pasted it on the screen over the double's head.
- In scenes where the double does show his face, he wears a large pair of dark sunglasses and sometimes even a fake moustache and beard. In other scenes he wears a motorcycle helmet with the darkened visor pulled down.
- The plot was written to explain the character's changed appearance: Early in the film a gangster tried to kill Billy Lo by shooting him in the face. Lo survives, but undergoes plastic surgery to repair the damage, and emerges from the hospital literally a new man.
Had Golden Harvest left it at that, Game of Death would hardly be worth anyone's while. But they didn't. When Billy Lo gets shot and is rushed to the hospital, he decides to fake his own death and even arranges his funeral, so that his assailants won't know he's still alive and coming after them. Golden Harvest added this element to the plot to give them an excuse to incorporate footage of Bruce Lee's actual funeral, including close-up shots of the open casket as mourners file past. For a brief moment the camera even peeks inside the coffin, showing Lee's embalmed face - probably the only time in history that a movie star's cadaver appears in his own feature film.
When the gangster shoot Bruce Lee's character Billy Lo, they do it by sneaking onto the movie set where he's filming a gun battle and fill the gun with real bullets instead of blanks. Moments later, Billy is "accidentally" shot while filming the scene.
Fifteen years after Game of Death premiered, in March 1993, Bruce Lee's only son, 28-year-old Brandon Lee, died on the set of the movie The Crow. While filming a scene in which his character is shot and killed, the prop gun, supposed to be loaded only with blanks, was loaded with a real .44-caliber slug.
Police concluded it was an accident resulting from the film crew's negligence: Sometimes "dummy" bullets - real bullets with the gunpowder and primer removed - are used to make it look like a gun contains real bullets. One this occasion one of the dummy bullets apparently came apart inside the gun, and a slug remained lodged in the barrel. Nobody bothered to make sure the barrel was clear before blanks were loaded into the gun. When the gun was fired at Lee, the slug shot out and struck him in the lower abdomen. He died in surgery 12 hours later.
Game of Death was unfinished when Bruce Lee died and was later finished without him. Similarly, The Crow was unfinished when Brandon Lee died and was later finished without him, using computer-generated special effects. This time the Lee family approved, believing that Brandon would have wanted the film to be completed.
The footage of him being shot was left out. In fact, mindful of the way Bruce Lee's death had been exploited in Game of Death, the family had the footage destroyed. As a family spokesperson put it, "they didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands."
The grave site of Bruce and Brandon Lee in Lakeview Cemetery, Seattle, Washington. (Image Credit: dwyatt1 [Flickr])
"If you love life, don't waste time - for time is what life is made of" - Bruce Lee