Ask any cinephile for the most influential film of the 1970s and you’ll likely get a checklist of the acknowledged greats: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Coppola’s Godfather or Lucas’s Star Wars.
But, arguably, the movie that changed both cinema and the wider culture most profoundly was not one of these respectable celluloid classics, but a Hong Kong martial arts movie made on a shoestring budget and starring a charismatic young fighter who almost no one in Hollywood had ever heard of.
Made for just $800,000, Enter The Dragon has earned $2 billion (inflation-adjusted) since its release making it one of the most profitable low-budget films of all time. But not only did it make a star of Bruce Lee, a stardom that only intensified when he died at the tragically young age of 32, it influenced movies as diverse as The Karate Kid and The Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles to John Wick and Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.
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“It certainly seems to have wormed its way into the mass consciousness,” screenwriter Michael Allin tells Yahoo UK from his California home.
“And when people find out I wrote it they always seem to want to buy me a drink.”
Allin was just 28 when he was approached by producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller to write a screenplay for a Bruce Lee movie to be produced by Warner Bros. The only problem was, not only had Allin not had a screenplay made yet, he’d never seen a Hong Kong action movie in his life, and had no idea who Bruce Lee was.
“I sat in the dark for about a week on the Warner lot watching every one of Bruce's pictures,” he says. “He'd made five Hong Kong movies, and on the strength of that Fred was able to cajole Warner Brothers into financing what became Enter The Dragon.”
Warner Bros had spotted a gap in the market. Blacksploitation was riding high, and the studio bean counters figured that there might be a similar unserved market among Asian Americans. But they decided to cover their bases.
“It was originally aimed at Black audiences,” says Allin. “Fred said, ‘I know you can write Black, and I know you can write smartass, but this is about Kung-Fu, so just cover us for Bruce.’ Warners just didn't think Bruce alone would carry it for American audiences. So we had to have a Black guy, and that was Jim Kelly. And then we had to have a white guy, Roper, who was the biggest star [John Saxon].”
And if the screenplay that Allin delivered resembles a certain British superspy, right down to a villain’s exotic island lair and a sinister white cat, that was entirely uncoincidental.
“I mean it's a James Bond movie with Bruce Lee starring,” Allen admits. “You know, if you get caught stealing, call it homage [laughs]. But I left a list of things that I thought were absolutely too James Bond. The white cat, the claw hand. I gave that to [director] Robert Clouse.
"I said, ‘This is all Bond stuff you have to get out of the movie. Because we're already going to get busted.’ And everything on the damned list is in the movie.”
Lee’s famously complex personality soon began to cause problems “He wanted to take over the script,” remembers Allin. “So it was a power struggle. Bruce was determined this was going to be his picture. And Fred made a ghastly mistake. He lied to him and said, ‘OK I sent him home. Michael’s not here.’ And then he tells me I’ve gotta lie low.
Allin decided to spend his remaining time as a tourist, taking a trip from Hong Kong’s Star Ferry terminal to Macau. “In the terminal is this huge billboard of Bruce in his latest movie. And all of a sudden I look and just in front of me Bruce is standing there looking at it too,” remembers Allin. “He was checking out his own billboard.”
“Now it’s like a Gunfight At The OK Corral. He walks up to me – and look, in Hong Kong I'm very tall. He points his finger up at my nose. And he says, ‘Michael.’ And I say, ‘Bruce.’ And he walks away.”
“So after this long, very weird day, I got back to the hotel,” Allin remembers. “And it was the first time I'd ever seen Fred Weintraub drunk. Fred says, ‘What the f*** did you do to Bruce?’ Bruce had gone home and tried to call somebody, anybody at Warner Brothers. And finally, he gets through to Leo Greenfield, who is the head of foreign sales and has nothing to do with anything, but who is just unlucky enough to answer the phone.”
“And Bruce Lee says, and this is the line that initiates my career in Hollywood, ‘Hong Kong is not big enough for me and Michael Allin'. By Monday I was in Maui. Heartbroken. God I wanted to be on set, I wanted to keep working on it.”
Until now Enter The Dragon had been a footnote on Warner's release schedule. But once they saw the footage the studio’s attitude changed. They began to suspect they had a potential breakout hit on their hands.
“The magic really came when they brought everything home and showed it to Warners,” says Allin. “Now they know they have a goldmine. They were in. Suddenly they sprung $40,000 for the Lalo Schifrin score. That was the most expensive item in the budget.”
Just days before the film’s Hong Kong premiere, Lee died. “I was sitting watching television. I saw it on a news bulletin,” remembers Allin. “I was utterly shocked. I immediately got on the phone. Warner Brothers' attitude was really weird. It was like a Jimmy Dean situation with them. How can we use this?”
Enter The Dragon opened to unexpectedly positive reviews and even more surprising box office takings. In 1973 it was the fourth biggest movie of the year with a US box office of $25 million (about $160 million today). Globally it remains one of the most financially successful films of all time.
And its influence extends beyond movies. Its DNA is wound through video games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter as well as hip-hop, Manga and Mixed Martial Arts fighting. But for Allin, the key to the film’s longevity is the pure movie magic that Lee brought to the screen.
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“It really is a miracle of the movies, what the camera can do for some people,” he says.
“Elizabeth Taylor had it, and Jimmy Dean did. Whatever they’re in, they’re in their own movie. Bruce was like that. It was this new kind of cool. We just had to catch it. It really was capturing lightning in a bottle.”
Enter The Dragon is being released in 4K Ultra HD for the film's 50th anniversary on 7 August.
Watch a trailer below.