For many, Bruce Lee is the embodiment of martial arts. You think kung fu, it’s his image that comes to mind, a blur of gleaming muscles, swinging nunchakus and bestial war cries.
When Enter The Dragon was released in 1973, Bruce became an instant worldwide superstar with an iconic look and a new way of fighting onscreen. He was by no means a one-trick pony though. Beyond being a great screen presence and natural showman, he was an accomplished director, a writer of screenplays, poetry and philosophy texts, and a celebrated martial artist who created a style of kung fu still practiced to this day – Jeet Kune Do.
Sadly, just months before Enter The Dragon came out, Bruce Lee took a headache pill that disagreed with him and died from a cerebral edema. Dying as young as 32 is tragic by any standards but Bruce was at his physical and artistic peak, his big break about to happen. His passing shocked the world. Perhaps it’s this extraordinary talent being snatched away so suddenly that’s led to decades of speculation over Bruce and to many conspiracies about his life, his death and beyond.
Let’s take a look through a few of the wildest ideas:
He Was Simply Too Fit To Live
Conspiracy : Uber-badass Chuck Norris once described Bruce Lee, as “muscles on muscles” and even Lee’s own physician remarked that it was “obscene how little body fat he had”. As a result, it’s been suggested that Bruce’s intense training regime was directly responsible for his death, that he’d burned away so much body fat it left him unable to function or to absorb medication properly.
Reality : It’s almost a reassuring thought when you don’t want to go to the gym to think “nah, better not get too fit…” but there’s no medical proof that this is possible. While there are potential correlations between pre-existing health conditions and certain types of exercise, no known evidence suggests Bruce Lee’s death was purely down to his physical fitness level. So there’s no excuse. Get out there and have start practicing your Dragon Flag (his notoriously merciless abs exercise)!
His Movie Fights Were Sped-Up
Conspiracy : There are many conspiracies that suggest Bruce Lee wasn’t as skilled a fighter as he seemed to be onscreen. One theory is that filmmakers sped-up his fighting in post-production to make it look better. This was a commonly applied technique in old martial arts movies and when you watch something like Fist of Fury and see him leaping, punching and kicking his way through swathes of hapless on-comers like a wild animal, it’s easy to believe he’s either superhuman or faking it.
Reality : Not so crazy, you might think, but this is one where the truth is madder than fiction. Bruce’s fights weren’t sped-up at all. In actuality, they were slowed down! He moved too quickly for 35mm film to capture him so the cameras were ‘overcranked’ to take more frames per second so when it’s played back, the action is slower.
The Lee Family Death Curse Killed Him
Conspiracy : It’s a popular theory that the Lee family had a multi-generational death curse put on them. Lee’s parents had already lost one son in infancy, so when Bruce was born they nicknamed him “Little Phoenix”, a girl’s name to ward off the attentions of the demon they believed could claim all men in the family line. Bruce himself allegedly had visions of his own death occurring at “half the age of his father” (and indeed his father died at 64, Bruce at 32) and when risible biopic Dragon : The Bruce Lee Story was released in 1992, it showed a literal demon pursuing Bruce in his dreams and then moving on to his son Brandon. Little bit creepy when put in the context of Brandon then dying just months before the film’s release. Even more creepy when you consider Brandon died after being shot with a prop gun loaded with real bullets instead of blanks, the exact same thing that happens to Bruce’s stuntman character Billy Lo in Game Of Death.
Reality : This is classic conspiracy fodder and the more you look into it, the more you can make connections. While some are admittedly uncanny, others are ridiculous, such as the fact that Bruce’s co-star in Game Of Death was Kareem Abdul Jabbar, whose basketball number was 33, the age Bruce would’ve been on his next birthday! The truth – that it’s just a pair of awful tragedies – is certainly less tantalising, but perhaps the definitive evidence against the Death Curse is that Bruce’s brother Robert (despite being a male member of the Lee family) is still alive.
He Was Murdered By Organised Criminals
Conspiracy : There are several theories as to why various organised crime syndicates would want to kill Bruce Lee. Some say that the Triads were out to get him because he owed them protection money. Others that the Tongs forced Betty Ting Pei (the actress in whose apartment Bruce died) to poison him. The Italian Mafia have been accused too. Sources claim they had plans to control Bruce’s career in America and, when he defied them, they made sure he slept with the fishes. There’s even talk of a secret society of martial artists who killed him with a slow-acting “dim mak” (death touch), because he shared the secrets of Chinese kung fu with the west.
Reality : While it’s entirely possible that Bruce’s path would’ve crossed the Triads’ at some point (especially if the rumours about Fist Of Fury director Lo Wei’s involvement with them are true), it’s unlikely they would’ve had cause to kill him. The Mafia theory was very popular at the time but bear in mind that Bruce Lee died in 1972, the same year that The Godfather became the highest grossing film of all time… It may be appealing to imagine shadowy crime bosses, ninja death grips or a beautiful poisoner having a hand in it, but the sad truth is more likely just as the autopsy ruled it. Death by misadventure.
He Faked His Own Death and Became A Secret Agent
Conspiracy : Bruce Lee had two funerals. An open casket one in Hong Kong and then a smaller, more subdued service in San Francisco a couple of days later. Conspiracists believe that, following the second funeral, Bruce literally kicked his way out of the coffin and took on a new identity, becoming a secret agent like his character in Enter The Dragon. There have dozens of Bruce “sightings” over the years and the rumour that he’s alive and well and living in Brussels, of all places, still persists.
Reality : While there’s realistically no chance whatsoever that Bruce Lee is still alive, and plenty of solid evidence to support his demise, conspiracists could argue that we only think this because he’s so deep undercover and such a master spy. However, as covers for secret agents go, a guy famous for playing a secret agent, even as a double bluff, perhaps isn’t the most practical idea.
He Was Cloned Three Times and The Clones Are Secret Agents
Conspiracy : A government bureau known as Special British Intelligence (aka The SBI) created three clones of Bruce Lee in 1981 and sent them around the world on secret missions, one of which was to stop the evil Dr Nai (Thailand’s very own Dr No) from taking over the world with an army of invincible bronzemen.
Reality : Okay, this one’s not a conspiracy as such. It’s the plot of The Clones Of Bruce Lee, one of many “Bruceploitation” movies made after Bruce’s death, mostly in Hong Kong. This one stars three notable Bruce impersonators – Bruce Le, Bruce Lai and Dragon Lee – as the clones and is a great example of how outrageous this genre could get. While, on the surface, these films were cash-ins and often exploitative, a lot were borne from a place of genuine fandom or sheer disbelief that Bruce was taken too soon. He was Hong Kong’s first truly international pop icon and the appetite for more was insatiable, with Bruce clones pumping out multiple movies a year well into the 1980s.
Ultimately, all these stories exist because Bruce was a one-off. His talent defied logic, his story didn’t fit the usual template and people, sometimes even with the best intentions, try to make sense of the senseless. While it’s fun to consider a few wild possibilities and imagine an immortal Bruce Lee rampaging round the world, taking revenge on the Mafia or whatever, it’s also total fiction. In their weird way, the myths could be said to keep the legend alive, like the songs sung in ancient times of great heroes but, in this instance, Bruce’s documented legacy speaks for itself. Even 45 years on, you only need to watch a few minutes of Enter The Dragon to get it. He was simply the best.
Words by @cjlines
Birth of the Dragon comes to cinemas 23 February from Altitude.