This month marks 50 years since Bruce Lee’s sudden death at the age of 32, and likewise the semicentennial anniversary of his highest-profile feature, Enter the Dragon. Released by Warner Bros. on Aug. 17, 1973, director Robert Clouse’s action film stars Lee as a Shaolin monk recruited by British intelligence to compete in a martial arts tournament and track down a crime boss named Han (Shih Kien). The stakes are raised when Lee learns that the man who killed his sister is working as a bodyguard for Han.
Before Enter the Dragon, Lee was known for playing Kato on the 1960s ABC series The Green Hornet and Batman, and for starring in several kung fu films in the early 1970s, including The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). But it was Dragon — his second Hollywood movie after a small role in 1969’s James Garner-led Marlowe — that became his signature title and made him a global icon.
Lee choreographed all the fight sequences for the American and Hong Kong co-production, which was shot on location in Hong Kong, and even engaged in some real battles behind the scenes with the film’s extras when he was challenged to combat.
Hitting theaters in the U.S. just a month after Lee’s death from a reaction to painkillers, Enter the Dragon grossed $21 million ($147 million today) and showed impressive legs, topping the box office in its first two weeks of wide release and later regaining the No. 1 spot in mid-October. THR‘s review praised the project as “not boring for a second” and particularly singled out Lee: “His charismatic presence is remarkable in Enter the Dragon, and it’s a shame he didn’t have the chance to become the great, unique star he seemed destined to be.”
The legacy of Enter the Dragon lives on. It was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2004 and named by critics from The Guardian and Observer in a 2013 poll as the best-ever martial arts film. Fans can relive the magic this month, with theatrical screenings and a 4K Blu-ray release to celebrate the anniversary. As Lee’s younger brother Robert Lee told THR in 1998 about the star, “The charisma he projected was so strong that it left an indelible mark on everyone who saw it.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.