100 Years of Fighting Films
Martial arts in the movies and television has excited audiences around the world for many years. In the United States, Thomas Edison recorded the first fight on film in 1894, capturing the Gentleman Jim Corbett and Peter Courtney fight in the boxing ring. Since then, western martial arts has punched and kicked its way through the years in the form of battles on the decks of Spanish galleons. Errol Flynn, as Robin Hood, used stealth and archery skills in Sherwood Forest, to the delight of millions.
It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the West saw the epic movie battles of England, France, the Civil War, and World Wars in vivid rich color. Steve Reeves was the gladiator of the sixties films. Sly Stallone brought the world back to the boxing ring with his collection of the Oscar-winning Rocky Balboa series, from 1976 to 1993.
On television, in the West, a martial arts film made television history – Kung Fu, a story about a wrongly accused Shaolin priest wandering in the Old West in search of family and protecting the weak from evil. Because of this phenomenon, the Eastern film market reciprocated with a massive push of martial arts fight films of unique and exotic pugilistic styles, as well as weapons. Out of these films came Chinese stars: Master Kwan Tak Hing, Jackie Chan, and the great Kung Fu master, Bruce Lee. Lee caused an explosion on the East/West struggle for action films entertainment by bringing audiences such films as Chinese Connection, Fists of Fury, The Way of the Dragons, Enter the Dragon, and The Game of Death. These films changed the whole approach of the action film genre. What the western world did not know was that this exotic form of fighting was not just limited to the film and television form of entertainment.
Early Roots of Martial Arts Entertainment
The ancient Chinese incorporated elements of the grand opera, ballet, comedy, tragedy, mime, history, acrobatic, and the circus, bringing a wide variety of entertainment packed into an exciting spectacle. The Peking Opera and acrobatic performances entertained the Chinese for thousands of years. The members intermixed the skills of fighting with extraordinary gifts of physical coordination and pantomime. Those with military backgrounds and prior combat training were at an advantage in their portrayal of military men with various skills of different styles of Kung Fu. Action and precision, together with high kicks, and sweeping exits, showed the versatility of the performers along with the exciting music accompanying the action. These performers took pride in their art and even performed their own stunts. They would burst out onto the stage at astonishing speeds with tumbling, spinning, somersaulting, kicking, and flailing weapons, all to the excitement of the crowd. Violent action was an integral part of the shows. The triumph of good over evil was also part of some plots.
In comparison, Shakespearean England’s staged fight scenes were also part of the excitement of the use of excellent martial skills.
History in many different lands were passed down to the next generation, by telling the proud stories of the warriors and their heroic fighting feats. By looking at the past, even before the written word, lore was told in the way of songs and dramatic dances. In acting out the parts of each major character, one could see that to pass down the stories of heroes and heroines, a storyteller was needed to entertain the clan with a dramatic tale of heroism. Violence was used as a human truth and part of the natural process in evolution.
Some controversy has arisen of late on the use of violence in entertainment. Remember that to tell a story of heroes or villains, the moral scope of humanity must be explored. In other words, violence (Yang, or negative force) is an integral part of our way of life. Peaceful existence (Yin, or positive force) is an ever-sought destination of all. Seeing our hero overcome evil makes seeing the violent fight sequences all the more enjoyable. The Peking Opera explored each of these in fast-paced, exciting action for pure entertainment.
Pioneers of the Western Film
Martial arts pioneers in western films were not necessarily martial arts practitioners nor were the films just action adventures. After World War II, Blood in the Sun, was made with James Cagney. Cagney used judo to defeat a Tokyo chief of police, when he tried to inform the west of imminent war against Japan. In this film, Cagney is shown in one of the greatest judo fights ever put on the silver screen. Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1964), portrays a one-armed war veteran. He discovers corruption in a western town and uncovers the secrets behind it. Tracy used karate to accomplish justice. Even the release of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai with Toshiro Mifune, caused a new sensation in western films. This highly acclaimed film changed the way Americans would view films for the next two decades. By the transformation of this film to the western imagery, Seven Samurai emerged as the "spaghetti western" A Fist Full of Dollars. This film gave the United States and the world a new screen hero: Clint Eastwood.
The sixties brought us other movies with stars such as Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther (1964), and The James Bond Adventures with Sean Connery (1964), which showed the elite training of a secret agent. Elvis Presley, who was an expert martial artist in real life, utilized his training in his movies and stage shows. He also was a private student of the late Ed Parker of Kenpo karate. James Colburn was a spoofing James Bond type of American secret agent using martial arts to get out of trouble in In Like Flint (1964) and Our Man Flint (1964).
The Television Explosion
In 1969, karate was seen for the first time on American television in an early episode of The Detectives (1959-1961) with Robert Taylor, in which he learns how to kill with "empty-hands" techniques. Another show, the British syndicated import The Avengers (1964-1969), brought us female agent Emma Peal (Diana Rigg) as a martial artist/spy. From 1965 through 1968, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby took their skills to exotic locations in the series I Spy. The Wild, Wild West gave us Robert Conrad, a former student of Bruce Lee, as a government agent in the Old West.
Martial arts flourished and grew by the success of shows like The Green Hornet. This show introduced the world to the true talent of a master of Kung Fu: Bruce Lee. Lee showed grace and flash, along with the stunning kicks of Chinese boxing. Later, he was shown on Longstreet as he portrayed his extraordinary art of Jeet Kune Do – the way of the intercepting fist. With the advent of Kung Fu fighting to television and the introduction of Bruce Lee to America, a new show came to the airways and changed the television viewing of the American public. That show was Kung Fu.
The ABC television Movie of the Week, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine, first aired on February 22, 1972. In this story, Kwai Chang Caine, a Chinese-American fugitive flees from a murder charge in Imperial China and becomes a superhero to the coolies building the transcontinental railroad in the Old West. Caine, a Shaolin priest seeking peace, while capable of inflicting instant death, helped to introduce the beginning of mass interest in the Chinese martial arts in the United States. The producer, Jerry Thorpe, feeling that the time was right, expanded the trend into the American television market. Thorpe said, "This is an opportunity to make a positive statement incorporating Chinese philosophy which is as basic and beautiful as any philosophy ever written. Since I felt that we had lost much of our sense of morality during these times of violence in America (1960s through early 70s), here was a chance to give viewing audiences peace and brotherhood."
Caine would simply dispatch his opponents, subduing them with no real sense of killing. The show never showed any spurting blood. They never hit below the belt. The show revealed the art of conflict under control. Emotions checked and trouble controlled, the show was written very close to poetry. Kung Fu gained more and more viewers and was deemed a hit. It became a weekly series in January 1973 and became the number one television program in the United States. Today, over 20 years later, we had Kung Fu: The Saga Continues, with David Carradine in the lead role of grandson to Kwai Chang Caine.
Pure martial arts movies bloomed in 1973, when Warner Brothers imported the Chinese film The Five Fingers of Death, a story about a Tiger-claw stylist who indulges in sword play on the way to becoming a Kung Fu boxing champion in China. Bruce Lee was well on his way to stardom after his stint with the soon-to-be-ended Green Hornet series. Though Lee was a co-star in the show here in the United States, Lee was considered the star of the show in Hong Kong. His rise in stardom and the effect on the action film was then seen in Lee’s performance in The Fists of Fury and later The Chinese Connection in August 1973. Enter the Dragon was released in the United States only a few weeks after Bruce Lee’s death in 1973. This Golden Harvest/Warner Brothers production became an instant classic and an unqualified hit. Its worldwide box office gross today total more than $150 million. Lee portrays a Shaolin discipline with multiple motives for entering the mysterious Master Han’s karate tournament and for destroying his worldwide drug operation. Lee’s success catapulted him into super stardom as the first Chinese-American with his name above the title, in the biggest film ever made. He died one month before it previewed in America. The shock of his demise on July 20, 1973, incited rumors that he died of poison, was shot, or was a victim of the "dim mak" or "death touch" at the hands of his enemies. Lee brought about the change in how people of the west view the action film.
In Return of the Dragon (1974), Lee introduced audiences to a new cult martial arts hero in fighting champion Chuck Norris. Norris has brought us films like Breaker, Breaker! (1977), A Force of One (1979) in which Bill "Superfoot" Wallace made his debut, Good Guys Wear Black (1978), Octagon (1980), and many others. Today, Norris brings his successful television show Walker: Texas Ranger into the home of millions.
Fighting Off Into the Sunset
Martial arts in American entertainment is not new, nor is it on the decline. If anything, it is flourishing in our television viewing with children’s shows like The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the Superhuman Samurai, VR Troopers, and in Steven Seagal’s Aikido action movies. No longer is martial arts an unusual form of entertainment. Martial arts is a mainstay in television and films. The only thing left for martial arts is to have a successful play or musical written for the stage and performed on Broadway. Would this be a viable venture? Could this be the next explosion in American entertainment? Enter the Dragon: The Musical?
Finally, since the Power Rangers hit the touring circuit around the country, more and more children are seeing the powerful message in using their wits and not violence. We are heading closer towards the twenty-first century and it seems that if our children are affected by what they view, then the action adventure should give a positive message. In the past, the cowboy was the ideal hero as he rode into town on his white horse and shot it out with the bad men. He would finally ride off in a cloud of dust towards the sunset. Well times have changed and our view of the hero has become more realistic. The good guy wears black today. Not always is the champion a man. The hero could be a woman, a child, a group of Ninja kids, or a bunch of teenage Ninja turtles saving the world from an evil force. Any one of these heroes could destroy evil as we watch them fighting off into the sunset.
Duke Windsor is a freelance writer and artist. Windsor also is an advanced student and practitioner of Shaolin Kempo in North Park.
Artwork by Duke Windsor.
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