This was originally from my article that was mostly about the missing footage of movies made by Golden Harvest (I wrote about the Shaw Brothers equivalent in the past month). There was so much that I mentioned about Game of Death that it made sense for it to be its own article. Furthermore, it makes it easier for Bruce Lee fans to track this article down given that I had cited its existence in my first article about his death. My opinion about Game of Death is that Bruce should’ve introduced a plot twist where the top floor has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but no golden treasure. The idea being that the real treasure comes from within the voyager. This would’ve been like the ending for The Silent Flute, where the explorer finally finds the much coveted book, but the pages consist of nothing more than mirrors.
Many fans still want to see the scene where Chieh Yuan attacks Dan Inosanto with a big log (the martial equivalent of saying bigger isn’t better). It’s not so much lost as stolen. My guess is that a 50th anniversary special will warrant feverish fanfare. Like some Lee fans, I believe that Bruce filmed the first floor with Whang Ing-Sik et al. There are jaw-droppingly ignored signs of this. First of all, Bruce had filmed a series of fight scenes which were meant to be used for a projector reel that himself and his assisting fighters watch (think back to when Lee is informed of his mission in Enter the Dragon). It’s funny how these scenes weren’t incorporated into the 1978 release.
Second and foremost, there are stills of the log attack which prove that someone out there is withholding Game of Death footage. While some may dismiss these as publicity photos, note the first time that we see Inosanto as a pagoda guardian in the Clouse cut is when he’s sitting in his chair unlike what we see in neither version of the short film (which are basically fan edits). Thirdly, Bruce had a tendency to not shave if he wasn’t filming. When he was doing screen tests in April of 1973, he was clean-cut. In May, he was recuperating from his collapse. If you look at photos of him in June, he was clean-shaven. He also shaved in July as can be seen in his final televised interview and even in the mortuary photo.
Lastly, there’s a reason why June and July were relatively silent months for the legendary Lee. The basis of my presumption is a diary note that he had written in June for wanting to reserve three months after August for a Shaw Brothers movie. The question is why would he abandon a unique project just to work on a costume movie that was a dime a dozen, especially since he wanted to educate people about the fallacy of routines while celebrating international cultures (as what Inosanto mentioned in the Hong Kong Legends DVD release). The presumption that I have is that Bruce may have realized that you can’t have five floors of martial artists and a floor for the treasure if you plan to use a pagoda which has five floors. Because of this, he may have decided to later eliminate the Hapkido floor because of it falling below his standards.
He would only scrap this scene if he filmed the second floor with the praying mantis practitioner, who was to be played by somebody he screen-tested in April since Taky and Bruce knew that the latter’s patience was thin-wearing. A magazine interview with Chieh implies that Bruce had scrapped the proposed first two floors so that it make sense for the fifth floor to have treasure. According to Yuan, the first floor would be the one guarded by a gang of Kung Fu fighters instead of a gang of Karatekas led by Bolo Yeung who are already outside the pagoda (as opposed to inside where there is much more to do and far less for outsiders to strategize). Allegedly, Bruce decided to have two Americans assisting his raid alongside James Tien and Chieh. At any rate, it’s a shame that no-one has thought of using CGI to complete the pagoda raid.
After contemplation, I don’t think that Bruce would have cancelled the entire project. It wouldn’t have been fair on his co-stars and students. It speaks volumes that he was nice enough to cast an actor (i.e. James Tien) who found himself to be no longer the star of The Big Boss. A question has been raised as to how long that it would have taken for Game of Death to be made. The Big Boss took 6 weeks to be filmed. Ditto for Fist of Fury whereas The Way of the Dragon took short of 2 months (Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris took 3 days to complete). According to the September 15 issue of New Nation in 1972, Lee was already filming Game of Death. The clapperboard dates show that it was well past the halfway mark in completion.
He postponed on December 20 (ten days before the release of The Way of the Dragon) because location scouting was underway for Enter the Dragon (which was given the greenlighting because Game of Death had a famous basketballer in it). People like to talk about how Bruce was overworked, but there are H.K. movie stars who traverse between two film sets. It’s such a shame that he couldn’t work Game of Death into his schedule. Other reasons for stopping filming were the deaths of James Lee (an American friend) and Yip Man (the first combat tutor that Bruce studied from). In the December 10 issue of New Nation in 1974, a spokesman claimed that he had shot most of the fights. Linda reiterated this in The Man Only I Knew.
This is where we have to do the math. Like the Shaw Brothers before him, Bruce realized that H.K. movies had the potential to have schedules akin to TV. The fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took one week to film because he was due to train for the NBA in a short period of time. Inosanto took 2 weeks to complete his scene (the weapons added an extra layer of intricacy). In 1977, The Straits Times were told by Clouse (in the 16 July issue) that Bruce shot about 3,048 meters of film (111 minutes if you include the bloopers).
Clouse did such a bad job of completing it that Yuen Woo-Ping did a better job of compensating for his father’s absence from The Magnificent Butcher. However, Clouse signing up to sit in Bruce’s directorial chair wasn’t the biggest mistake that anyone ever made in that movie. That honour goes to Colleen Camp who chose to co-star in the film instead of playing the main female character in National Lampoon’s Animal House. To be fair on her, she didn’t realize how little actual footage of Lee would be used in the final edit.
Bruce didn’t complete the film because of filming so many publicity photos. This does seem strange when you consider the lack of photos for other major league stars until you start to realize that Enter the Dragon had a myriad of stills so as to make the H.K. credit sequence more animated than the somewhat standard style of the U.S. cut. In 1975, Linda wrote for South China Morning Post that (after his U.S. movie) he did his usual rounds of TV appearances, interviews, meetings with producers and filming. Inosanto, who remembers Whang being flown over for filming, was under the impression that the film was half-completed.
Kim Tai-Jung (who filled in for Bruce in Game of Death) claimed that he was shown the majority of the movie (including non-action scenes) prior to working on Clouse’s redux. Doug Palmer (one of Lee’s students) claimed that it was mostly in the can. Lam Ching-Ying (stuntman) told Bey Logan that Bruce had filmed two thirds. It’s a coincidence that Jackie had filmed two thirds of The Young Master before Triads forced him to return to Lo Wei. Hugh O’Brian and Zebra Pan weren’t involved with Game of Death, so they assumed that Bruce only shot a third.
The Artport version (as seen on the HKL DVD release) would have been 40 minutes long when including the log bit, so that means the final running time (if taken literally) would have been two hours long. There is no way that this would be permitted since The Big Boss had enough deleted scenes that it got cut down to 100 minutes (albeit I’m grateful that the finished product isn’t rare like the illegal sequel). Lee was so methodical about undertaking Game of Death that he calculated how many rolls of film which were needed. He was bound to have known what the final running time would be (something that Sammo Hung should have learned for films like The Millionaire’s Express).
Films are like plays in that they have three acts, so it would have been economical to have each act last for 33 minutes. As documented in a book titled The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Lee was OCD enough to appreciate the value of evenness. The remains of the footage as shown in A Warrior’s Journey lasted for almost 34 minutes, yet still lags like the Artport release (where Bey Logan dubbed Bruce instead of John Little). What’s available to us lacks the tightness that he was renowned for, so I can imagine him tightening the footage to the extent that the three final floors would be comprising of 28 minutes. George Lazenby cited this number when explaining how Bruce treated him to a private screening so as to see how the last three Pagoda fights flowed.
The three floors are akin to a three act play. Outside of the Lee league, most people aren’t aware that what we are treated to (in any version) is essentially a rough cut that was meant to be pared down. What you intend to film isn’t always what is meant to be kept. You shoot more than you need so that you can maintain a sense of continuity from shot to shot. Also, it gives you freedom in what edit points that you can choose. In that respect, John Little’s cut is better. The voice acting is accurate whereas the music is better (not cheap-sounding like in Bullet in the Head as pictured above). So who knows how much more is being withheld by (or from) the G.H. studio?
By comparison, the S.B. archives are cut and dried. It’s literally the case that editors cut and dry unwanted footage so not a single soul hurt S.B. by stealing. Regardless of who was cutting and drying, there is one more piece of evidence that is damning with no faint praise. Ng See-Yuen was approached by Raymond Chow to make a movie under the promise that there was extensive unreleased footage of Game of Death. Bruce filmed all of the pre-Pagoda footage (the shots of him in the countryside while wearing a suit or being topless were just publicity photos).
Casting aside reels that fall into the category of same difference, the reason to undertake such a task would be if there was earth-shatteringly new reels (such as Simon Yam’s bottle smash during Bullet in the Head as seen above). I suspect that Ray was chickening out by wanting to hold onto it for unsuspecting generations who wouldn’t be as skeptical about expecting new footage. Even if Ray showed Ng what was left, it’s hard to find an coherent context outside of a documentary. It would have been difficult to incorporate the footage in Clouse’s 1978 release because Bruce’s four allies could be easily seen in any given shot.
Even if there was enough solo shots to pass it off as an intimate duel, there is the issue of the running time to consider. The running time, as it is now, is slightly longer than Enter the Dragon (which was 99 minutes only after several scenes were taken out). Also, the other fights were more distinctive in that Bruce was taking on artists specialized in Eskrima, Hapkido and Jeet Kune Do. Therefore, advertisers had unique selling points to work with. The Western fans should remember that, for a long time, the H.K. audience were deprived of seeing the Hapkido floor.
As for Tower of Death, a.k.a. Game of Death II, it was nothing more than an excuse to make use of deleted scenes from Enter the Dragon (there would have been more scenes but Ng put his foot down). It may as well have been retitled Enter the Dragon II. In one issue of Golden Movie News (a G.H. magazine), it was claimed that Bruce shot 7,000 feet of film (one hour and 17 minutes) for Game of Death. Noting Clouse’s above testimony, this can’t include the bloopers and usable takes which differentiated Little’s cut from the Art Port cut, because the tally would have been feature-length.
Bruce still could have completed it while having Clouse film all of the non-Lee scenes and shots in Enter the Dragon. The fights which didn’t feature Lee were bound to come up short even with him as the choreographer. Hell, he could’ve had them choreographed by Sammo (or even Han Yin-Chieh if push came to shove). There was a report in SCMP circa December 1971 that his next movie after Fist of Fury was going to be shot in H.K. and Korea. This implies that Game of Death wasn’t such a rush job after all, since filming didn’t start till August of 1972.
Galaxy Pictorial (another G.H. mag) reported in October of that year about Bruce having already filmed the opening scene. Finishing Enter the Dragon made Bruce want to move to Seattle and treat H.K. as a secondary (if not non-existant) business venture. This means that he would have remade Game of Death as a Hollywood film. There is a reason why he spoke English in the footage. Another 1972 issue of Golden Movie News revealed that Bruce had planned to do two versions – one for the Mandarin market whereas the other would be for the Western one. Maybe he intended to only reshoot shots where you could see his allies.
After all, Bruce considered remaking The Way of the Dragon as a San Francisco sequel for the U.S. audience. Game of Death was a motion-pictured storyboard that showed Fred Weintraub what would happen if Bruce was to climb the pagoda with James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Chuck Norris and Robert Wall (imagine him fighting Dan Inosanto as he did during this promotional shot for the Clouse-led mutiny). As it turns out, McQueen and Coburn were approached to play Steiner (Hugh O’Brian’s antagonist) in Clouse’s revisioning. In October 1972, Fred told the H.K. press that Warner Brothers were going to handle the worldwide distribution.
Under these circumstances, W.B. could have easily bought Concord so that it can become a W.B. subsidiary as opposed to a G.H. one. One could conclude that Game of Death ended up as a smokescreen to convince Ray that Bruce wouldn’t abandon him after making his first U.S. movie. I don’t pay much heed into the team-up with Lazenby on The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss since G. H. was going to be jilted by Bruce (who humoured Ray about George so as to avoid being snuffed out by the Triads who put a price on his head).
Bruce shouldn’t have threatened his superior like Jackie did in a deleted scene from Project A II (as seen below). Considering that Bruce intended Game of Death to be as multi-levelled as the propaga that he was traversing, one could righteously assume that his allies are eliminated in order of who has the least star power. This would mean that Coburn would have been a shoo-in for Chieh Yuan’s role which leaves Mister McQueen gunning for Tien’s role (a rival of Bruce’s character). This makes sense since Bruce always positioned himself as Steve’s rival (the final wish that Bruce had was for Enter the Dragon to outgross Steve’s Papillon).
As for who gets top billing on the poster, it would be displayed in order of the floors which they get knocked down on. As a result, Lazenby would have been redeemed for ditching the Bond franchise (it’s not like he was dismissed for demanding a higher quota). Tiana Alexandra would have more likely played Bruce’s sister because he fancied her to the extent that he kept a file of her photos (in a way that’s reminiscent of the below deleted scene in Bullet in the Head). For the sake of commercialism, Bruce’s wife would have been played by Sophia Loren so as to satisfy Carlo Ponti’s desire to work with the two stars.
Bruce had a desire to work with Polly Shang Kwan (a butch beauty if there ever was one) on a future project, so she could have played the Hapkido master in the badly named temple of gold (which would have resembled something like the below photo). This isn’t wishful thinking, because Polly (alongside Sam Hui) visited Bruce on the set of Game of Death during breaks in filming Lo Wei’s Back Alley Princess. This is more plausible given that he considered Angela Mao (the lady seen below) as a second choice for the G.H. version if Ji Han-Jae had rejected his request. While Ji is criticized by Lee fanatics for not picking up his choreography, he got a hang of Hung’s in Hapkido (which was made before).
Speaking of Ji, the Chinese character on the sign is dragon instead of gold. When the three survivors step onto Ji’s floor, it is apparent that James Tien and Chieh Yuan recognize him. This can also be seen when Ji laughs at Chieh because he knows that he lacks skill, so he is toying with him. Ji doesn’t have dialogue which acknowledges that there is a mutual recognition because even Bruce was aware that obvious exposition is something to be avoided. Ji embellishes his status with a gold belt as a remembrance of the nondescript treasure that is at the top of the pagoda. Chieh is wearing a Hapkido uniform, and there is a reason why.
It was his way of telling the guardian that he deserves a free pass, which is why he is never stopped by the gold guardian when he goes up the staircase. Bruce would have hired Ann Winton (sic) to play the guardian on the first floor (which was to be named as Gate to Enlightenment). The first reason would be because of When Taekwondo Strikes (a 1973 gem that was first released in the West as Sting of the Dragon Masters), whose set that Bruce visited (it was him who pitched the project for Jhoon Rhee). The second reason is that a beautiful white woman would help sell the film. Not only does it work from a feminist perspective but from a sexist point-of-view i.e. if you can’t beat the best female fighters then you can’t beat the best male ones.
This casting strategy makes more sense than Carter Wong’s claim that he was going to be one of Bruce’s four allies (the below meeting with Bruce must have gone to his head). He is clearly riding the coattails. If Bruce wanted him that much then he would have him play Yuan’s role, which makes sense given that Carter’s nickname is watermelon because he looks good but is stiff. Sammo had better chances of being an ally because Bruce liked him enough that he cast him in Enter the Dragon, despite Sammo being too busy to play Yuan’s role (which resulted in a temporary falling out). It would have made more sense to cast Carter in Enter the Dragon because Bruce looks all the more scrawny when next to Sammo.
Since Bruce intended for a Westerner to assist Hai Tien (the main character) and the three members of the Korean mob, we were more likely to see Jim Kelly in Game of Death than Carter. There is more weight to this than what seems to be a joke made in passing. In Volume 2, number 1 of an underground magazine called Badazz Mofo (about Blaxploitation films), Jim confirmed in an interview where he talked a great deal about his relationship with Bruce. On page 21, Jim claims that before he returned to America, he was invited by Bruce to co-star in his next film. Had Game of Death been completed, Godfrey Ho would never have been convinced to make patchworks (movies involving mismatching footage of differing styles).
Back to the actress also known as Ann Winter (who I had been trying to locate for an interview), Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold would have been more successful had S.B. realized that they should have a white actress. After all, look at what happened to The Bod Squad (a Kung Fu sexploitation classic). Enter the Dragon clearly benefited from adding a white performer to the black and Chinese ones. This would’ve been seen as the precursor to Charlie’s Angels, complete with a DVD re-release titled Charlie’s Devils (especially since Charlie was the name afforded to the Vietcong by the U.S. soldiers).
In turn, the commercial success of the Game of Death remake would have inspired the cineaste Wachowskis to have Bruce play Morpheus to Brandon Lee’s Neo in The Matrix (also produced by Warner Brothers). Granted, Bruce would’ve been in his late fifties, but so was Lau Kar-Leung when Drunken Master II was filmed. Bruce being bald would have been perfect since it would be a way for him to regain the clout that David Carradine got from playing a monk in Kung Fu. Maybe the Wachowskis could have got Bruce to train his daughter (Shannon Lee) so that she could play Trinity. The romance would have to be removed but, then again, it would have been refreshing to have asexual protagonists.
My final thoughts on Game of Death is that there was some dialogue by Roy Chiao in Clouse’s version which would’ve been the perfect set-up to include the footage of Lee traversing up the pagoda with Yuan and Tien. This wasn’t included because Ray Chow wanted to make a point that an actor can die from resisting the Triads, hence the Tien versus Kareem scene taken out of context so as to be positioned in the first act. As for the Yuan versus Inosanto scene, Ray decided that the footage would make his first Bruce Lee documentary more exclusive than it deserved to be.