37. BRUCE LEE: Be water, my friend
This is Bruce Lee’s most famous quote and conveys his most important fighting philosophy: adaptability. He believed that a great fighter must be ready to adapt to whatever situation he faces, to flow like water around and through an opponent. If one way doesn’t work, a fighter should be prepared to adapt and find a way that does.
Lee decided that the best way he could showcase his skills was through a television or movie career, and was encouraged by his celebrity martial-arts students like Steve McQueen and James Coburn. Before he moved to America, he was a famous child actor in Hong Kong, so he was no stranger to being in front of the cameras. He auditioned for a Hollywood producer after being spotted giving a demonstration at a Karate tournament (watch the audition – his charisma already oozes off the screen). This eventually led to his role as Kato on the series The Green Hornet in 1966. The show only lasted one season and over the following years Lee got bit-parts in other shows but nothing substantial. His only other major role during that time was on the TV series Longstreet, where Lee basically played himself, a martial-arts instructor. It was in this role that he says the famous water quote (Watch it here. He later recalled his lines in this more well-known interview.) Lee’s big break was meant to come in a starring role for a TV show he spent a long time developing called The Warrior. He would play a shaolin monk who would wander the land getting into adventures. But mainly because the Hollywood producers were racist assholes, they instead gave the role to David Carradine (a white guy playing a Chinese monk! WTF?) and the show eventually became Kung-Fu.
Rejected and almost broke, Lee returned to Hong Kong to get away for awhile. He was surprised that he was famous there thanks to his role as Kato, and was soon given a movie deal. Lee went on to make three insanely successful movies in Hong Kong: The Big Boss, Fists of Fury and Way of The Dragon. Each one broke the previous film’s local box-office record, and Lee became a hero thanks to his roles as strong, ass-kicking Chinese men who fought for his oppressed people. Hollywood eventually caught wind of this and decided to give him the leading role in a big-budget Hollywood movie. So Lee finally got to showcase his amazing skills and philosophy to a worldwide audience in Enter the Dragon. It was the culmination of 10 years of struggling to break into the business and a lifetime of martial-arts training. A culmination of blood, sweat, tears and never-ending hard work. And you know what happened next? HE DIED JUST BEFORE IT WAS RELEASED! Argh! It still makes me upset just typing it. Enter the Dragon would go onto to be massively successful and catapult Lee into instant mythic status. Imagine being a kid in 1973 who was used to watching cowboys duke it out on the big screen, and then being shown this opening scene in Enter The Dragon.
What sometimes gets overlooked is the impact Lee had on action cinema. His fight with Chuck Norris (best fight scene ever, and it showcases his ‘be like water’ philosophy) could be inserted into any movie today and it would still hold up. It was filmed 40 years ago! He choreographed all of his fight scenes and had a natural talent for knowing what audiences would like, which angles to shoot and when to add dramatic pauses in the middle of sequences. And not only did you know he was a real fighter, but he could act too! Sure, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen etc are great in fight scenes, but they’re not very good actors. There will never, ever be another Bruce Lee.
- I tried to make this piece look like an old Chinese scroll painting with the quote being a fable spoken amongst two wise, old sages. If I had to explain that, it probably didn’t work.