The response to ‘Birth of a Dragon,’ the latest Bruce Lee biopic, has been almost unanimously negative. I find it to be an almost cruel irony that Bruce Lee ends up as a supporting character in his own movie, where the main plot device is once again framed by the caucasian main character. The constant whitewashing hollywood does to movies such as this only serve to treat minorities as the ‘other’.
My aim with this post is to pitch a different way they could do a Bruce Lee biopic. One that is true to the man himself, without turning him into a legend or deifying him. One that would be authentic to his heritage and ultimately would serve as a homage to his legacy that has inspired countless people. This is my idea for a Bruce Lee movie:
In 1969 Bruce Lee began working on a script with famed screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and Hollywood actor James Coburn. The idea came to Bruce Lee initially in his dreams. He would dream of a seeker of truth, a character Bruce came to realise was himself. Coburn was set to star as the main character but the movie would be a vehicle which would allow Bruce Lee to propel Kung Fu onto the world stage. The script was called ‘The Silent Flute’.
The Silent Flute tells the story of a wandering martial artist called Cord, who would have been played by James Coburn. Cord would have done battles with a number of characters all of which represent a different weakness to the aspiring martial artist. These characters would all have been played by Bruce Lee. So even with Coburn headlining, Bruce Lee would have almost certainly been the standout actor in the film.
They finished the first draft of the script and submitted it to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers were hesitant, but agreed to make the film as long as it was shot in India to save money. Bruce was hesitant to take a script that was meant to be a Chinese Kung Fu film and set it in India. But he relented as bills started piling up.
Less than a year later the three men flew out to India for location scouting for a month. The biopic would be largely set within the space of that month with only occassional flashbacks to give context to events. You would also have dream sequences to show Bruce Lee’s inspiration for the movie from within his own subconscious imagination.
Almost instantly Coburn & Silliphant both realised filming in India would be next to impossible. Bruce at the time had a very limited knowledge of filmmaking so he was still trying to make the most of it and forge on ahead. But it was a tough time. He was in near constant back pain due to an injury he had suffered in training a year earlier. Doctors had told him he may never kick properly again. Bruce being Bruce, he spent six months rehabbing & studying. He would become a better physical specimen than he had ever been before but not without cost.
The near constant levels of pain during the India trip made him more irritable. He would often drive James Coburn crazy with some of his habits. Bruce would often take to singing his favourite song, Yesterday, over and over again in the back of the car while James was driving. This lead to James snapping and nearly crashing the car in turning around to have a heated argument with Bruce.
The martial arts have a long and rich history intertwined with India. Bodhidharma, one of the first to teach monks the martial arts to keep their bodies from atrophying after long bouts of meditation, was said to have come from India. Bruce, James & Stirling wanted to see the local martial arts on display. They found a group of ten martial artists who were practicing. They began to demonstrate to Bruce what they had learned and it was, as James Coburn described it, absolute chaos. These men all started beating the hell out of each other. Blood was streaming from one of their mouths. Bruce Lee held up his hand and shouted, no, this is what I mean, then proceeded to give a demonstration of his martial skill. The locals were awestruck, Coburn related that by the end of the demonstration the men all bowed on their knees in respect to Bruce.
Warner Brothers were pushing Bruce to hire locals to fight in the film in order to save on below the line production costs. Bruce Lee declined vehemently and told them ‘it would take three years just to train these fellows up to the right level.’
This biopic would centre almost entirely on the relationship between Coburn & Lee and their dichotomy. Coburn was used to being a big hollywood star by that point and did not appreciate the crowds or the attention. Bruce Lee on the other hand lapped it up and was a consummate entertainer to anyone willing to watch. He would often draw crowds to the behest of his friend. Stirling noticed something else while on this trip, just how much of an ego his friend & teacher Bruce had.
They went to the Taj Mahal hotel. While the established star, Coburn, got the giant suite Bruce Lee got a tiny hotel room. This angered Bruce to no end and he burst into a rage and swore to them that he would be a bigger star than both Steve McQueen & James Coburn put together. Posterity would (arguably) prove him right.
By the time they reached the northern border all three men were ready to call it quits. Bruce Lee threw in the towel on The Silent Flute which would go on to be made with David Carradine, a strange irony because Carradine took the role of the main character from the Kung Fu tv show that was also supposed to originally go to Bruce Lee. But time and providence would pay off. A few months later Bruce Lee would appear on Long Street in a role where he would cite his famous ‘be water’ speech.
After that he would go back to his homeland where he would rocket to megastardom with The Big Boss and the rest is history.
In my opinion this biopic would serve to demystify the legend, to present Bruce Lee as he was. Human and prone to mistakes of pride & vanity. But nonetheless it would paint the picture of a man with a singular vision of himself and his own future, a future he managed to create but was unable to live to see. Through the lens of this friendship between Coburn & Lee I think we could tell an interesting story and one that would be infinitely preferable to any bullshit fable Hollywood wants to come out with.
The two made up before the end of Bruce’s life and James Coburn was one of the pall bearers at Bruce’s funeral. Life is short for all; tragically so for some.
Thanks for reading, let me know what you think in the comments.
May it be well with you