Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story charts Bruce Lee’s life, but it gets a lot wrong about the true story. Dragon was released in 1993, twenty years after Lee’s untimely ɗᥱαꚍɧ at the age of 32. The film found considerable success at the box office, but over the years, Lee fans have questioned just how real the biopic’s depiction of the martial arts star’s personal and professional life are. It’s relatively rare for a biopic to be so heavily scrutinised for so long, but because Lee’s life and ɗᥱαꚍɧ are often shrouded in mystery, fans want to know what they can and can’t believe in director Rob Cohen’s Dragon.
It’s arguable that Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story‘s history of scrutiny may have something to do with it having arrived at a time when heavy hitting, factual films like Philadelphia and Shindler’s List were ruling the box office. Audiences were used to a certain level of honesty at the time, and Dragon seemed to play more for outright entertainment value than authenticity. While Dragon felt content to focus on the legends surrounding Bruce Lee, a modern biopic would do well to focus on who he really was. For now, at least, Dragon remains the best look into Lee’s life, career and ɗᥱαꚍɧ that fans have.
To be clear, it’s not that what Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story has to say about Lee is completely fictionalized or that the film takes huge leaps away from the historical record. What it often does do, however, is balance rather precariously between biopic and martial arts film. This might seem like an obvious approach given the subject matter, but much of what Cohen utilised in this pursuit is riddled with inaccuracy. So is Dragon real? Well, yes and no. There’s much to be explored in this seemingly contradictory answer, and in order to come to a deeper understanding about the material presented in the film, it’s necessary to explore both fact and fiction.
Everything Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story Gets Wrong About Real-Life
Early on in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, viewers are shown how Bruce Lee (Jason Scott Lee) lives, in a rundown Kowloon apartment with his father, Lee Hoi-chuen. His father comes across as a simple but prudent man, whose concern over the effects that a family curse will have on his son lead him to conclude that Bruce must leave Hong Kong forever. Money has been saved for just this occasion, and with Bruce already being sought by the police for a fight with a British sailor, the decision to leave is solidified. In reality, Lee had a father and mother, as well as four siblings: Phoebe, Agnes, Peter and Robert. His father had been quite a famous Cantonese opera singer as well as a star in the Hong Kong film industry. Dragon briefly acknowledges Lee Hoi-chuen’s time in San Francisco as a touring opera performer, but it gives no indication of exactly how successful and renowned he was. Nor does the film allow for an accurate depiction of Lee’s family life.
In addition to Lee’s showbusiness parents, Lee was also very much a product of the entertainment industry. Dragon’s pre-America segments are quite limited, and the audience only ever sees Lee as a confident young man, ready and willing to use Kung Fu when necessary. The truth, however, is that by the time he left for America at age 18, Lee had already appeared in 20 feature films. His first film role came at the age of one, while his first credited role was at the age of six in the 1946 film, The Birth of Mankind.
Despite what Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story may suggest, there is no evidence to prove that Lee ever struggled with hallucinations of any sort of demon, or that he was plagued by nightmares of an evil entity that was coming for him. What’s more, it did not play a role in Bruce’s eventual departure to America. In truth, the Lees’ first born son did ɗ𝔦ᥱ, and they did briefly dress Bruce in girl’s clothing, pierce his ears, and give him a girl’s nickname out of superstition, but that remains as far as the threat of any sort of demon or curse ever went.
Dragon’s fight scene shortly after Lee’s arrival in America, during which he takes on the kitchen staff at the Chinese restaurant where he works, never happened. Though Lee did work in the Chinese restaurant of family friend Ruby Chow upon his arrival in Seattle, his time there did not result in the sort of on screen chaos that erupts in the film. This is unfortunate news for those who had hoped the scene was a genuine moment from Lee’s colorful history, but it remains one of the film’s best fight sequences, nonetheless.
One of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’s most pivotal moments comes when Lee fights rival Johnny Sun. Lee wins, only to be attacked by Sun when his back is turned. This results in a broken back for Lee, and through his time spent in hospital with his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell (Lauren Holly) at his side, he’s able to dictate what becomes his martial arts bible, The Tao of Jeet Kun Do. Lee did participate in a fight against a martial arts teacher called Wong Jack Man, but accounts of the fight differ greatly. What is known for certain is that Lee’s back was never broken at any point, and the The Tao of Jeet Kun Do was pieced together into a book by Cadwell, from Lee’s notes, after his ɗᥱαꚍɧ. In addition to this initial battle, the film’s subsequent fight between the two men during the First International Karate Tournament didn’t happen, either. As a matter of fact, Sun sued Dragon’s producers after seeing his depiction in the film, due to its troubling connotations.
As Lee’s fame begins to grow in America, Dragon indicates that the martial arts star had his idea for a TV series called Kung Fu stolen, and that the lead role was recast with David Carradine instead of him. This too, is a fabrication. A film based on Kung Fu was shopped around by its producers, with Lee prepared to take on the lead role. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in Hollywood, the project failed to drum up any significant interest. In need of money at the time, Lee committed himself to a film in Hong Kong. While he was there, he learned that Kung Fu’s producers were going to turn the concept into a TV series. Lee returned to American in order to audition, but was not cast. Despite what Dragon claims, Lee had nothing to do with the idea for Kung Fu, it was simply a project that he had been eager to be a part of.
What Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story Gets Right
At the beginning of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Bruce Lee’s father reveals to him that he was born in America. This is indeed true, as Lee was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown district and remained there for the first three months of his life as his parents completed their tour commitment with the Cantonese Opera Company. Though a small detail, yet no less of interest to Lee fans, Dragon has a quick scene at a Hollywood party where the martial arts star mentions to his wife that he was the Cha-Cha champion of Hong Kong. In real life, Lee’s dancing skills were quite refined, and in 1958 he won the Hong Kong Cha-Cha Championship.
As depicted in Dragon, Cadwell did become a Kung Fu student of Lee’s when he began giving lessons to anyone who wanted to learn during his university years. This wasn’t their first meeting – as Lee once spoke about martial arts at Cadwell’s high school. However, for brevity’s sake, the film skipped ahead to what was the actual beginning of their relationship. Lee’s years as a Kung Fu instructor are highlighted later in the film as well, most notably when he gives a demonstration at the First International Karate Tournament in Long Beach, California. Although it wasn’t quite as instantaneous as depicted in Dragon, Lee was initially spotted at the event by Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring, who introduced him to producer Bill Dozier. Dozier invited Lee to come in for a screen test, and this eventually lead to Lee being cast as Kato in the ABC TV series, The Green Hornet.
Is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story Still A Good Movie?
After almost 30 years, most films will begin to show their age. What was once viewed as accurate or even serious can begin to look considerably less so after a significant portion of time. It is easy to see Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story in this light today, simply because of the time from which it comes and the style of filmmaking it utilizes. At the same turn, however, Dragon offered a more mainstream, easily digestible amalgamation of stories about Bruce Lee. This is something that hasn’t been altered by time. The film was an excellent entry point back in 1993 for those who were interested in learning about Lee, inspiring many to dig into the star’s catalogue of films or read about his fascinating life. This remains true even today.
Clearly, not everything that is featured in Dragon is accurate, and if one is basing their opinion of the film on how truthfully it depicts Lee’s life, then calling it a good movie might be a bit of stretch. The film does not document Lee’s life, so much as it presents a semi-fictionalized highlight reel. But viewed solely as entertainment, Dragon achieves what it sets out to do. The pacing is quick, and the battles are visually engaging. Lee’s ascent from freshly arrived immigrant to international superstar is cleanly (though somewhat dishonestly) told. Whether or not this makes Dragon a good movie is ultimately a matter of opinion, but its success with a broad range of viewers over the years does underscore the film’s overall watchability. What’s more, the fact that Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is even being discussed and dissected some 27 years after its initial release says a lot about the film as well. It might not be the best film about Bruce Lee, but it’s certainly worth a look. Numerous biopics have found box office and critical success as of late, so hopefully fans won’t have to wait much longer for a fresh and accurate take on the legend that is Bruce Lee.