In 1972, Bruce Lee filmed an illegal fight scene with Chuck Norris that evolved into one of the most iconic martial arts showdowns of all time. The fight in question happened in The Way of the Dragon, which was Lee’s third kung fu movie. Following his starring roles in The Big Boss and Fist for Fury with Golden Harvest, Lee signed a contract to make another movie with the Hong Kong studio.
This time, Lee was to not only play the lead but also write the script and direct the project. With complete creative control over the film, Lee was allowed to deliver the kung fu experience he wanted, which he ended with a dramatic, ten-minute faceoff between his character and Chuck Norris’ Colt at the Colosseum in Rome. Remembered in part for being Norris’ breakout role, Way of the Dragon’s Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris battle has a special place in the history of kung fu movies, due to the visceral feel of the fight and the martial arts choreography.
Getting the fight to happen didn’t come without challenges. After giving up on his plan to film Way of the Dragon in the United States, Lee moved the project to Rome, specifically so he could shoot the final fight in the Colosseum. According to Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, Lee wanted to fight a Western villain in the Colosseum after being inspired by the events of the 1960 historical epic, Spartacus. The problem with this idea, though, is that filming inside the Colosseum is illegal. That’s why scenes are very rarely shot inside the amphitheater, even when it’s a big part of the story. Hollywood movies like Spartacus or Gladiator had to do recreations of the Roman landmark in place of the real thing. But while filming restrictions have stood in the way of others, it didn’t stop Lee from making it work.
Lee understood the issues with shooting in the Colosseum and took steps to bypass them. Polly wrote in his book that to shoot the necessary footage, Lee and the Way of the Dragon crew had to bribe Roman officials. Afterward, they were allowed to sneak cameras in their bags, as long as they pretended to be tourists. Because of these strict rules, they were only able to stay for a few hours. This gave the filmmakers enough time to film a few shots, but not the entire sequence. They had to leave and shoot the rest of the sequence back on set at Golden Harvest and blend the footage together.
The extra trouble that went into making The Way of the Dragon’s showdown paid off in a huge way, as well as the perfect casting of Chuck Norris and the realistic choreography. The atmosphere of a place with a history as grand as the Colosseum further enhanced the excitement of the fight between Bruce Lee and the Karate champion, which is still thought of as one of the best of its kind.