Behind the scenes of the iconic 1973 martial-arts action classic that that would be often imitated but never duplicated.
For any cinematographer, the proverbial “midnight call” often results in unique career opportunities. “It came in the middle of the night, and the connection was bad,” says Gil Hubbs, ASC, recalling how he first heard from director Robert Clouse about shooting Enter the Dragon (1973) in Hong Kong.
The cinematographer detailed this story for an American Cinematographer retrospective article on the making of the film — four decades later — in our July 2013 issue.
It was early 1973, and Hubbs had recently completed months of shooting a documentary with Clouse in the wilds of Nome, Alaska. “I recognized Bob’s voice and probably heard every fourth word, like ‘movie’ … ‘Kong’ …,” Hubbs continues. “He might have mentioned Bruce Lee, but if he did, the name wouldn’t have meant anything to me at the time. Bob asked, ‘Do you have a passport? Can you come tomorrow?’ All I could say was ‘Sure!’ And I got on a plane the next day.”
Little did Hubbs know this would result in a film that would become an instant classic, simultaneously cementing the iconic status of Bruce Lee and establishing the popularity of martial-arts films in the United States.
Enter the Dragon stars Lee as a covert British intelligence operative who joins a diverse band of martial-arts masters to compete in an invitation-only competition held on a remote island by the mysterious Mr. Han (Shih Kien), who is suspected of various nefarious activities. Two other participants are American adventurers Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly), who prove themselves in the ring alongside Lee and help uncover Han’s treachery, culminating in a kaleidoscopic showdown between Lee and Han in a mirrored room — a scene that has inspired numerous imitators over the past four decades.
Produced by Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Studios in Hong Kong (with backing from Warner Bros.’ international distribution arm), the modestly budgeted production was designed to capitalize on the unexpected global success of Lee’s two previous pictures, The Big Boss (1971) and Fists of Fury (1972), respectively made in Thailand and Hong Kong. Warners-based producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller developed the Dragon script with Lee and brought Clouse aboard, seeking to ensure maximum appeal for American audiences.
Unable to obtain the script before boarding his flight to Hong Kong, Hubbs’ only notes were that the picture would be shot in 35mm anamorphic (because of Golden Harvest’s distribution needs), in color and without sync sound (a common practice in Hong Kong at the time). “I’d never shot an anamorphic movie,” says the cinematographer. “So, on the flight over, I got out my American Cinematographer Manualand looked up ‘anamorphic.’ Fortunately, it seemed to be a pretty understandable thing.”
The photos below were taken by the film's unit photographer, Dave Friedman, who provided them for AC's 2013 retrospective story. They were subsequently published as part of a book entitled Enter the Dragon: A Photographer's Journey.
The following gallery of Friedman's production stills and select frame grabs helps to tell a portion of Hubbs’ story.
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