Warner Brothers: Kings of Kung Fu?

by Michael Lauck on March 10, 2011 · 5 comments in Buddhist Blog

It is the early 1970s and you are ready for a dose of sweet martial arts action. Settling into your seat, Coke in one hand and popcorn in the other, the lights dim. As the curtains part the screen flickers to life and that familiar shield appears. Warner Brothers are bringing you another martial arts movie!

Yup, I said Warner Brothers, not Shaw. I don’t think that anyone would dispute the fact that the Shaw Brothers were a major force in the development of martial arts films and that the Warner Brothers aren’t really thought of as purveyors of the films of foot and fist. However, it is my firm opinion that the good folks at Warner Brothers should get most of the credit for bringing martial arts flicks to the English speaking audiences of North America. They may not have invented kung fu movies, but they are the ones responsible for making them popular in the US. If not for their work, you might not even be a kung fu movie fan today!

Join me as we travel back in time about 50 years. Martial arts had been around in the United States for a number of years on a small scale, but the 1960s saw karate, judo and other combat arts spreading throughout the country. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but one of the major factors had to be the fact that there were thousands of US servicemen spread across Asia. Japan had been host to American servicemen since the end of World War II. The Korean War led to an even greater US military presence in Asia which multiplied with the conflict in Vietnam. Thousands and thousands of young men were exposed to judo, karate, tae kwon do, kung fu and even muay thai, even if only through local entertainment. Some chose to study the ancient fighting arts and a select few were able to attain teaching ranks. Starting in the early 1950s, dojos and gyms slowly spread across the United States as returning soldiers sought to spread the traditional eastern martial arts they had learned. By 1964 judo, first demonstrated in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, became an official Olympic sport and introduced martial arts to mainstream sports audiences.

As the average person became aware of martial arts, they began to slowly creep into entertainment. Bruce Lee, of course, was appearing regularly on Green Hornet in 1966. By that time Black Belt magazine already had five years of publication under its belt. Talk shows featured demonstrations of throws and board breaking and a character with a knowledge of judo would show up here and there as a plot device in shows. The time was ripe for martial arts to take more prominence in film and Warner Brothers would lead the way.

You might think that the first American martial arts movie is Enter The Dragon, which was released by Warner Brothers in late 1973. Others will point at the US release of King Boxer, earlier in 1973, was the real start of martial arts cinema in the US. Since it is a Shaw Brothers production most fans have forgotten that it was Warner Brothers that brought King Boxer to the theaters of the United States, probably to help prime the pump for Enter The Dragon a few months later. However, neither of these films can be claimed to be the first exposure of mainstream American audiences to high kicking martial artist heroes.

To back track for a moment, many readers will probably be screaming that Seven Samurai was released in the United States in 1956 and was even nominated for two Academy Awards. That is true, however, it was hardly a mainstream film. Released to the art house circuit and in Japanese, it was not the type of thing that would show up at the local drive-in! Samurai flicks had a niche following, for sure, but they could only be found in specialty theaters in big cities. And yes, I know United Artist’s You Only Live Twice, 1967, saw James Bond practicing martial arts while hiding out in Japan (in the worst disguise ever) and featured ninjas! I’ll admit that it is pretty cool. The fact is that the ’60s spy movie boom transformed movie fights from cowboy bar brawls and wrestling matches into (poorly choreographer) karate chopping and snap kicking duels of fist and foot. By and large, however, martial arts were treated as just one of many exotic tools in the movie spy’s bag of tricks along with trick cars, tracking devices, remote control beds and such. These helped to introduce the mainstream North American audiences to judo throws and karate chops (invariably to the neck), but with the exception of You Only Live Twice, they were never a focus. And yeah, I said remote control beds… check out Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies (go for The Wrecking Crew, which boasts Bruce Lee as the martial arts adviser and an on screen appearance by Chuck Norris).

Warner Brothers released what is arguably the first American martial arts movie in 1971: Billy Jack. It’s hero was an ex-Green Beret with a black belt in hapkido that he put to use to defend wild horses, his reservation and the local annoying hippies against the surrounding rednecks. American International had released the first film featuring the character Billy Jack, Born Losers, a few years earlier but there were no martial arts in it. Warner Brothers took over the second film, which star Tom Laughlin co-wrote and directed. Even though he had no martial arts background, Laughlin made hapkido Billy Jack’s primary method of defense and he, in fact, dispatches the major villain with a chop to the neck. Love or hate Billy Jack, it was probably the first American film to prominently feature Asian martial arts and, in some small way, the philosophies associated with them. It also features really terrible hippy improv comedy, terrible acting and faux American Indian philosophy, too. It did not do very well at the box office during its initial release, but it would be back.

The next year Warner Brothers released Superfly. Riding high on the wave of action films with black anti-heroes, it was one of the movies that would inspire a flock of lesser imitators that would become known as blacksploitation. Superfly combined a great soundtrack, written and performed by Curtis Mayfield, with an urban crime story and plenty of action. Point blank: Superfly is freaking awesome. The main character, Priest (superfly actually refers to the coke he is selling, not him), is a cerebral drug dealer and black belt looking to make one final score before retiring from the game. Priest’s karate skills are an important part of the film, which opens with a fight and has another during the conclusion. After Superfly, martial arts would become an important part of blacksploitation films. Priest returned in 1973 with Superfly TNT but that film was not released by Warner Brothers.

Meanwhile over on the small screen, Warner Brothers launched the series Kung Fu. Putting aside all of the hurt feelings and disappointment over the fact that this didn’t star Bruce Lee, you have to admit that this was the show that cleared the way for Chinese martial arts movies to invade the US. Yeah, yeah… Green Hornet was on first but face it: it was a kid show and not a particularly successful one at that. Kung Fu, though, was a huge success. It’s multi-part story of Caine finding his brother is even credited by some as inventing the TV mini-series! More importantly, at least to the martial arts fan, it brought US audiences the term kung fu, as opposed to Chinese karate or other labels. Like Billy Jack before it, it gave the youth of the time a more philosophical hero using martial arts to work for peace and justice. This is a sharp contrast from the spies and samurai warriors who were the typical martial arts wielding characters. Luckily for us viewers, in the pursuit of peace and justice in the Old West, philosophy and good intentions don’t often work and you have to result to beating people down Shaolin Style!

It is really easy for today’s fans to underestimate the importance of the Kung Fu TV series. It isn’t the most historically accurate series and the star was a dancer, not a martial artist. Of course, it was also a bit slow and often times formulaic. It gets a bad rap for not casting Bruce Lee to this day and, to make things even worse, spawned a pretty bad sequel series. However, you can’t ignore the fact that Kung Fu pre-dated the release of Enter the Dragon and other more “hardcore” martial arts movies. It also was broadcast on national television so people everywhere could see it, unlike films which slowly and unevenly worked their way through smaller markets. Kung Fu was a milestone in the spread of martial arts and martial arts movies in the US.

This brings us up to 1973 which, of course, was a huge year for martial arts movies in the United States and for Warner Brothers. First came their US release of the Shaw classic King Boxer under the name Five Fingers of Death. Of course, later in the year was Enter The Dragon. Between these two titans Warner Brothers also released Cleopatra Jones, a blacksploitation flick featuring Tamara Dobson as a karate kicking secret agent fighting lesbian drug lord Shelley Winters (yeah, you read that right). The success of these films, combined the extra publicity created by the untimely death of Bruce Lee, firmly established the popularity of martial arts in entertainment and the viability of movies featuring martial arts. Also in 1973, Billy Jack was re-released after Laughlin gained control of the film from Warner Brothers. He felt that they did not properly support Billy Jack during its initial run. He re-released the film and it did over $30 million in box office, more than even Enter The Dragon!

With martial art movies established as hot properties, Warner Brothers wasted no time in releasing another Shaw Brothers film, Sacred Knives of Vengeance. On the heels of the successful re-release of Billy Jack, the martial arts deficient Trial of Billy Jack hit the theaters. Warner Brothers also teamed Enter The Dragon director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub with its co-star Jim Kelly for Black Belt Jones. Much like Cleopatra Jones, the main character in Black Belt Jones is some type of secret agent or private detective. He works with law enforcement, but for a price. This film differed from other Blacksploitation and secret agent films, though, because the movie firmly focused on karate. Its plot revolved around an attempt by the Mafia to gain control of the karate school owned by Jones’ instructor (played by Scatman Crothers).

In 1975, Warner Brothers would release a crime drama set in Japan, The Yakuza, as well as teaming with Shaw Brothers to produce the sequel Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. They also released a post-apocalyptic thriller, The Ultimate Warrior, starring Yul Brynner as an unbeatable knife fighter. This is not a martial arts film, but it was helmed by Robert Clouse and originally was written with the idea that a Chinese martial arts movie star would play the title character. I have read that this was supposed to be either Jimmy Wang Yu or Gordon Liu. The Gordon Liu version of the story is the most oft repeated, but I have to admit that I find some credibility in the Wang Yu version because he was an established star in Hong Kong films by time the film would have been in the early stages of production and Gordon Liu simply wasn’t very well known. As if these films weren’t enough, Warner Brothers also released The Master Gunfighter, starring Billy Jack’s Tom Laughlin and Superfly’s Ron O’Neal as samurai sword wielding gunmen in old California. No, it didn’t make much sense and it didn’t make much money either.

After 1975 Warner Brothers retreated from martial arts films. By this point the market was being flooded with cheaply dubbed Asian kung fu films which played well on the drive in and grindhouse circuit. They did produce Hot Potato, the sequel to Black Belt Jones, in 1976 but it performed poorly. (A later Jim Kelly film, Tattoo Connection, is sometimes titled Black Belt Jones 2 but it was not actually connected to the original.) Warner Brothers even managed to avoid releasing the final Billy Jack film altogether. Their next major kung fu film was 1980’s The Big Brawl, Jackie Chan’s ill fated attempt to conquer the States. It’s crappy but I like it and I bet you do too. They were not done with their trailblazing, however. In 1981 the next major fad in martial arts film was kickstarted with Enter the Ninja. Although they did not produce it, Warner Brothers had a hand in the distribution of the film.

Now you can easily see that even though Warner Brothers doesn’t have a huge martial arts movie catalog like Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest or even, for that matter, Cannon, it had a major role in bringing martial arts films to the US. If it weren’t for the success of Warner Brothers products such as Billy Jack, Enter the Dragon and Kung Fu, smaller companies would not have jumped on the bandwagon and started importing Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest and Godfrey Ho movies. Remember, Warner Brothers were even the first to do that with King Boxer and Sacred Knives of Vengeance. So next time you pull a hot bag of popcorn out of the microwave and settle in on the couch to watch your latest purchase of Cantonese language wire-fu on Blu-Ray, think of Robert Clouse, Tom Laughlin and the Warner Brothers. Without them, you probably never would have had Blackbelt Theater, Jean Claude Van Damme movies or even Walker, Texas Ranger much less easily found region one releases of Chinese, Japanese and Thai action flicks!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jet Li February 24, 2015

I don’t like it how most of todays action movies have to feature martial arts being performed by actors and not martial artists.

Sure with the likes of matrix I was quite impressed with the fight scenes considering keanu and martin lawrence don’t have any martial arts training that I know off… I just wished the other 2 could have followed suit.

Sorry, a bit off topic, just needed a rant…

But all too often you will see fight scenes with shaky camera scenes – by the end of the fight you know the good guy won but your not quite sure how.

Reply

Michael L March 19, 2011

I don’t pretend that it is a great movie or even a very good movie, but Billy Jack totally changed my life.

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Marla Mize March 19, 2011

Michael, you have forced me to acknowledge Tom Laughlins “Billy Jack”, something I do reluctantly. I never did care for “Kung Fu” the tv show,(however I loved Keye Luke as “Master Po”) or “Billy Jack”, but as you point out, they are very important film in the story of martial arts films in the United States.
But, thank god for “Kung Fu” and “Billy Jack” if it helped bring the Shaw Brothers, and more, to mainstream audiences.
I was lucky to get to see “King Boxer” in the theater when it was released here in the US, March 1973.
Another well written, important article from Michael L. Thank you.

Reply

MIchael L. March 10, 2011

I got a little wordy there, huh? I didn’t know I could put that many words together without a single bad one!

Reply

smotch121 March 10, 2011

nice read

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