AKA: Fists of Glory
Director: Lo Wei
Producer: Raymond Chow
Cast: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien Chun, Han Ying Chieh, Nora Miao, Lee Kwan, Anthony Lau, Lam Ching Ying, Billy Chan Wui Ngai, Peter Yang Kwan
Duration: 115 mins.
By Ian Whittle
The big boss remains a rather intriguing oddity. Golden Harvest’s first contemporary martial arts film, released the same month Shaw’s Thailand was also filmed Fists duel. But while that film is a glamorous promo for Thailand, with cosmopolitan Bangkok hosting Shaw stars David Chiang and Ti Lung enjoying Muay Thai bouts and water festivals, The big boss looks more like a precursor to horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre AND The hills Have Eyes, while the Chinese far from home find themselves being dismembered in a dilapidated and backward village. Martial arts battles are mostly clunky and crude, with industrial tools and knives often emitting gaudy drops of blood. If infamous 1960s gore auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis made a martial arts film, he’d probably look like this!
I have often compared The big boss to another of my favorite films: the one by Fritz Lang Metropolis (1927). Both films were cut soon after their premiere, both re-written numerous times (and yes, I would love Giorgio Moroder to re-write the soundtrack The big boss with songs by Bonnie Tyler, thanks for asking!), both feature beautiful girls named Maria… and thankfully, both are now almost restored to their uncut state after many decades of only being available in truncated versions. While the original cut of Metropolis appeared in South America in an archive, amusingly it seems that Golden Harvest had the longest version of The big boss forever. All anyone had to do was ask…and Arrow Films did!
So let’s take a look…
(this is not an exhaustive breakdown of every bit of footage recovered, just the highlights)
Mandarin audio for The big boss it has been quite difficult to find for a long time. Wang Fu-ling’s soundtrack (mostly acquired from several Japanese movies, including Ifukube Akira’s soundtrack for costumed monster movies Daimaijin) was dropped, ostensibly for being too ‘Oriental’, in favor of a beautifully OTT original score by German composer Peter Thomas for Western markets. Then, when the film was dubbed into Cantonese in the early 1980s (which also involved replacing the original Mandarin voice actor’s fight yells for Bruce Lee with audio from his later films), a “new” soundtrack was prepared. This was a bizarre mix of the 1950s monster movie title theme How to create a monster (1958), cuts from Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, cues written by Joseph Koo for the Japanese release of The big boss in 1974, some decent 80s cues and a really annoying tune every time Bruce Lee looks at his locket.
Wang’s soundtrack started appearing on home video in the mid-2000s, and that’s a strange thing. While the film itself is very 1971, the music feels much older at times, evoking the 1950s. While atmospheric at times, it often detracts from the onscreen action and lacks personality. Compared to Thomas’ score and Joseph Koo’s scores for the next two Bruce Lee films, one can’t help but find it lacking. The fact that Bruce crowd-surfs for “Danse Macabre” (a horror film, and later the theme for the British TV series Jonathan Creek) remains a fun novelty.
On a related note, the opening credits are now in sync with the animation behind them. On the Cantonese reissue prints, Nora Miao’s credit obscured the title card of “The Big Boss”!
James Tien has been robbed!
So the first big surprise in the newly discovered footage is…more from James Tien’s first fight! And it’s surprisingly better than anything else he does in the film – far more brutal and direct kicks, bad posture, and does some serious damage to his opponents. Why this was removed is a mystery – it’s probably Tien’s only real moment to shine and makes his character seem less bland and squeaky clean than he is. Since later he was stuck in supporting roles (very mediocre appearance The Shaolin Boxer excluded), no wonder he refuses to discuss his career these days. One wonders if this scene was cut as it features a rare example of bad acting by Bruce Lee – you’ll know it when you see it.
All in family
The extended family of cousins are now introduced to the public before being introduced to Bruce. A very short scene, but nice to have.
The chariot scene
Yes, this famous lost scene is now back… and it turns out there are two wagons and neither of them are on fire. This scene, and the subsequent restored recap at the family home (featured in existing trailers), is clearly overstuffed, but allows us more time with the characters before it all goes to hell, especially the old uncle who has a good comedic moment.
Plus Nora Miao
A very brief scene of Bruce walking past Nora’s stall (glimpsed in the theatrical trailer that has been around for a few decades on home video). More Nora is always nice to have!
The Buzzsaw Massacre in Thailand
Though the shot of a body being cut by the buzzsaw is cut abruptly, there is now an extraordinarily macabre shot of the factory manager throwing a severed head into a vat! Whether this was cut for censorship reasons or because the head was obviously purloined from a department store is hard to tell.
Tony Liu was robbed!
Much like James Tien’s first fight, Tony Liu’s introductory fight where he trains with the boss’s henchmen has been cut to the shorter version so you don’t see him making any impressive moves. Was Bruce tinkering with the fight scenes to remove the competition?
Han Ying-chieh was a robber… actually maybe not
We also have more boss fights, but conversely, less is more here. For some reason I can accept Han Ying-chieh flying 10 feet in the air, but not throwing half a dozen burly men off his back.
Blood is not water
Already seen in a trailer, the shot of James Tien’s head gushing like a burst pipe is now back. As with the extended buzzsaw sequence, it’s hard to tell whether it was removed for censorship reasons or because it’s quite funny.
The saw in the head…
…still missing, sorry folks! As is a shot contained in some trailers of a third body in the ice.
Death in the family
The bloody aftermath of the family slaughter now shows the face of the first body, Kam Shan’s character, that Bruce finds – not sure why that was cut out, considering what was left was already brutal. Hell, they left the boy’s body inside!
Down by the river
The scene of Bruce contemplating revenge now runs much longer with flashbacks of the corpses found in the previous scene. Probably a case of less is more, as the scene now feels too long and the provocative “I must get my revenge!” is somehow negated by the next scene…
Porky’s 2: The day after
The last key missing scene referenced in the original trailer, we now see Bruce returning to the brothel. The POV shot of him picking a prostitute (actually an actress) is quite alarming in the rawness of him, looking like something out of a movie of the Italian world as the real prostitutes gasp at the off-camera spotlights shone on their faces. Bruce’s next sex scene is every bit as erotic as those old wartime VD cautionary films, but at least we get to see where he got the crackers from.
The final standoff
For some reason shortened for the HK reissue (and otherwise censored in the US), Bruce’s last kill of the Boss is now intact. And I think he packs a punch!
I can’t underestimate how exciting it was to see all of these previously talked about footage with my own eyes… plus some extra surprises I wasn’t expecting! And to think he was sitting safely on a shelf! Someone wants to ask Fortune Star/Golden Harvest if they have any Doctor who Marco Polo serial? Or the silent long-lost vampire London after midnight? Or the cure for Alzheimer’s? If we don’t ask, how will we know?
Rating by Ian Whittle: 8/10