‘The Way of the Dragon’ Is Bruce Lee’s Spaghetti Martial Arts Western

‘The Way of the Dragon’ Is Bruce Lee’s Spaghetti Martial Arts Western

Bruce Lee’s escapade to Rome serves as the perfect blend of two popular genres.
The Way of the Dragon was released in 1972 and served as the directorial debut of martial arts stars Bruce Lee. The film centers around Tang Lung (Lee), a young martial artist as he arrives in Italy to help his cousins who are currently being threatened by the local mafia. In many ways, the film is about two very different cultures at war with one another. However, the film also presents itself as a war against genres as it pits the tropes and premise of a Hong Kong Martial Arts film against the style and motifs of the classic Italian Spaghetti Western. Bruce Lee takes the film as an opportunity to satirize and ape genre staples such as Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy to show which genre ultimately reigns supreme.

One of the most obvious examples of this is present in the film’s action. While The Way of the Dragon features a focus on scenes of hand-to-hand combat, Tang Lung also has to deal with numerous gun-toting gangsters. Of course, this seems like an unfair match at first. A long-distance weapon versus a pair of short-distance fists of fury. However, Tang Lung makes a point of effortlessly disarming mobsters in action scenes by kicking their guns out of their hands before they have a chance to even fire them. This calls back to classic Spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars (or even the comical charm of a Lucky Luke comic) where protagonists routinely disarm their foes by shooting the gun right out of their opponent’s hands.
The characterization of Tang Lung owes a debt to the titular character of Enzo Barboni’s 1970 western They Call Me Trinity. Both Trinity and Tang are characters that, in their introductory scenes, are presented as uncouth and uncultured nobodies in order to make the audience underestimate their abilities. In Tang’s first scene he arrives at an Italian airport and immediately seems out of his depth. The locals think of him as a country bumpkin because he can’t speak the local language fluently, and the only thing that appears to consistently be on his mind is the location of the nearest bathroom. Similarly, Trinity is first introduced as a dirty drifter who enters a bar in the middle of the desert and proceeds to order nothing to eat but a whole plate of beans, taken straight from the pan they were cooked in. In both instances, the unassuming demeanor of the film’s lead makes the viewer falsely presume the inexperience of each character. This makes it all the more gratifying when said experience is revealed in action scenes.

However, the movie Lee’s film owes the largest debt to in terms of similarities is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. This comparison is made especially apparent when one notes the similarities between the plots of each film. Leone’s film follows the classic Western story of a lone gunman coming to the aid of a small local community that’s under threat (in this case, a widow who’s being pressured to sell her land). The Way of the Dragon similarly borrows from this structure, following Tang as he protects a small restaurant from a greedy mob boss who wants to purchase their property. Additionally, during the film’s final showdown in the Roman Colosseum between Tang and world-renowned martial artist Colt (Chuck Norris), sections of Ennio Morricone’s score from Once Upon a Time in the West are interspersed throughout the confrontation. This all drives home how Lee is borrowing from classics that have come before him to make something totally different while still playing with familiar territory.
Lee is essentially committing a reverse of what John Sturges did with The Magnificent Seven, a film that was a Western-style remake of the Akira Kurosawa epic Seven Samurai. Instead, Lee is taking the genre of the Old Hollywood Western that has already been subject to cross-cultural pollination through Spaghetti Westerns and taking that even further by translating it once more through the eyes of the Hong Kong Martial Arts film. This all serves to show how fluid both genre and story are. A story can possess genre trapping, but it is not married to that singular genre. By creating a Martial Arts film with a Spaghetti Western pastiche, Lee shows how just how malleable the notion of genre can be.

The Way of the Dragon turns 50 this year, and it is remarkable how well it still holds up. Its action is precise and impactful, it’s remarkably funny, and it features a final battle between two legends of martial arts that has to be seen to be believed. In viewing the film through the lens of it being a mock Spaghetti Western, a new meaning can be instilled in the Martial Arts classic. The central argument of The Way of the Dragon comes down to a single point: never bring a gun to a fistfight.

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