Almost as fascinating as Bruce Lee's final movie Game of Death was the semi-remake True Game of Death, one of the most notorious Bruceploitation films ever made. The origins of this film is still a mystery. No studio has come forward and claimed responsibility for making it. I have seen three different edits of this movie, each which has edited in footage from other films, and each claiming Bruce Lee was the films star, even though he would have been dead at least six years before this film was made. But the original Chinese version of this film has remained elusive, if it ever existed in the first place. As for the cast and crew, they are still a mystery as well, although one website believes they have identified a few of the actors responsible. Or have they?
The Original Game of Death
In the early '70s Bruce Lee had made two films for Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest which were both huge hits. Lee agreed to continue making films for the studio, provided they give him full creative control and any budget he wanted. The first film he directed, Way of the Dragon, was ambitious. It was filmed on location in Italy, and featured Bruce fighting Chuck Norris in the ruins of the Colosseum. Lee had planned to follow that up with a film he and friend James Coburn had been planning since 1969 called The Silent Flute. But while scouting locations for that film, Lee looked at a pagoda and came up with an idea for another movie. His idea was a pagoda with a treasure on the top floor. Each floor is guarded by a master of a different fighting skill. Lee's character goes on a quest to retrieve the treasure, which means having to fight each master on each floor. Lee put "The Silent Flute" on hold and immediately began filming the new movie under the working title Game of Death.
Halfway through production, Lee was asked to star in Enter the Dragon for Hollywood's Warner Brothers studio. Game of Death was put on hold. Lee never got to finish it. After Enter the Dragon wrapped, Lee began post-production on several other projects. He was still working on The Silent Flute, was in talks with former James Bond actor George Lazenby to co-star in three other projects, and was offered the lead role by Lo Wei for the film Yellow Faced Tiger which was to be shot in San Francisco. He also decided to shoot some additional fight scenes for Enter the Dragon as he felt the film lacked in action in the first half, and had choreographed the fight scenes in Fist of Unicorn as a favor to his friend Unicorn Chan. There also exists test photos of Bruce wearing period piece costumes, suggesting he was thinking of staring in yet another production.
On July 20th, 1973, Bruce Lee died of a brain hemorrhage caused by an allergic reaction to a painkiller he took for a headache. His fans found it inconceivable that such a healthy athletic man would suddenly die in his 30s, so rumors began to spread of Lee being murdered and Golden Harvest studio head Raymond Chow covering it up. There were also rumors of several unreleased Bruce Lee films that had been completed, or nearly completed, just prior to his death. It was not such a crazy idea. The Hong Kong film industry was structured in such a way that actors could, and sometimes did, work on multiple films at the same time. They would shoot a scene on one set in the morning, walk across to the set of another movie and shoot another scene, then after lunch head over to a third set to shoot another scene for another movie. Some actors managed to star in as many as a dozen films the same year. And in the case of Bruce Lee, there had been publicity for all his unfilled projects.
Unscrupulous producers played into these rumors. Actors were hired who had a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee, had their names changed to Bruce Lee, and proceeded to make films that were released as Bruce Lee movies. For legal reasons, distributors could not claim Bruce Lee was the star of these films in the United States. But they tried. One Bruce Lee clone spelled his name Bruce Li, another to Bruce Le, both names still pronounced Bruce Lee. To prevent any further dubious Bruce Lee films from being released, Raymond Chow announced that Bruce Lee had only been filming one movie prior to his death, the ironically named Game of Death. Chow claimed that Lee had finished most of the film, and it only needed a few key scenes shot to be completed, which would require hiring an actor who could double for Bruce Lee.
This did not stop the Bruceploitation. If his clones could not get away with making fake Bruce Lee films anymore, there were still other ways to make money off of his name. There were remakes of Bruce Lee films, unauthorized sequels to Bruce Lee films, biographical films about Bruce Lee, films where the clone attempts to solve Bruce Lee's alleged murder, and films with Bruce Lee as the lead character. But perhaps the biggest shock for Golden Harvest was when a few versions of Game of Death were released. Information about the film had leaked, enough for producers to piece together their own version, right down to the iconic yellow jumpsuit that Bruce Lee's character wore. Since Game of Death had not yet been released, these were not remakes, but premakes.
According to Hong Kong cinema historian Bey Logan, Raymond Chow panicked when the clone versions of Game of Death were released. He decided to scrap whatever version Bruce Lee had planned, keep only the existing Bruce Lee fight footage, and shoot an entirely different film. Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was brought in to write and direct the new version, under the close supervision of Raymond Chow. Hollywood actors Colleen Camp, Dean Jagger, Gig Young and Hugh O'Brian were cast to play characters in the new version. John Barry was hired to compose the soundtrack.The original story was to have gangsters compelling Bruce Lee to steal a treasure from a pagoda guarded by martial arts masters. They apparently did this by kidnapping family members. Bruce Lee had never gotten as far as deciding exactly what the treasure was.
The new version, released in 1978, still had the pagoda, but Lee's character was no longer searching for a treasure. Instead, Lee plays a famous actor who is being harassed by gangsters who want him to sign with their syndicate and take over as his manager. They are also pressuring Lee's girlfriend, an aspiring singer played by Colleen Camp, to sign with them. Eventually becoming fed up with Lee's refusal to sign with them, they arrange to have him killed on the set of one of his movies by replacing blanks with real bullets in one of the guns. Lee is shot in the face, and apparently dies in surgery. But he actually fakes his death, and spends the rest of the film hunting down and killing the gangsters. The big boss ( Dean Jagger ) figures out that Bruce Lee is still alive, and kidnaps his girlfriend. Bruce frees her, then enters the pagoda and fights his way up to reach the office of the big boss for final vengeance.
While the film is well made, fans were shocked to see how little new Bruce Lee footage actually existed. The film opened with a fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, the footage lifted from Way of the Dragon. When the fight ends it is revealed that it was a scene being shot for a movie. Bruce's double takes over, and we only see him from the back. A light almost drops on him, and footage of Bruce Lee looking up from Way of the Dragon is inserted. The double goes to his dressing room, and is approached by one of the gangsters ( Hugh O'Brian ) who warns him that more accidents will happen if he does not sign with them. For this entire scene you only see the double from his back, excluding one failed attempt at a special effect. The double is momentarily seen from the front, but with a photo of Bruce Lee's face super imposed. For the remainder of the film Bruce Lee's double is only seen from the back, or behind tinted glass, or has a plant obscuring his face. And in a few scenes he is actually facing the camera, but in a darken room wearing extremely thick sunglasses that look more like a mask. For the scene where he is shot, footage is lifted from Fist of Fury so that once again it can be established the character is supposed to look like Bruce Lee.
At the mid point of the film, when Bruce's character has his face shot and asks the doctors to claim he had died in surgery, he also gets plastic surgery so he no longer looks the same. This now allows the double to walk around without hiding his face, but does not explain why in the pagoda scenes the character once again looks like Bruce Lee. Finally, with the movie nearly over, we get to the only new Bruce Lee footage. The 11 minutes of footage where Bruce Lee fights his way past the three masters. An additional fight was added with Hugh O'Brian by editing footage of a double with close ups of Bruce from the previous fights. And more reaction shots lifted from other films are used for the final scene where Bruce chases Dean Jagger off the side of the roof.
With only 11 minutes of original Bruce Lee footage padded out to 90 minutes, Golden Harvest unwittingly created a new version of Bruceploitation. Bruce Lee films created using archive footage. Golden Harvest would repeat the stunt three years later with Game of Death II: Tower of Death, once again using a double, and two minutes of lost footage from Enter the Dragon where Lee has a conversation with a Shaolin master. In that film Lee's character is killed off early in the film. There probably would have been more Bruce Lee archive films, but mercifully the Bruceploitation era was coming to an end.
True Game of Death
By the time Golden Harvest released Game of Death, Bruceploitation was coming to an end. Jackie Chan had become as popular in Asia as Bruce Lee once was. His Kung Fu comedies were so successful that studios all over Hong Kong began producing their own martial arts comedies. Even Bruce Li began making comedies. With the exploitation of Bruce Lee waning, it is a mystery why someone would decide to remake Game of Death almost immediately after the Golden Harvest version was released.
Having never seen the original Asian version of this film, I have no idea if the added Bruce Lee footage was on the original print, or done by the American distributor. The film, as shown in America, exploits Bruce Lee on three levels. First, it is another remake of Game of Death, only this time made after Golden Harvest's version was released. Second, thanks to the addition of Bruce Lee archive footage, the movie claims Bruce Lee is it's star. To this day unsuspecting viewers mistake this film for the Golden Harvest version of Game of Death because Bruce Lee is on the bill. But the third level of Bruceploitation is perhaps the lowest any of these films has sunk. In 1979 rumors surrounding Bruce Lee's death still abounded. Many suggested he had been poisoned, usually by rival martial arts teachers furious that Lee was teaching the secrets of Chinese Kung Fu to European and American students. But one nasty rumor had his wife, Linda, poisoning him for allegedly cheating on her with actress Betty Ting Pei. Pretty much every single person Bruce Lee had come in contact with was rumored to have administered the poison. True Game of Death not only suggests that Linda did in fact poison him, but that the Golden Harvest version of Game of Death was inspired by the actual events. It suggests that Bruce Lee himself was being harassed by a syndicate looking to sign him as a client, and when he kept refusing they pressured his wife into putting poison in his tea. It also suggests that Lee faked his own death to go after the syndicate, and was still alive as of 1980. Rumors that Bruce Lee had faked his death were also common in the late '70s.
All that was needed to claim Bruce Lee was the star was some footage of him. And there actually was some public domain footage to be found. The trailer for Way of the Dragon was used frequently by isolating just the parts featuring Bruce Lee fighting. Twice during the movie the lead character is seen reading a magazine, and the film cuts to the isolated trailer clips, suggesting that the article is about Bruce Lee, and the character reading the article is having a flashback to one of Lee's films. More public domain Bruce Lee footage opens the film, this from a promotional junket Bruce Lee did for Fist of Unicorn. He is at a table with the rest of the cast; there is no audio, but the clip is accompanied by happy music. Then suddenly somber music as footage from Bruce Lee's funeral is shown, including Lee in his casket. Voiced over narration talks about Bruce Lee dying. Then the film cuts to a young man in a gym lifting weights and practicing martial arts. The voice over lets us know that this man is a successor to Bruce Lee, and hopes one day to be as good as him. We follow the man to a movie set where he is the star of a martial arts film. His name is Xiao Long ( spelled Hsao Lung in the English credits ) which just happens was also one of Bruce Lee's screen names in China; Lee Xiao Long. The film's director closely resembles Lo Wei, the same director on Bruce Lee's first two movies. Xiao Long is met on the set by his white wife named Alice, very similar to Bruce Lee's American born wife Linda. There is enough of a legal difference here that the producers can protect themselves against a lawsuit from Lee's widow, but it is obvious that the characters are meant to be Bruce and Linda Lee. The film even uses footage of Bruce Lee's former Hong Kong house when showing the exterior of Xiao Long's house.
Much like in Game of Death, Xiao Lung is harassed by gangsters who want him to sign with their syndicate. This film has the advantage of not needing a double that has to hide in the shadows or can only be shown from the back. One huge difference between both films is how the syndicate attempts to kill the hero when he refuses to sign with them. In Game of Death footage is lifted from the climax of Fist of Fury where Bruce Lee is gunned down by Japanese soldiers. The footage is re-purposed with new footage of a movie set, creating a new scene where Bruce Lee's character is shot to death on his own movie set due to real bullets snuck into a prop gun. In True Game of Death the syndicate attempts to assassinate the hero by forcing his wife Alice to poison him. While hiding behind a curtain with a gun, one of the thugs tells Alice to put a drug into his drink, claiming it will only put him to sleep for a few days. But instead of putting Xiao Long to sleep, it causes him to have violent seizures and tremendous pain.
Cut to a few months to a year later. Apparently Xiao Long is dead. An extremely depressed Alice hires a new servant who looks remarkably like Xiao Long wearing a fake beard and mustache. Meanwhile the head of the syndicate suspects that Xiao Long is still alive because new movies by him are still being released. His thugs suggest that the films are being made by imitators, or are using old footage of Xiao Long edited into new movies. This is definitely a reference to Bruce Lee and the Bruceploitation films that followed, once again strongly suggesting that Xiao Long is really Bruce Lee. In Game of Death Bruce Lee's character fakes his death in order to secretly go after the gang members who were harassing him and his girlfriend. In True Game of Death Xiao Long fakes his own death so he can secretly continue making films.
Alice's new servant asks her how Xiao Long died, and she confesses to him that she poisoned him. The servent reveals that he is actually Xiao Long in a really bad disguise. When he refuses to forgive Alice for trying to kill him, she gets into her car and drives off in a huff. As Xiao Long gives chase, there is a sudden and unusual cut. It appears that the distributor, for reasons unknown, has edited in a scene from a completely different film. A martial art sifu is teaching his student when a second man shows up and insults him. The student fights the man. A second man shows up and barges into the fight. His relationship to the sifu is unknown as most of his lines are deleted from the soundtrack. And then just as suddenly as it began, the mystery scene ends, and we go back to Xiao Long chasing his wife.
The syndicate has figured out that Xiao Long is still alive, after checking his grave and finding it empty. They intercept Alice's car and kidnap her to lure Xiao Long into a trap. At this point True Game of Death is an almost exact copy of Game of Death. Both films show the hero having a run in with thugs on motorcycles, then stealing the jumpsuit of one of the knocked out thugs. The original reason for this scene in Game of Death was to explain why Bruce Lee was wearing a yellow jumpsuit. There was less of a reason for the Xiao Long character to do the same. Both films have the hero fighting their way up three floors of a building that resembles the inside of a pagoda, wearing that yellow jumpsuit. While Game of Death ended with a double for Bruce Lee chasing the syndicate boss on the building's roof, then kicking him off the fire escape to his death, True Game of Death has Xiao Long cornering the syndicate boss on the lawn outside his office. But before Xiao Long can give the boss his much deserved beating, he hears the sound of police car sirens and runs away, leaving the boss with a confused look on his face. This seems to be a call back to Bruce Lee's first martial arts film, The Big Boss, where after defeating the villain, the police show up and arrest Lee.
The Other Edits
In 1980 World Northal began syndicating martial arts movies to television. The first distributor to do so, World Northal's Black Belt Theater became a quick success. Other distributors began syndicating their own martial arts movie packages. Bruceploitation was still alive and well in the United States where Jackie Chan's films had not yet crossed over. Two movies, The Green Hornet and Fury of the Dragon were pieced together using episodes of the Green Hornet television series. Fist of Fear, Touch of Death took an old television interview with Lee, re-dubbed it in English, and used it as part of a faux documentary on a tournament to crown a successor to Bruce Lee. While Bruce Li had already changed his name back to Ho Chung Tao, but American distributors still insisted on crediting him as Bruce Li. Films like The Last Dragon and They Call Me Bruce? continued to capitalize on Bruce Lee's name long into the 1980s. All of the distributors wanted to syndicate one of the Bruce Lee movies, but with Golden Harvest owning the broadcast rights to the entire catalog, the best they could do was Bruce Li. One of the distributors stumbled onto True Game of Death, and perhaps for a while thought they lucked out on an actual Bruce Lee movie.
At 80 minutes, and with a 4 minute graphic sex scene that would need to be trimmed out for television broadcast, True Game of Death with commercial breaks ran a few minutes short and would not fill the entire two hour block. In addition, it appears that the television distributors realized how little Bruce Lee footage existed and looked to somehow lengthen it, perhaps for legal reasons. For these reasons True Game of Death went through a major reedit for the television version. The footage of Bruce Lee promoting Fist of Unicorn and footage of his funeral is slowed down to half speed. The introduction to Xiao Long exercising is edited out, so after Bruce Lee's funeral the movie jumps to the movie set. Aside from the sex scene being heavily edited, along with most of Xiao's death scene, the rest of the movie is the same as the theatrical edit up until the end. Shortly after Xiao runs from the police sirens, the scene with him exercising is reinserted. New for the television version is a montage ate the end that for a couple of minutes recaps most of the fights, followed by a repeat of Xiao cornering the syndicate boss and running away when he hears the sirens.
But the weirdest edit of this film comes from Germany. Distributed in that country under the title Bruce Lee: Seine Besten Kaempfe ( Bruce Lee: His Best Fights ) the film was given a radical makeover. A brand new story is cobbled together using footage from other Bruceploitation films. Parts of the documentary The Real Bruce Lee open the film, and the rest of the movie is peppered with fights from Bruce Lee's Secret and Bruce lee: A Dragon Story, two Bruce Li films loosely based on events in Bruce Lee's life. Coincidentally, both of these movies were in the same American television syndicated package as True Game of Death. Reading comments on German DVD websites, it seems many Germans could not tell that the film was alternating between the actor playing Xiao Long and Bruce Li, and some even believed that the ending pagoda fight was from Golden Harvest's Game of Death and featured Bruce Lee. I am sure there are many Germans who can tell Chinese actors apart, and most likely these same Germans were smart enough not to bother watching Seine Besten Kaempfe recognizing the real Bruce Lee had nothing to do with it. But most Bruceploitation films rely heavily on an audience that is unable to tell that the lead actor looks nothing like Bruce Lee, and in Germany this genre has found it's perfect audience.
Still A Mystery
For years little was known about this film. The only available print was the television edit which was available through Master Arts Video. The American distributor did away with the original Chinese opening credits, replacing that sequence with a shot of a pagoda and English credits which appeared as such:
Cheung Tien Wai
Lai Man Sing
Lee Lung Yue
As stated before, Hsao Lung is an alternate spelling of Xiao Long, the name of the film's lead character. Here the name is presented as the actor and not the character. The only actor listed in the credits who is known to have appeared in any other film is Bruce Lee. Since the credits were suspect and incomplete, the cast and crew remained a mystery. Also unknown was the studio that produced the film, and the distributor that released it. And yet another mystery, the summery that appears on the Master Arts Video box, a summary they apparently got from whoever they bought the film from. It suggests a missing sub plot where Xaio Long's studio attempts to keep his death a secret by hiring an impostor to complete the last film he was working on. This ruse is uncovered by Xaio Long's wife Alice. While this does not happen in neither the theatrical version or television edit, it is possible it is part of the original Asian version and was edited out, for reasons unknown, by the American distributor. The film does make an abrupt jump to a year after Xaio Long's death with no effort to announce the passing of time. Scenes edited out could account for this jump. It could also account for the short 80 minute running time. This incorrect summery has since appeared on other home video releases, as well as on IMDb.
The date for this film has sometimes been cited as 1981 ( as it had been for years on IMDb ) and as early as 1975. I place the film's production at 1978 for two reasons. One, because it contains a remake of a scene found only in the Golden Harvest version, the one where Bruce Lee fights the motorcycle gang, it was made after that version's release. Game of Death was released in Hong Kong in March of 1978. Second, I assume that whoever produced this film was looking to release it as close to the release of Golden Harvest's Game of Death to both capitalize on it's publicity, and possibly to trick some fans into seeing this version by mistake. Many Asian studios were perfectly capable of producing a knock off within a couple of months time. 1981 was the year True Game of Death went into television syndication, which is why Master Arts claimed this film had a 1981 copyright. The copyright is for the television edit only.
A few years ago a poster for the French release of the movie, Son Dernier Combat ( His Final Combat ), was uncovered and offered on EBay. This was followed by someone finding and selling an American poster. Both listed the following cast: Bruce Lee, Shou Lung, Alice Meyer, George Stephens, Kim Sin G, and Michiyama Ichiro. The full name of the Anglo co-director is given as Steve Harries. They also gave the studio, Ho-Hsin Motion Pictures Co LTD. According to IMDb their only other film from that studio was Wanted! Bruce Li, Dead of Alive!
The site Hong Kong Cinemagic seems to have identified some of the actors. The lead is identified as Lung Tien Hsiang, an actor who's best known films were done for Shaw Brothers. Character actor Lee Man Tai is identified as the boss of the syndicate. But how accurate is HKCinemagic? In many cases when an actor is identified in a movie, it is not from any official studio records but from face recognition. In other words, someone with credentials thinks the unidentified actor is a dead ringer for a known actor. I am not faulting this technique. It is the same one used with silent films. Lou Costello was found in an early Laurel & Hardy film as an extra via face recognition. But occasionally mistakes are made. A film historian once identified Stan Laurel in an early Oliver Hardy film, which would have been their first appearance together. After a lot of hubbub about the rediscovery of a lost Laurel & Hardy film, it turned out he was mistaken. Xiao Long may look a lot like Lung Tien Hsiang, but without conformation there is no proof he actually is Lung Tien Hsiang. Now it is possible that Lung Tien Hsiang himself submitted his own filmography and True Game of Death was on the list. But HKCinemagic has not mentioned if this has occurred.
HKCinemagic also list the Hong Kong title as A Tribute To The Master which I suspect is a mistake. As stated, Master Arts Video was the only source for this video after it's brief syndication to television, and remained so for nearly two decades. One peculiarity of Master Arts Video was their boxes. Each had the same blurb across the bottom: "A Tribute to the Master - Video Monitor". This would suggest some sort of review praising one of the films in Master Arts catalog, only there seems to have never been a Video Monitor magazine. More likely it was a made up quote they attached to all their videos. After Master Arts went out of business and other less reputable companies began re-releasing their martial arts films, one of them inadvertently labeled True Game of Death as True Game of Death: A Tribute to the Master, and that title stuck. It is likely that whoever submitted the HK title to HKCinemagic made the mistake of reading one of those DVD boxes and thinking it was the alternate HK title. If, in fact, the HK title is A Tribute to the Master, that would be a very incredible coincident.
The original version of this movie, along with reliable information on who produced it and who acted in it, still remains elusive. Perhaps on purpose. Although the names have been changed, there is still grounds for Bruce Lee's family to sue the producers if they so wished. It would be nice to some day see the uncut Asian print, find out which scenes are in it, if any Bruce Lee footage was in it or added later by foreign distributors, and to find out the characters names on the original release. Until then True Game of Death seems to be surrounded by as much mystery as the film it was based on.
Stephen on October 14, 2014:
Great article. Fascinating.