Enter the Dragon made Bruce Lee an international action superstar — a status that he had long worked to achieve — and became a cinematic action classic 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.
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, both made in China: The Big Boss (1971) and Fists of Fury (1972). 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 Manual and looked up ‘anamorphic.’ Fortunately, it seemed to be a pretty understandable thing.”
The cinematographer’s credit, with actor Jim Kelly walking through a Hong Kong street.
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.
From left, actor and fight choreographer Bruce Lee, director Robert Clouse, cinematographer Gilbert Hubbs, ASC and producer Fred Weintraub on the set in Hong Kong.
Hubbs, aided by AC Charles Lowe on right, takes a rickshaw ride to shoot a quick POV.
Hubbs cradles his Arri IIc while he an assistant shoot Lee for a portion of the documentary-style harbor sequence.
Hubbs and his crew set up for some trailer work in Hong Kong for a chase sequence.
Hubbs and Lee confer while plotting out the coverage for the dramatic banquet scene, which was one of the film’s biggest lighting challenges — primarily due to the studio’s shortage of gear.
Hubbs checks his exposure on actress Betty Chung while shooting the banquet scene.
Hubbs and his Chinese camera crew, which served him well — especially second cameraman Charles Lowe (second from left) who handled the B unit.
Behind the camera, Hubbs composes a shot on actor Kien Shih (seated on throne) and Han’s female bodyguards while shooting the tournament action. With just three lenses in his camera package, Hubbs relied heavily on the zoom.
Bob Clouse steps in behind the camera while setting a shot with Hubbs. Without video assist or even consistent dailies, the pair relied on strong communication and collaboration to accomplish their goals.
Setting up a dolly shot on an assembly of extras playing Mr. Han’s army.
Plotting out the action for a fight between actor John Saxon and tai-chi master Bolo Yeung, Lee demonstrates a kick directly into Hubbs’ handheld lens for co-star John Saxon (partly obscured by the camera magazine).
The tournament was staged in a series of redressed tennis courts. (Frame capture.)
Filming a portion of the sequence from an improvised platform.
Lee and Roper (John Saxon) prepare to fight. (Frame capture.)
Lee and director Clouse share a lighter moment while Hubbs checks his contrast behind the lens. Shooting exteriors without supplemental fill or even silks to control the sunlight led the cameraman to utilize his documentary skills, which added realism to the action.
Lee faces off with the villainous O’Hara (Bob Wall). (Frame capture.)
Lee’s amazing speed was sometimes difficult to portray on film. (Frame capture.)
As Clouse and Lee confer, Hubbs gets a light reading while filming the extensive fight scene staged in the dank “underground lair”set. The cameraman’s frequent use a snap zooms helps accentuate the action, as well as highlight Lee’s expressions.
A snap zoom on Lee as he fights to release prisoners in the underground lair. (Frame capture.)
On the “underground” set, Lee practices a punch with actress Betty Chung and a stunt performer while Hubbs looks on in background.
Lee gingerly positions the four-bladed prosthetic hand wielded by the nefarious Mr. Han (played by Chinese martial arts movie veteran Kien Shih) as Hubbs frames up a POV shot. The film frequently uses such coverage to put the viewer into the action.
The resulting POV shot. (Frame capture.)
The reverse on Mr. Han. (Frame capture.)
Entering the mirrored room during the film’s suspenseful final showdown between Lee and Mr. Han offered Hubbs a multitude of unique opportunities to utilize reflections.
Lee and Clouse discuss their next setup in the final showdown.
Lee takes five in the sweltering mirror room.
This shot exemplifies the use of reflections and misdirection used throughout this sequence to disorient the audience, as Han appears reflected in the left of the frame and then enters from the right. Note the use of white and yellow, reminiscent of color scheme in the tournament yard. (Frame capture.)
American Cinematographer‘s complete Enter the Dragon retrospective was published in July of 2013 and can be purchased here.