Spoiler Alert: Details of a scene in the film ‘Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood’ involving Bruce Lee are revealed below.
Thelonious Monk once said, “A genius is the one most like himself.” By that measure, Quentin Tarantino is most certainly a genius, for he is relentlessly himself—be it for good (Kill Bill Vol.2) or bad (Death Proof). Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, boldly mixes fact and fiction as it takes on Charles Manson and the tail end of the golden age of Hollywood. It is an ambitious work of cinema, but Tarantino’s willingness to play fast and loose with the truth isn’t always successful. Case in point, an unfortunate sequence involving martial arts legend, Bruce Lee.
The scene, involving an extended monologue from Lee and an eventual fistfight, feels gratuitous—and it’s hard not to wonder what prompted Tarantino to include it. It establishes Cliff Booth – played by Brad Pitt – as a bad ass, but there were likely far easier and more efficient ways to do that. Clearly there were things Tarantino wanted to express about Bruce Lee and martial arts, while making use of a true story about Lee getting bested by a stuntman.
Let’s begin with that true story.
There was trouble on the set of The Green Hornet. Bruce Lee kept hurting the stuntmen. Wanting to make the fight scenes look as real as possible, Lee wasn’t exactly pulling his punches. And the stuntmen were complaining. Bennie Dobbins, the stunt coordinator for the show, decided Lee needed a lesson. He called in ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell, the toughest stuntman Dobbins knew, to teach it.
LeBell had come by the reputation honestly. He was the son of Aileen Eaton, a boxing and wrestling promoter in Los Angeles. From a young age, LeBell learned how to fight from the best. He’d gone on to become a two-time national judo champion, and had trained in Tokyo at Kōdōkan. He’d even competed in a true mixed martial arts contest, taking on ranked light heavyweight boxer Milo Savage in 1963.
When LeBell showed up on set, he did exactly what Dobbins hoped he’d do—he got the better of Bruce Lee. LeBell simply picked Lee up, threw him over his shoulder, and carried him around. Lee didn’t take it very well, screaming out death threats all throughout.
In the end, however, the only thing injured was Lee’s pride—and he recognized that LeBell’s grappling skills gave him a fighting advantage. He set about learning from LeBell. In terms of entertainment, this new knowledge culminated in Lee’s use of an armbar in Enter the Dragon.
But, obviously, Bruce Lee wasn’t just an entertainer. He was also a martial artist. His desire to create a truly effective fighting style resulted in the development of Jeet Kune Do. Before his death, he decided style itself hindered fighting, and left behind his newly developed form.
In 2004, and a few times since, Dana White credited Bruce Lee as the “father of MMA.” Although Bruce Lee was certainly a strong influence, it seems strange to call him the father of the sport. The fact LeBell competed in a true mixed martial arts contest prior to meeting Lee belies the point. Even Lee himself, while still just a kid in 1950’s Hong Kong, was inspired by the mixed martial arts exploits of Mas Oyama. Decades earlier, Mitsuyo Maeda traveled the world taking on boxers, wrestlers, and street fighters with his ‘jiu-do’—making it to Brazil in 1914 and taking on a student named Carlos Gracie.
But sure, let’s go ahead with the idea that Bruce Lee was the father of MMA, as this seems to be an idea Tarantino is also invested in. Mike Moh, who plays Lee in Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, gets an opportunity to chew the scenery for two minutes and nine seconds (I timed it). An unheard of amount of cinema real estate for one soliloquy that really has nothing to do with anything, as far as the plot is concerned.
In this monologue, Lee expresses his distaste of martial arts tournaments and an appreciation for the real world danger of boxing. He then essentially describes MMA, saying, “That’s beyond athletics. Beyond the Wide World of Sports. That’s what I admire. Two warriors, facing each other.” An unseen stagehand asks Lee who would win such a fight, Lee or Muhammed Ali. Lee says he’d “cripple” Ali.
Enter Cliff Booth, a war hero and who apparently got away with murdering his wife. Booth scoffs at the idea of Lee beating Ali, prompting Lee to challenge Booth to combat. Although technically no winner is decided, Booth throws Lee into a car – a car built in the 1960’s, no less – and Lee’s body makes a massive dent in the door. Lee is fine.
Adding to the cartoon-ish veneer of the entire thing, is the cringe-inducing stereotypical way that Lee is portrayed.
Tarantino defended his caricature of Bruce Lee, calling him “arrogant,” and claimed, “I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali.’ Uh, yeah, he did.”
If Bruce Lee did say that, the record of it has been well hidden.
Much easier to find is a story told by Robert Clause, director of Enter the Dragon. Lee was in the business of studying Ali and speculating as to what would happen if they ever fought. Lee raised his fist and said, “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”
Was Bruce Lee arrogant at times? No doubt. It takes a big sense of self to take on the creation of a new approach to martial arts, while also becoming an entertainment icon. But it also took humility to seek out wisdom from the stuntman who embarrassed him in public.
Along with his depiction of Lee, Tarantino also addressed the film’s assertion that Cliff Booth could beat up martial arts star. To recap the fictional character, Booth is a WWII veteran and war hero with hand-to-hand combat experience. As far as the audience can tell, he’s spent much of the last twenty years of his life driving Leonardo DiCaprio around, doing some stunts, handyman jobs, and drinking a lot. Meanwhile, Lee, a superior athlete, has been pursuing martial arts excellence with extreme dedication.
While acknowledging Brad Pitt would be unable to beat up Bruce Lee, Tarantino asserts, “If I say Cliff could beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character, then he could beat Bruce Lee up.”
Well, I say he couldn’t.