The best kung fu movies of the 1970s started an American revolution
In These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Altered the World, a brand-new book from Mondo Books, the publishing arm of the pop-culture-friendly art brand name, authors Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali inform the story of martial arts movies in America. As they state, it informs stories such as “CIA agents secretly funding karate movies, The New York Times fabricating a fear campaign about black ‘karate gangs’ out to kill white people, the history of black martial arts in America, the death of Bruce Lee and the onslaught of imitators that followed.” Ahead of its Sept. 19 release, we provide an unique chapter from These Fists Break Bricks, informing the story of a turning point in the category’s appeal.
On a cold night in March, 1973, the lines outside the State Theater in Times Square twisted around the block. New york city’s brand name brand-new nation western station WHN had actually been offering totally free tickets and nobody did that any longer, so the crowds collected, not understanding what to anticipate from this “Martial Arts Masterpiece!” that was “Stunning the Entire World.”
Precisely one year previously, the State had actually hosted Henry Kissinger and Ali MacGraw at the star-studded opening night of The Godfather. Tonight, the crowd jamming the 1100 seats were young, primarily black and Hispanic, mainly male, and they were negative — the very first couple of minutes would identify whether they’d get their kicks from enjoying the film or buffooning the film. The lights decreased, the smooth Warners logo design struck the screen, and instantly a gang of young goons surround an old male on a dark street, chaos on their minds. All of a sudden, the 63-year-old star jumps into the air and kicks 2 of the kids in the skull simultaneously prior to taking the gang apart with his bare hands. Nobody had actually ever seen anything like it previously. The crowd went wild.
The audience sat, riveted, even throughout the talky parts. Fighters removed eyes, smashed hands into bloody hamburger, and divided foreheads with iron-hard fingers, sending out intense red Shaw Brothers blood climaxing throughout the screen in adult spurts. After the hero stumbled off into the sundown in the last 15 seconds, bloody and scarred, with nobody delegated battle since they were all dead, the audience emerged into applause, then hurried the merch table in the lobby and removed it bare.
Word of mouth burned through the city. Individuals returned to see it once again and once again. It was the very first significant kung fu film launched in America and it altered the movie company permanently. However its star wasn’t Bruce Lee, it was Lo Lieh. And its title was 5 Fingers of Death.
Directed by Chung Chang-Hwa, a Korean worked with by Hong Kong’s enormous Shaw Brothers studios, the film was thought about a B-list image on their slate that didn’t even break Hong Kong’s ticket office leading 10, however Penis Ma, Warner Bro’s Head of Far East Circulation, selected it up since the studio had actually simply signed an offer with a Chinese-American star with just a single stopped working tv program to his credit in the States, Bruce Lee, and they wished to check the marketplace since Warners had actually dedicated to this person’s brand-new film, a catastrophe being shot in Hong Kong called Go Into the Dragon. When their circulation supervisor, Leo Greenfield, got the King Fighter print into the New york city workplace he called among his sub-distributors, the vibrant exploitation genius, Terry Levene, to come have a look.
“What do you think of it?” Greenfield asked after it ended.
“It,” Levene stated, “is nothing but money.”
Warners retitled it 5 Fingers of Death, opened it in Europe, where it succeeded, then on March 20, 1973 they previewed it in New york city City. And the crowd went wild.
5 Fingers of Death touched a match to a powder keg. American audiences desired films like this, however studios weren’t providing. Blaxploitation films had actually been great company in 1971 and 1972 however dealt with lessening returns. Kung fu films provided audiences non-white heroes starring in stories about young, working class kids with absolutely nothing however their own 2 fists withstanding corrupt 1%-ers who settled the police officers and made use of employees. The hero would suffer their slings and arrows as long as she or he could, however lastly resist, tossing their bodies into the equipments of the system, removing as much of the bad people as possible prior to they’re undoubtedly eliminated in a twister of blood. These films sang a primal advanced tune: youths, kept down by the older generation, lastly resist versus corruption. They talked to young, marginalized kids who felt left, made use of, and swindled. And in the ‘70s, that meant everyone who wasn’t white, and everybody who resided in a city. They were waiting on a motion picture like 5 Fingers and they made it a hit.
The weekend it opened, Serafim Karalexis, a 29-year old Boston-based independent supplier who primarily went shopping sex movies, contacted us to look at his newest flick’s New york city City earns.
“What’s going on, Howard?” he asked Howard Mahler, his regional sub-distributor. “How’s business in New York?”
“Eh, it’s okay,” Howard stated. “But nothing like that Chinese picture.”
“What Chinese picture?”
“Some Chinese picture that’s just doing gangbusters,” Howard stated. “I can’t believe it.”
“What Chinese picture?” Karalexis duplicated.
“I don’t know what the hell it is! Probably some communist bullshit!”
The next day Karalexis spoke with a European supplier who informed him it wasn’t some communist bullshit, it was a kung fu film. And it wasn’t playing Boston for another week. Impatiently waiting on it to open, Karalexis saw this unidentified movie’s grosses shoot through the roofing. He heard reports that every significant studio had among these kung fu movies in some phase of calling for release. Something huge was decreasing.
Lastly, 5 Fingers of Death opened in Boston, at the Savoy. On a Sunday. Nobody opened a motion picture on a Sunday however the owners couldn’t wait. Karalexis and among his partners got tickets for the last program of opening day. Even with no trailers, no promotion, and no advertisements, by 10pm that Sunday night all 1,500 seats had actually offered out.
“It just POPPED,” Karalexis stated. “You could feel the electricity in the audience.” After it was over, Karalexis and Prentoulis went to a close-by coffee bar to discuss what they’d simply experienced. Prentoulis believed the film wasn’t effectively made. Karalexis believed the film was going to make a million dollars. It offered the audience precisely what it desired. “We have to get one of these pictures,” he stated. “If they made one, there have to be others.”
“Okay,” Prentoulis stated. “But we don’t even know where they made this one.” Nevertheless, Karalexis had actually endured completion credits.
“Tomorrow,” he stated. “I’m going to Hong Kong.”
He called TWA and requested the very first flight out. On Monday, April 2, at 9am in the early morning he got on the airplane and recognized his error: he’d requested the very first flight to Hong Kong, not the quickest flight to Hong Kong. 34 hours, and 6 transfers, later on he stumbled through customizeds and into the Hong Kong Hilton. Stunned with jet lag, he felt time going out. He’d lost a day crossing the global date line and for all he understood somebody else had actually currently launched the 2nd kung fu film back in America. Even if he discovered a movie and purchased it, he had no time at all to get it called or establish an advertising campaign. However he’d come this far. He opened the telephone directory and searched for film studios. He didn’t see any. He called the Hong Kong federal government and they informed him to look under “cinematographers” and there he discovered a number for Shaw Brothers. He called and informed them he was Mr. Serafim Karalexis from New York City City and he wished to purchase some films. Run Run Shaw sent his chauffeured Rolls Royce to select him up. Then 66, Run Run Shaw turned him over to his nephew, Vee King Shaw, the very same age as Karalexis.
“Put it there,” Vee King said, sticking out his hand. “How much do you pay for films?” Telling Vee King that it depended on what he had, Karalexis begged off the mandatory studio tour and went right to a screening room. He didn’t have time to watch full movies so Vee King ran trailer after trailer. After trailer. After trailer. Karalexis didn’t want swordplay movies, he wanted kung fu. And he didn’t want period costumes and historical backdrops, he wanted something modern. But Vee King saw it as a chance to dump old inventory, so Karalexis watched trailers for historical dramas and musicals, he watched everything Shaw had going back ten years, and he started to lose hope.
Suddenly, he saw it. The Duel (1971) set in 1930’s China, starring Ti Lung and David Chiang, and directed by Chang Cheh, the actors wore suits rather than robes, and used guns alongside their kung fu. Even better, it was already dubbed into English. Vee King told him Shaw had never sold a movie for less than $100,000. Karelexis got him down to $50,000 and 35% of the gross, then he packed the negative and two prints in his suitcase, called his office long distance, and told them they had a movie. Five Fingers of Death mentioned a Book of the Iron Fist so he decided to rename it Duel of the Iron Fist. While he flew back to Boston his partners found a Japanese cab driver who knew karate, dressed him in a kung fu outfit, and took pictures to use for the ads.
Without even time to submit the movie to the MPAA for a rating, Karalexis booked Duel of the Iron Fist into the first theater he could find, The Loop in Chicago, for the first date they had: Easter Sunday. It blew the doors off, grossing $12,000 in a weekend, eventually raking in over US $4 million. Karalexis’ partners told him he was a genius.
Next came Hallmark Releasing, a Boston-based outfit known for their eye-catching ad campaigns which often involved vomit bags. Their kung fu movie starred a woman, of all things, and they opened it at the Paris Theater in Pittsfield, MA. In a classy move, they called it Deep Thrust to remind audiences of last year’s hardcore porno hit, Deep Throat. To reinforce the connection, Angela Mao, its 23-year old female lead, was billed as “mistress of the death blow.” It picked up almost half a million dollars in its opening weekend.
Kung fu movies were big, but they were about to get bigger. On the promotional circuit for her new movie, Paper Moon, a reporter asked ten-year-old Tatum O’Neal to name her favorite film.
“Five Fingers of Death!” she gleefully cheered.
The very same week Deep Thrust opened in New York City, a cheap-ass movie opened in New York City called Fists of Fury. Starring Bruce Lee it, like Deep Thrust, earned a C for “Condemned” from the Catholic church, and picked up around half a million its opening weekend. By May 16, Fists of Fury, Deep Thrust, and Five Fingers of Death held the #1, #2, and #3 positions at the country’s box office. All of a sudden, everyone wanted some kung fu. And then Bruce Lee died.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.