Enter the Top 10: Kung-Fu and Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s

Nerdatron’s positronic algorithms have traveled to the farthest reaches of the Far East to determine the Top 10 Kung-Fu Movies of the 1970s, as well as the best Bruce Lee movies.

The years of Bruce Lee were the golden age of Kung-Fu movies. The days when blood was bright red and the dubbing was so bad. What were the best Bruce Lee movies? You will see that both the life and the death of Bruce Lee have greatly affected this list.

But first! Here’s a possibly vertigo-inducing “Ode to Bruce Lee” and other Shaolin masters, a selection of the finest punches and kicks filling this decade of martial arts movies:

10. The Street Fighter

  • Actors: Sonny Chiba, Yutaka Nakajima, Tony Cetera
  • Released: 1974
  • Directed by: Shigehiro Ozawa

This one deserves a top 10 spot, if only because the shear tonnage of blood spilled in this movie garnered it an X-rating. That was the first X-rating ever assigned, solely for violence. Plus, it likely lent its title to one of the greatest arcade games ever. The Street Fighter, literally Clash, Killer Fist! is a Japanese martial arts film. It was released in the US by New Line Cinema and, despite its X-rating, became one of the first films to be a commercial success for the distributor.

Just needed to add this beautifully nostalgic image …

9. Master of the Flying Guillotine

  • Actors: Jimmy Wang Yu, Philip Kwok, Lau Kar-wing, Kang Chin
  • Released: 1976
  • Directed by: Jimmy Wang Yu

After all his students are slaughtered by the One Armed Boxer, a blind Kung Fu expert travels to a village where a martial arts contest is being held. Understandably, the blind teacher vows to behead every one armed man he comes across.

Master of the Flying Guillotine is a a sequel to director Jimmy Wang’s 1971 film One Armed Boxer. That’s why this film is also known as One-Armed Boxer 2 and The One Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine. This is the only Taiwanese Wuxia film on this list. “Wuxia,” if you’re wondering, just means “martial heroes”. It’s basically the Asian equivalent of “martial arts” movies. Jimmy Wang Yu starred in, wrote, and directed the film.

8. The Game of Death … Bruce Lee’s Death

  • Actors: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bruce Lee
  • Released: 1978
  • Director(s): Sammo Hung, Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse

The first Bruce Lee movie on the list also happens to be the last movie he made. Bruce Lee’s death resulted in a terrible mangling of this movie, unfortunately, which has only recently been rectified.

Bruce Lee died while making this movie, sort of. He started making The Game of Death in 1972, until Lee was lured away by Warner Brothers offer of a $850,000 budget to make what would become Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee would have directed, written, produced, and starred in the original Game of Death. The remaining footage has been released with Bruce Lee’s original English and Cantonese dialogue, with John Little dubbing Bruce Lee’s Hai Tien character as part of the documentary entitled Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

Bruce Lee’s original version of the film seems to have had a far superior plot line to the 1978 version of Game of Death. In the original version, Bruce Lee has to fight his way through each level of a pagoda, which is under heavy guard by highly skilled martial artists who are protecting something held on its top level.

So … What was the mysterious treasure guarded on that top level? The item or secret is not identified at all in any surviving material. It will remain one of the greatest lost mysteries of kung-fu.

7. The Five Fingers of Death – or – King Boxer

  • Actors: Lo Lieh
  • Released: 1978
  • Director(s): Jeong Chang-hwa

“Come prepared for the thrill of a lifetime!” the movie poster says. Nerdatron came prepared to learn more about Bill’s (David Carradine’s) five finger death punch from the Kill Bill movies – the “Exploding Heart Technique”. No such luck! The mystery will remain a mystery.

Another Shaw Brothers classic! This is the movie that ignited the 1970s kung-fu craze. King Boxer (literally “Number One Fist in the World”) or Five Fingers of Death is a 1972 martial arts film starring Lo Lieh (羅烈) who starred in many of the kung fu movies of the previous decade, sort of the predecessor of Bruce Lee.

6. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin -or- Master Killer

  • Actors: Chia Hui Liu, Lau Kar-wing, Shen Chan
  • Released: 1978
  • Director(s): Lau Kar-leung

What’s your favorite chamber of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin? Did the log jumping count as a “chamber”? Nerdatron has assessed the knife pinwheel spinning chamber as its favorite. (It reminded him of his positronic innards.)

See the spinning knife pinwheels in the background … and the spikes!

Another Shaw Brothers classic on the list, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is also known as The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer. The film follows a highly fictionalized version of San Te (actor Gordan Liu), a legendary Shaolin martial arts disciple, who advances through the first 35 titular chambers of Shaolin training at record speed due to his great ambition. But what was that 36th Chamber? No spoilers for you! Watch to find out.

What about the Return to the 36th Chamber? Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) was another Shaw Brothers Studio movie also known as Return of the Master Killer or Master Killer II. Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) is the second in a loosely connected trilogy: The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978), Return to the 36th Chamber (1980), and Disciples Of The 36th Chamber (1985). The Shaolin monk San Te is portrayed in all the movies of the 36th Chamber trilogy by Chia Hui Liu, except that he portrays an imposter monk in the second movie.

5. Five Deadly Venoms

This movie has the number 1 poster of the bunch
  • Actors: Philip Kwok, Chiang Sheng, Feng Lu
  • Released: 1978
  • Director(s): Chang Cheh

The obvious choice at #5 is … Five Venoms aka Five Deadly Venoms. This a cult 1978 Hong Kong martial arts film starring the Venom Mob about five kung-fu fighters with unique animal styles: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Lizard, and The Toad. Nerdatron subranks The Centipede as the most amazing of the Five Venoms. Who knew a centipede’s little legs moved so fast! The film was listed at number 11 on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 50 Cult Films list.

4. Fist of Fury -or- The Chinese Connection -or- The Iron Hand

  • Actors: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Nora Miao
  • Released: 1972
  • Director(s): Lo Wei

The movie poster (right) promises that “Bruce Lee claims his revenge through death and beyond.” That’s a bit “on the nose” considering Master Lee’s untimely and tragic death.

Fist of Fury was also called The Chinese Connection or The Iron Hand in the United States. This 1972 Hong Kong kung fu film, starred Bruce Lee in his second major role after The Big Boss. Bruce Lee plays Chen Zhen, a student of Huo Yuanjia, who fights to defend the honor of the Chinese in the face of foreign aggressors – also a bit on the nose these days (gulp) – and to bring to justice those responsible.

3. Drunken Master

  • Actors: Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang-lee, Lin Dai
  • Released: 1978
  • Director(s): Yuen Woo-Ping

NEED TO CHANGE: Drunken Master is a 1978 Hong Kong martial arts film directed by Yuen Woo-ping, and starring Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu-tien, and Hwang Jang Lee. The film was a success at the Hong Kong box office, earning two and a half times the amount of Chan’s previous film, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, which was also considered a successful film. It is an early example of the comedic kung fu genre for which Jackie Chan …

One of the most epic fight scenes ever … Chuck Norris v. Bruce Lee

2. Return of the Dragon

  • Actors: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Nora Miao
  • Released: 1972
  • Director(s): Bruce Lee

That final fight scene between fuzzy-chested and pre-beard Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee … EPIC … as was the eating of 5-6 bowls of soup simultaneously.

Return of the Dragon or Way of the Dragon is a 1972 Hong Kong martial arts, kung-fu action/comedy mashup written, produced, directed, and starring Bruce Lee. This was the only time Bruce Lee completed a directorial effort.

Did you know this was also Chuck Norris’ screen debut? Chuck Norris doesn’t just de-but; Chuck Norris de-capitates! Here are some more beauties:

  • A movie scene depicting Chuck Norris losing a fight with Bruce Lee was the product of history’s most expensive visual effect. When adjusted for inflation, the effect cost more than the Gross National Product of Paraguay.
  • [SPOILER] Chuck Norris is so tough, it took Bruce Lee nearly 20 minutes to kill him.
  • Everyone knows of famous martial artist, Bruce Lee, but no one ever talks about his family:
    • His brother, the revolutionary vegetarian activist, Brocco Lee.
    • His cousin, the hesitant statistician, Probab Lee.
    • His uncle, the trustworthy politician, Honest Lee.
    • And of course, the Spanish inquisitor, Juan “Expected” Lee.
And at number 1 …. Enter … The …

1. Enter the Dragon

  • Actors: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung
  • Released: 1973
  • Director(s): Robert Clouse

Not just one of the greatest martial arts movies from the golden age … Enter the Dragon is one of the greatest EVER. In 2004, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Enter the Dragon would be Bruce Lee’s final completed film appearance before his death on July 20, 1973 at the all-too-young age of 32. Enter the Dragon is a 1973 Hong Kong kung fu film directed by Robert Clouse. Starring Bruce Lee, Lee was also one of the film’s writers.

Enter the Dragon was born out of Bruce Lee’s frustration with 1960s Hollywood. Despite starring roles in in television series like The Green Hornet and Ironside AND coming up with the idea for a show about a Shaolin monk in the American west, Warner Brothers eventually picked David Carradine to star in the hit series Kung Fu. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers did not believe a Chinese star would connect with American audiences.

Here’s a sampling of the amazing-ness surrounding this movie (check out this article for more):

  • The look of Enter the Dragon was inspired by the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. “It was high chroma reds, blues, golds, and it just lent itself to this project so closely,” Paul Heller said.
  • For the massive scenes involving Han’s many soldiers and tournament participants on the island, up to 400 extras were used.
  • “A Mouth of Blood”: Some of the film’s extras were from rival Hong King street gangs and they would insult Lee’s supposed martial arts prowess. Though he normally would not respond, sometimes the extras would take it too far and Lee would “mark” them with a lightning kick or two. One extra looked unharmed after such a “marking” … until he opened his mouth, which was full of blood.
  • The iconic mirrored room scene was not in the script.
  • Bruce Lee choreographed all his fight scenes himself.

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