Way back in the seventies, when we were doing the KUNG FU series, my favorite times were the “fight days”. When I knew one of those was coming up, I’d wake up in the morning supercharged with anticipation of the fun. The way we did it was David Chow, and later, Kam Yuen would get together in the morning with the fight team, including my stunt-double, usually Greg Walker, and they’d work out the choreography. Then, during the lunch break, I’d learn the routine. After lunch, we’d shoot the fight and the scene that went with it, in a couple of hours or so, maybe going on to something else to finish the day.
This only happened once a week or so. There wasn’t actually a lot of fighting in the show. The FCC made it a rule that we could only have two minutes of kung fu fighting in each hour segment. They had a thing about violence. For example, an edict came down in the second year that I couldn’t kick people in the head anymore. So, after that, I kicked them in the shoulder or the chest, though later on, we discovered I could get away with kicking them in the neck. You got that? Kicking someone in the head was too violent, but kicking them in the throat was okay. And then, of course, I spent a lot of time kicking guns out of people’s hands. I broke a few toes doing that.
Once, when I was directing DEATH ON COLD MOUNTAIN, or CANNON AT THE GATES (I can’t remember which), I changed the process. I’d always thought there must be an easier way. I mean, why couldn’t we just throw a fight in whenever we felt like it. The reason, of course, was the company’s obsession for structure and proceeding in an orderly fashion.
This particular day, Barbara Hershey, as the student of a renegade kung fu master played by Victor Sen Young, was supposed to escape from capture. So I set five guards on her, all armed, one with a halberd, one with a spear, a couple of swordsmen, and I think, maybe, a guy with an axe. I shot the scene up to the point where they were surrounding her with their weapons raised and pointed at her, one sword at her neck, another poking her in the stomach, etc. Then I turned to Kam and said, “Get her out of it,” and went off to get a cup of coffee.
When I came back, Kam had solved it, like a puzzle. I learned a lot from watching how he’d done it. Parry the first, while slipping the second. Interpose the third to block the fourth, while you hurt him a little, and take out the fifth, while dodging the first, who is now coming back at you. Keep up the pattern, hurting one or two when you can, to slow them down, while you seriously take out one every once in awhile, gradually eliminating them until they’re all down. Just don’t let one of them stick you. A fighter once told me that an armed opponent is at a disadvantage in a way, because he’s fixated on his weapon. An interesting theory which I don’t really care to test.
We shot it all in one camera angle. The whole fight took about thirty seconds. And Barbara did it all herself. I hadn’t used up much of our shooting time, so we still got the day’s schedule, plus an extra fight. We even slipped it past the censors.
Much later, in KUNG FU, THE LEGEND CONTINUES, we had a lot more latitude. We would have as many as eight fights in one show. Of course, I knew more by then, much more. The way we’d customarily do it was Mike Vendrell, and later Al Leong, would show up with Rob Moses, Mike Dawson and a few fighters and we’d start shooting it. I’d pick up the moves as we went along, sometimes adding a few of my own, particularly my signature flying double-front kick.
One memorable night, I was slated to be attacked in a parking lot by four or five members of The Black Dragon Cult. The only thing was I had a date for dinner with my granddaughter, Mariah. By the time we were ready to shoot, I was already late. If we went through the whole process, it would take an extra two hours at least. I could see they had two cameras already set up. So I said, “Look, you guys know what you’re supposed to do, right?” They all nodded yes. “Okay. Why don’t you just come at me with whatever you’re supposed to do, and I’ll just do what comes naturally. We’ll be done in two minutes.” They all looked a little doubtful. So I added, “Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle. I really don’t want to disappoint my granddaughter, you know?”
So that’s what we did. They rolled the cameras, and the guys attacked me from all sides. I turned them all aside, pushing instead of punching, flipped one of them over a parked car, took out the last guy with my double-front kick (being careful to miss, of course), then gave the camera my obligatory signature shrug (which I had borrowed years ago for Caine from Toshiro Mifune) and we were done. I said goodnight and trotted off for my date with Mariah, leaving the guys to clean up the details without me. I hadn’t even worked up a sweat.
Let’s not skip over the big ‘Battle of The Titans’ with Chuck Norris in LONE WOLF McQUADE, which we rehearsed for three weeks and shot for three days. That was the greatest fun. Chuck wanted very much to beat the fight he’d had with Bruce in the Coliseum in RETURN of THE DRAGON. We came close.
Then there was CIRCLE OF IRON (THE SILENT FLUTE), my favorite I think of all my films, for which Kam Yuen and I worked on my six fights every morning for more than two months all over Israel. The night fight where I, as the blind master, take out eight attackers with just the flute is some of my best work. Then, after the picture was finished, Joe Lewis spent another couple of weeks with us in California, while we extemporaneously created little fun altercations with warriors on horseback to juice up the story. Watching Joe coming at me with a flying sidekick felt very much like being in the path of a runaway 18-wheeler.
On KILL BILL, I had the fight with Michael Jai White and his four henchmen down cold two months before we shot it. And then we performed it for five days in Beijing in ninety-degree weather. Several months later, back in Manhattan Beach, I learned the final swordfight to the death with Uma Thurman the morning we were scheduled to shoot it, in about twenty minutes. We shot that one for four days, or maybe more. It all runs together.
I’m not sure which method is more fun, but it doesn’t seem to matter how you do it, it always ends up in a good fight.
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