The exact moment kung fu blew up in America
On a cold March night in 1973, lines stretched around Times Square for the State Theater. New York’s new country-western station WHN was giving away free tickets, but no one does anymore. So the crowds gathered, not knowing what to expect from the “Martial Arts Masterpiece!” that “Stunning the Entire World.”
The State hosted Henry Kissinger (star-studded premiere of The Godfather) and Ali MacGraw. The 1100-seat crowd was mostly young, black, Hispanic, predominantly male. They were skeptical — the first few minutes would decide if they’d enjoy the movie or laugh at it. The Warners logo was flashed on the screen, and soon a group of young thugs surrounded an older man walking down a dark street. They were having a lot of fun with their thoughts. The 63-year old actor jumps up and kicks two children in the head. He then takes the gang apart with just his hands. It was unlike anything else. The crowd was wild.
Even during the talky bits, the audience was riveted. The fighters tore their eyes, crushed their hands into bloody hamburgers, and split foreheads with hard fingers. Bright red Shaw Brothers blood was seen exploding across the screen in pornographic spurts. The hero, bloodied and scarred and had no fighter left, stumbled into the sunset in the last 15 seconds. The audience burst into applause and then ran to the lobby to strip the merchandise table.
The city was ravaged by word of mouth. It was so popular that people returned to see it over and over again. It was America’s first major kung fu movie and changed the face of the film industry. Its star was not Bruce Lee; it was Lo Lieh. Its title was Five Fingers of Death.
Chung Chang-Hwa directed the film, a Korean-based movie that the huge Shaw Brothers studios made in Hong Kong. The movie was a low-quality picture and didn’t even make it to the top ten in Hong Kong. However, Dick Ma, Warner Brother Head of Far East Distribution, took the movie because they had just signed a deal to a Chinese-American actor, Bruce Lee. They wanted to test the market since Warners had already committed to the new movie by this actor, called Enter Dragon. Leo Greenfield, their distribution manager, brought the King Boxerprint to the New York office. He called Terry Levene, a colorful exploitation genius, to take a look.
Greenfield asked, “What do your thoughts about it?” after the event was over.
Levene stated, “It” is nothing but money.
Warners changed the title to Five Fingers Of Death and opened it in Europe. It did well. Then, on March 20, 1973, they showed it in New York City. The crowd was wild…