By 1972, martial artist/actor/screenwriter and director Bruce Lee had already become a Renaissance figure. The former child star in Hong Kong now three successful starring roles under his belt in Hong Kong after being marginalized in Hollywood, “The Big Boss” and “Fist of Fury” under Golden Harvest studio director Lo Wei ,before striking out on his own with his screenwriting and directorial debut, “The Way of the Dragon” as well as having established his own form of free-form martial art, Jeet-Kun Do, (Way of the Intercepting Fist)
It was also that same year that Lee decided to make his next film project a more personal one, combining his thoughts on philosophy, fighting styles, and a demonstration of his own martial art. The idea, which had originated as a story he’d been developing since the late 1960’s in a philosophical script entitled “The Silent Flute” along with screenwriter Sterling Siliphant, and actor/pupil James Coburn which was eventually butchered and produced as “Circle of Iron” in 1978, starring David Carradine and Christopher Lee.
This new iteration, originally titled, “Yellow Faced Tiger”, which had to be changed after an incident with Lee’s former director, Wei. Thanks to Lee’s assistant director, Ricky Chik, the film was soon known as “The Game of Death”. http://www.network54.com/Forum/256969/message/1157111828
Given the circumstances of its unfinished state, the exact details of the storyline, besides Lee’s recovered notes, are for the most part, hearsay. However, unlike most sources, which simply parrot what is said (sometimes copied word-for-word) in John Little’s documentary and book “A Warrior’s Journey”, I’ve actually done some independent research from vintage and modern interviews with Bruce’s friends and potential cast mates, as well as forum posts by Lee experts.
Initially, Bruce had conceived this version of the concept as a sequel to “Way of the Dragon”:
But ultimately, the plot was changed The following description is debated by some to have been either the intended opening for either “Game” or “Southern Fist, Northern Leg” another unrealized Lee project:
At present I am working on a script for my next film. I haven’t really decided on the title yet, but what I want to show is the necessity to adapt one-self to changing circumstances. The inability to adapt brings destruction. I already have the first scene in my mind.
“As the film opens, the audience sees a wide expanse of snow. Then the camera closes in on a clump of trees while the sounds of a strong gale fill the screen. There is a huge tree in the centre of the screen and it is all covered with thick snow. Suddenly there is a loud snap and a huge branch of the tree falls to the ground. It cannot yield to the force of the snow so it breaks. Then the camera moves to a willow tree which is bending with the wind. Because it adapts itself to the environment, the willow survives.” – Bruce Lee (August 1972)
We then begin the story of the retired, and undefeated former martial arts champion of Asia, Hai Tien (Lee) [A seeming variation of his father’s name. Hoy Chen Lee.] who is boarding a plane for a tour of Asia, along with his sister and younger brother.
[The role of Hai’s sister was intended for Chinese-Canadian actress, Nora Miao, whose name is listed in Lee’s notes.
Miao had played opposite Bruce in his previous films.
It is also rumored that young, future Hong Kong star and director Randy Mang Hoi may have been considered as Hai’s little brother.
Lee had met Hoi while on the set of “Fist of the Unicorn”, and Hoi would make a quick cameo as one of the children Bruce entertains while traveling on the junk in “Enter the Dragon”.
Hai is recognized on the plane by a martial arts fan named Yu Ming [Named after Bruce’s uncle, and supposedly to have been played by a young Jackie Chan, who later worked with him on “Enter the Dragon”]
Yu recognizes him and asks about the circumstances of his last fight, in which he abruptly quit, right in the middle of the final Championship match. Hai would then flash back to the fight in question in which we would see him fighting his opponent [Reportedly to have been played by Japanese fighter/actor Kenji Kazama, whom he met while visiting the set of 1973’s “When Taekwondo Strikes”]
with a wild, vicious style, contrasted with the calmness of his delivery. Hai’s little brother then becomes confrontational, accusing Yu of calling Hai a quitter. The boy is calmed down and an announcement is made over the P.A. system that there will be a brief stopover in South Korea. After the plane lands at the airport, Hai and Yu benevolently part ways, saying that they’ll talk again on the next flight.
Hai and his family then casually explore the airport while waiting. The boy announces that he wants a drink, and his sister takes him to get one, while Hai waits for them. After a while of them not resurfacing, Hai is paged to go to a pay phone to receive a call. Upon answering the phone, Hai is informed by a sinister voice that his siblings have been kidnapped, and that he had better comply with his orders if he wants to see them again. Hai is then told to get into a waiting car outside. He complies, and casually asserts his calm attitude with the stone faced henchmen guarding him.
The car is driven to a fancy house, where Hai then uses a quick distraction technique to catch the henchman off guard and show their humanity, chiding them to “stop being so stiff.” before being shown inside. Once there, Hai is relieved to see his siblings safe and sound. His sister is worried, but the boy is amusing himself with toys. Hai gives the impression that they are under the care of a long lost uncle for the boys’ benefit. There are five other mysterious men in the room as well. One of them, clearly more arrogant than the others, questions by his hip, stylish clothing, if they have the right man. A sixth, older and sinister looking man then walks in and confirms this, before requesting to voice his reason for bringing them. Hai intervenes, saying that he’d like to attend to his siblings in a room they’ve been sent off into, and orders for tea to be brewed in a take charge manner, before seeing to his family, to everyone else’s chagrin.
Once he confirms with his sister that their little brother is unaware of what is really going on. He tells them to stay put, before heading to an adjourning guest room.
Once in another set of fancy clothes, he walks back into the meeting room where the older man, a crime boss, and the five other men are waiting. The Boss, now less easygoing, gives Hai an idle threat about how it’s a good thing he didn’t spend too much time with his siblings, or he’d have to eliminate them for knowing too much. [According to historian George Tan, Lee wanted another one of his “Way of the Dragon” co-stars, Di Chin, for this role.]
The Boss then gets down to business, introducing Hai to he other members of his team for a yet un-revealed “job” they will help him with.
-An American (No name given). A fighter who is performing the job because he is “practical” (only in it for the money).
However, Bruce’s earlier notes at the time also suggested that the role was not an American at all, but was to be played by another frequent Hong Kong co-star, Tony Liu.
Bruce seemed indecisive, having written Liu’s name down, then crossing it out.
Reportedly, Lee called Liu to tell him that he had the role shortly before his death. This is confirmed in a recent interview he gave. http://www.network54.com/Forum/256969/message/1469010736/Re-+Tony+Liu+short+Q+%26amp%3B+A+on+GAME
“It was just weeks before his untimely passing in July 1973. However, he did speak to me about the “Yellow Faced Tiger” during shooting of [Way of the Dragon] in 1972. It was a shame that I didn’t get to play in this movie as you know I’m the only GH star who have appeared in all of his 4 other movies.”
According to Liu on what his character’s fighting type was supposed to be:
“Bruce did not tell me specifically about the role I’m playing but roughly said that I’d be a Kung Fu or Karate practitioner in GAME. My role was to assist him in one way or another. But at the end I was probably killed by a martial arts expert.”
-Huang Chia Da. Needs $2,000 for his Mother’s Operation. [Bruce’s notes state that this role was to go to Hong Kong actor, Carter Wong].
Carter Stated in this undated interview:
“Bruce Lee asked me to be in his movie The Game of Death but unfortunately he died. I would be on his side fighting together going up a tower. Every level has one master you have to pass to go up to the top.”
–Hsie Yuan. Is only being paid $700. He is quite strong, and loves to show that off, but is a bit simpleminded. Something that the fighter doesn’t take kindly to the Boss pointing out. [Bruce had initially wanted Hong Kong actor/stuntman, Sammo Hung for the role.
but according to a 2002 interview with the actor, “Before we shot Enter the Dragon, Bruce wanted me to be involved with the film, Game of Death. Bruce asked me if I was available to do the film, and I told him yes. 8 months went by without me hearing anything regarding Game of Death, so I took another project that filmed in Bangkok and then Korea. I missed the chance to be a character in the Game of Death. Bruce was very angry with me because I promised to do the film. I had not heard from anyone on the production so I had to decide to find work. The production of Game of Death came to a stop because Bruce started work on Enter the Dragon. I received a call from Bruce and he told me that he wanted me to fight him in Enter the Dragon. I told Bruce that I could not do the film because I was shooting in Bangkok. At that time in my career I could not tell the director, producers, etc., that I had to leave to do something else. Bruce kept on me for a while and eventually I was given permission to go shoot the scene with Bruce. I told Bruce I could only stay two days of shooting and I would have to come back to Bangkok on the second night. Bruce agreed and I went back to Hong Kong. When Bruce and I met up, we had rehearsal at his house. Rehearsal was very quick. We worked out some moves and talked a lot and Bruce said to me, “We shoot tomorrow.” The next thing that happened was kind of funny. Bruce and I were on the set hanging around and we were not talking much. I said to him, “How do you feel about me?” Bruce told me that he was very angry and he did not like me. I said, “Why!” I told him we did not have any arguments or problems with each other. Bruce said, “You lied to me, you told me you would do the Game of Death.” I told Bruce that I waited around for 8-to-9 months and did not hear from anyone. I told him that I was not rich and did not have the luxury to wait around for work. We both spoke for a while and then we began to rehearse our scene. The two days of shooting went very quick. On the second day of shooting Bruce and I were in make-up and he came up to me and told me, “Yesterday I did not like you, but now I like you very much.” We became good friends. After that, Bruce came by a few times to see me work on other projects. He and I would be in his office and he would show me weapons and martial arts moves. He was great. It’s funny; Bruce liked to dress in a Chinese costume in which he did not wear underpants. [Note: This was during the time near the end of Bruce’s life where he was being lured away to make a period piece at the rival Shaw Brothers Studios] That was pretty funny. We always talked about weapons and martial arts. Those were great times.”
Lee then recast the role with Hong Kong stuntman/actor Cheih Yuan.
-Lee Kun. A petty thief and locksmith who will be responsible for opening the treasure door. Gotten cheap because of his alcoholism. [Lee had wanted comedic Hong Kong actor, as well as “Boss” and “Fist” castmate, Li Kun/Lee Kwan for this role. And had even spoken to him about it. He would provide many of the film’s comedy sequences.]
He recounted in a 2003 interview: “I acted as a locksmith. There were 10 floors total in that tower. He went up and up facing different challengers. He did 3 floors and then he died. There were 7 floors left to film. When he reached the top floor he couldn’t open the safe. I am the one to open the safe. More or less, I’m a thief, I could open all sorts of locks. When he reached the 9th floor, he was exhausted. [NOTE: Lee was constantly changing the story, which explains these inconsistencies.] I got that script and I got the money too but he died before finishing the movie. I was paid so I couldn’t stop acting.”
– Tien. The arrogant man is introduced as costing the most as he is an efficient fighter and the current Asian Champion. [Lee cast his frequent co-star, James Tien in this role].
As Hai moves in to shake his hand, Tien insists on insulting his retired status, before revealing that it was he who had called Hai from the airport. Hai then gives him a smooth insult of looking less threatening than he sounds. The Boss steps in and calms them, before offering Hai a sum of money, which he turns down. The Boss then tells Hai that he still has no choice if he wants his siblings to stay alive. He then announces that they will reconvene in the screening room that evening to discuss the mission in detail.
We then cut to that very evening where the Boss is activating a projector, showing the men their objective in the darkened screening room. [Bruce’s notes have him considering Hai’s sister being present as well.] The Boss shows the men footage of “The Temple of the Leopard”, a five story pagoda in the middle of a coastal island village.
The top floor of which contains a mysterious, but valuable treasure that is desired by many, including himself, but no one has been able to brave its many perils to obtain it. It is their job to raid the pagoda and bring back the treasure. To prevent anyone from raiding the pagoda with weapons to cheat, there are metal detectors in various locations on the island. Each lower floor is guarded by a dangerous martial arts warrior, each with his own style. He then lists their identities, before revealing that the guardian of the fourth floor is a mysterious figure who never leaves the temple, and when dinnertime arrives, raw meat is thrown up into the room, and the next day, all that is left at the doorway is a pile of bones. He then mentions that a previous team had attempted to raid the pagoda, but upon it’s only survivor, (one of Hai’s students, named Huang, who had utilized a kick technique Hai had taught him) reaching the fighter there, he was so terrified after facing him, that he’d been traumatized into a catatonic state, only able to say the words “Amazing Power and Agility” over and over. He was then confined to a local asylum. After the boss dismisses them for the night, telling them of another meeting in the morning. Hai stays behind to ask the Boss’ permission if he might borrow the Boss’ car the next morning to visit his former pupil. The Boss complies, and tells him that he’ll have to come back anyhow.
The next morning, as Hai, exits the house, Tien, standing with a guard beside the car insults Hai’s manner of fancy clothes, as it’s unbecoming of a martial artist. Hai responds that one isn’t a great martial artist by the clothing or uniform they wear, but by the physical ability of the man who wears them. He then casually insults Tien’s choice of clothes, before entering the car and driving off.
Once at the asylum, Hai is taken to view the padded cell where his former student, Huang resides. Indeed, all Huang mumbles over and over is the phrase “Amazing Power and Agility”, and does not even acknowledge Hai.
Upon returning back to the Boss’ home, Hai has arrived late for the meeting. The Boss reassures Hai that his siblings are fine, and know nothing about the mission. Hai reminds the Boss that he needs him, and then tells him that no one had better touch his siblings. The Boss again assures him that they’ll be fine and he may see them at anytime, but gives a vague threat that he is not allowed to leave the house. He then sets the date of the attack and tells them to take tomorrow easy and to conserve their energy for today.
The next day, the team is training in the Boss’ garden. Hai’s siblings are also present, watching. Hai’s sister is emotionally distressed by this. The subject of money is then discussed. Hai asks his little brother to remember him. The boy is confused, stating that he sees him every day. Hai’s sister begins to weep again. The training resumes, where it is emphasized that Tien is bossing all of the fighters around, particularly Hsie. Tien instigates Hsie to fight Hai, to which Hai beats him easily.
The evening before the raid, Hai is in his sister’s room, comforting her. He then goes outside to get some air, and everyone seems puzzled by his nonchalant attitude. Tony sees that Hai is eating and sits beside him, questioning his calm demeanor. Hai then explains by mentioning the concept of The Game of Death.
The next morning, the dawn of the raid, a small touring bus would pull up outside the Boss’ home. [Bruce’s notes suggest music similar to the overture of “The King and I” would be playing]
Each of the fighters come out, and wait for Hai, who finally emerges in his yellow tracksuit, [picked by Bruce to represent flexibility, and lack of allegiance to any martial arts style] in a cheerful mood, greeting “Good Morning, fellas!” The team then boards the bus, and heads off for their destination.
These scenes are reenacted with a Korean team in the documentary, “Bruce Lee in G.O.D.”
[Lee’s next note amongst the final sparse ones in his outline, Reads “Preparations for Break in” Indicating that as they get there, James Tien’s character possibly once again arrogantly takes charge, instructing the fighters and the locksmith how they are to get past the defenses and the security devices. Another note amongst Bruce’s sketches for the film lists the words, “Rope Bridge”, and in a photo of Lee in his office, besides photos of the Beopjusa temple, a photo of a suspension bridge,
which appears to be the “Cloud Bridge” at the Wolchulsan National Park
which although actually being 7 1/2 hours away from the park where the temple resided, in the story, it seems to have led straight to it. This is possibly the first obstacle the raiders were supposed to cross. A 1975 Japanese magazine adaptation had it as a rickety bridge with darts and arrows being shot at them, upon which Li Kun’s character is hit in the rear end with one, with hungry crocodiles in a lake beneath it. It is unknown if Lee was considering these aspects.]
Upon crossing the bridge, the team would then come to the metal detector area, flanked by some mean looking guards. Again, the Japanese magazine adaptation has an interpretation that fills this part in, with two of the members setting it off by trying to sneak in a knife and a gun. When the guards confront them, they are immediately violently attacked, the other members quickly joining in, until all the guards are laying either dead or incapacitated. The team then moves into the temple area itself, located in South Korea’s Songnisan National Park. Upon Passing the entrance gate, and dealing with a hidden trip wire,the team then makes its way to the exterior of the pagoda itself, which is guarded by 10 black belts in karate. [Behind the scenes rehearsal photos exist for this sequence, showing Bruce rehearsing the choreography with four of the actors playing the fighters. These four students of his were: Bee Chan, Yuen Wah, Lam Ching Ying, and Wu Ngan. So, you can sort of see how this fight might have gone about.
An apparent “attack plan” for this sequence and location also appears in Lee’s notes
The next section of the story is somewhat a mystery. While the commonly accepted version is that Whang In Sik [Who’d also previously been in “Way”]
would be the guardian on the first or bottom floor, fighting with a wild flurry of Korean Taekwondo Kicks. But if one looks at both the structure exterior of the pagoda,
for which the treasure could not have fitted in an upper room which we can clearly see on Kareem’s level, had Kareem been on the fifth floor. It can’t be an attic, as there is no room for one on the exterior, just a solid spire.
This is somewhat cleared up in the July 2016 issue of Martial Arts Illustrated Monthly, in which in an interview, Shik claimed for his character to have been named “Guardian of The Gate of Enlightenment” by Lee.
Bruce’s notes also refer to a battle with the hulking instructor of the blackbelts, who is a Shotokan Karate expert.
There were rumors that Bolo Yeung had been cast in that role, but historian Dan Tadman debunked this in an interview, as Yeung said he hadn’t been cast. Despite this, Bolo was on the set of the Hall of the Tiger, but only for a cigarette commercial he was shooting at the time, which Bruce participated in.
In actuality, it’s possible that Bruce was considering “The Street Fighter”star, Sonny Chiba!
Chiba was well versed in Shotokan, and had even traveled to Hong Kong to meet with him, but tragically, this would not come to be, as this 2007 Japonorama interview clip shows
This Sketch of the layout and fighter names drawn by Lee early in the production, actually clears some of that lost part of the story up.
The Translation, provided by Lee Expert LJF is as follows:
1. Mass Fight. Everybody Participates. 5 – 10 Stuntmen. Outside Pagoda. Bruce, Sammo Hung [Replaced by Chieh Yuen], James Tien, Carter Wong, Tony Liu. Scheduled for 4 Days.
2. First Floor/First Half. [Chieh] and Carter fight Hwang Ing Sik. Hwang kills Carter.
3. First Floor/Second Half. [Cheih] and Tony fight Gung Fu expert [Taky Kimura] Taky kills Tony. In total scheduled for 16 days filming [700 feet of film]
4. Second Floor. James, [Chieh] and Bruce encounter [Eskrima] guardian, Dan Inosanto. [ Scheduled 5-6 days filming/ 800 feet]
5. Third Floor. Bruce, James and [Chieh] fight [Hapkido] guardian Ji Han Jae. [Scheduled 4 days filming. 400 feet.]
6. Fourth Floor. Kareem. [ 4 Days filming. 800 Feet]
7. Fifth Floor. [?/Presumably Treasure Room].
So Apparently, after getting past the Karatemen, (and possibly Sonny) The team would come up against either Whang guarding the door, or the first/ground floor being split into two halves with two guardians, which sounds kind of contrived.
Cheih and Carter would then attack him, and Whang would thrash them quite easily, and kill Carter. Bruce would step in and effortlessly take down Whang.
Nonetheless, they continue on. They approach the door, and they enter, while the locksmith waits outside with a bottle of wine.
Inside on the first level, “The Hall of the Leopard”, the four remaining fighters encounter a warrior who fights with a fast and direct combination of Mantis Gung Fu, and Wing Chun infighting.
[Bruce had wanted one of his initial, main students, Taky Kimura for this role,
but Kimura turned him down, saying in a 2001 interview “I think it was October of 1972 that he called me and said he wanted me to be in that movie. And i said, ‘Look Bruce, i’ve got two left feet. You know it, i know it. There’s probably a thousand people in Hong Kong that could do better than i can. Just let me sit here and enjoy the fruits of your success. You know me: I don’t need to be in that’. He said, ‘No, i want you in it; i’m the technical director and the co-producer, so don’t worry about it.’ I was reluctant for fear that he would kick my butt if i said no, so i said, ‘OK.’ But the filming was to happen in October, and i was engaged in an import-export business with Japan at the time, and October was the month that i had to really get out to the various wholesalers to sell my product. So, i called back and got hold of Linda, and i said, ‘Linda, i just can’t make it.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘don’t worry about it. Bruce has been called to go to Warner Bros. in California to talk about a new movie project they’re working on together, and if it goes through, we’re going to postpone The Game of Death until it’s over with.’ Of course that’s what happened.”]
Bruce then briefly considered his Wing Chun teacher, Wong Shun Leung as a replacement,
Whose audition with Bruce and student, Wam Kam-Leung can be seen in these pics on the set of “Enter the Dragon” (Courtesy of LJF, and A. Fung)
but he turned it down as well, as he remarked in this 1978 interview:
“He called me up and wanted me to participate in the making of The Game of Death. He had also invited me to the studio to attend a screen test. I did not promise to act in the film, yet I still went to attend the screen test to please him. I brought along a student named Wan on my trip to the studio.”
Bruce once again went back to Taky, and insisted. “But prior to that, he had already sent me an airline ticket and told me to bring my blue gung fu uniform.
Weeks or maybe a month or so before he died, after Enter the Dragon was all done and over with, he called me and said, ‘We are going to finish The Game of Death now.’ He said, ‘Send that old ticket back, and i’ll get you a new one. I want you back in there again.’ And very reluctantly, i agreed. I was really worried because Bruce was a perfectionist, and i just didn’t think i had it in me to measure up to what he wanted me to do. But unfortunately, he passed away just prior to that, and so that was history.”
The Gung Fu fighter presumably kills Tony, while Tien and Hsie back away, Hai then challenges the guardian, and despite receiving a slight mark from him, makes short work of him by pointing out the limitations in his style, before killing him.
Meanwhile, Tien and Hsie find objects in the room (a log; a table leg) that they turn into makeshift weapons and run up the stairs to the second level, “The Hall of the Tiger”. There, they find the guardian of this floor, an Eskrima stick fighter, [played by another of Bruce’s senior students, Dan Inosanto]
Hsie attempts to battle the guardian with the log, but is disarmed almost immediately, [In a sequence that is widely known to be lost, although others, such as Chinese director Stephen Tong
as well as Inosanto himself are said to have it.
and nearly stomped to death by a Kenpo Karate attack. Tien then tries his hand, and is easily bested as well. Hai then makes it upstairs, steps in, and summarily embarrasses him, including in a nunchaku battle, before using his own pair of nunchaku to break the guardian’s neck. They all then make their way up the stairs to the next level.
Once on the next floor, “The Hall of the Dragon”, where they encounter a very fancily dressed Hapkido master, who had been established earlier as the teacher of Whang Ing Shik’s character. And who easily begins to make easy work of Hsie, who is a practitioner of a lesser degree of the art.[Played by an actual Hapkido master, Ji Han Jae,
who reportedly gave Bruce a hard time, regarding not being able to be beaten easily, despite trying to display the superiority of his style over Bruce’s, and only ending up flat on his face. Bruce begrugingly agreed to have the fight become more of an even keel.] Once again, while Hai is occupied with battling the guardian, Hsie takes advantage of this by rushing up to the next level, only to be heard screaming a moment later, and comes flying back down, where he lands, dead.
Later, Tien rushes up to the higher level as well, and encounters a darkened room, “The Hall of the Unknown”, with a mysterious black man wearing sunglasses, sitting in a rocking chair. [Played by basketball player and Lee’s student, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.]
He then stands, revealing his immense height, and prevents Tien from reaching the treasure room, and as he realizes his fate is sealed, he calls out for Hai, who quickly dispatches the Hapkido Guardian by breaking his back over his knee, and rushing upstairs, only to see Tien fly across the room, and land on the ground, dead. Hai then confronts the mysterious tall fighter, the two begin fighting, only to realize that Mantis also utilizes the same loose, fluid style as he. However, he begins to notice his weak points. every time he knocks Mantis down, his large height makes it harder for him to get back up. Just as he’s beginning to weaken, Hai notices that Mantis also has a sensitivity to light, after accidentally poking out some of the paper windows, before doing so purposefully. After an exhausting battle, in which both men are severely weakened, Hai manages to get Mantis in a headlock, and then break his neck.
Tired, Hai doesn’t even bother to go up to the additional room and find the treasure, he calls down to the locksmith to come up and help him, which he is told to come down. This is where the footage ends. Which can be seen here:
Bruce had told Robert Chan, one of the actors from “Way”, that the scene would go on to have Hai walking down the stairs to the bottom floor, where he would be met with an ambush of the Boss and his henchmen, who had planned to simply dispose of Hai and take the treasure for themselves, the locksmith was presumably acting as a lookout while this occurred. Bruce’s notes also have written on them “Gunman Waiting”.Just as it seems over for Lee, he is actually rescued by a mercenary and guru/mentor of his, played by former James Bond actor, George Lazenby!