Movie Talk

‘Enter the Dragon’ Turns 40: What You Didn’t Know About Bruce Lee

Linda Lee Cadwell remembers her late husband Bruce Lee, seen left in 'Enter the Dragon,' 1973 (Photo: Everett/ …

Behind every great man is a great woman, and for martial arts legend Bruce Lee, that woman was Linda Emery, who married her dashing gongfu teacher in the mid-'60s. Linda and Bruce were husband and wife until July 20, 1973, when Bruce died of cerebral edema at the age of 32 ... just six days before the Hong Kong release of what many consider to be his greatest cinematic achievement, "Enter the Dragon."

Upon the 40-year anniversary of both the premiere of "Enter the Dragon" (which is now available in a 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray) and the untimely death of its star, we spoke with Linda Lee Cadwell (who has since remarried) about her late husband's legacy and how his abilities and philosophies have inspired countless others to reach their full potential — and beyond.

[Related: Bruce Lee gets a fantastical origin story in ‘Birth of the Dragon’]

BRYAN ENK: Does it feel like 40 years have passed since "Enter the Dragon" was first released?

LINDA LEE CADWELL: [Laughs] No, I was actually quite shocked when I realized, "40 years?!" It's a lifetime, to be sure. And like you, a lot of the people who admire "Enter the Dragon" and Bruce were not even born at the time when he was alive. That does put it in perspective and makes it seem like 40 years have passed.

BE: "Enter the Dragon" is considered to be one of the best martial arts films of all time, if not the best. What do you feel have been the most influential aspects of the film over the past four decades and what has made it stand the test of time so well?

LLC: Well it certainly is the gold standard of martial arts films and certainly inspired the genre altogether. I think it's quite obvious really that the outstanding thing about "Enter the Dragon" was Bruce. The storyline is really nothing spectacular and the technical qualities are fine, but the thing that makes it really stand out is of course Bruce. And the parts of it that people admire so much are on different levels — a person can look at "Enter the Dragon" and admire the physicality of it, the combat, the choreography inspired and performed by Bruce, or they can take it a step further and see that there are bits of philosophical wisdom in it, also inspired by Bruce.

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BE: Do you have a particularly good behind-the-scenes memory from when the film was in production, something that happened on or off the set?

LLC: Oh my, yes! Bruce had been wanting to do a Hong Kong/American co-production for a long time, that had been his goal when he first went to Hong Kong to make films, that one day the filmmakers in the West would realize his value and talent and would be ready to do something with him. So it was an important landmark for him and it was important for him that the film be a success. So he put his heart and soul in it, and he was very insistent on some changes to the script. Some people have made the comment that he was very nervous to start the film, that he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown because he was so uptight about the film and making sure it was a success but that was not really the case — he just had some very important things to say about the script and how he wanted the film to be and very insistent on some changes. And I must say that in light of 40 years and we're still looking at this movie that he was right, and it's because of Bruce and his insisting on doing certain things and adding certain parts to the film that it's been such a success for four decades.

BE: My favorite part of the film is the "Hall of Mirrors" scene. It's a terrific sequence — the choreography, the building tension and there's something truly iconic about the imagery of the bloody scratches on Bruce's chest. Do you have a favorite scene from the film?

LLC: Well, of course all the combat scenes are spectacular and unmatched over all these years, but my favorite parts of the film are the more philosophical points that Bruce brings to the picture. For instance, when he's talking to the young boy and teaching him — that kind of thing makes the film more than an adventure and a "violent film," it gives it more substance.

BE: How did you and Bruce first meet?

Linda Lee, Brandon Lee, and Bruce Lee, circa 1970 (Photo: Everett)LLC: [Laughs] It's a fun story, actually! I was a senior in high school in Seattle, Washington at Garfield High School. And Bruce used to come to my school, he was five years older and a student of Philosophy at the University of Washington, he was friends with the philosophy teacher at my high school. So he would come to my high school to give lectures on Chinese philosophy; I was not in that class but I can tell you that every girl at my school knew when Bruce Lee was in the house because he was so dashing and so handsome. And one of my girlfriends who happened to be Chinese was taking gongfu lessons from him. And so the summer after I graduated from high school she talked me into taking gongfu lessons with Bruce, so that's how we first met — I was his student and it wasn't long before I was more interested in the teacher than the martial art, though I continued to do it for quite a while. [Laughs]

BE: Bruce is known for founding a martial arts practice and philosophy known as Jeet Kune Do. How would you describe the basic fundamentals of that?

LLC: Well, Bruce would never have described it as a "system," because a "system" is an organization of certain rules and his way of martial arts did not have any set rules — it is what is best for the individual person who is learning it. There was an aura of just responding to what "is" in martial arts, so you would not have a particular set of movements in response to, say, an attack — like in some forms of karate it's like "Well, I will punch in a certain way, I will do this or that in certain sequence." Bruce's art was not like that — it flowed, like he often said, like water flows and can fit into any container, it flowed to fit into any situation that was presented. So that's why he called it his "way" of martial arts, not a "system" of martial arts.

There's a great deal more to it as well, and there are fundamentals to it so that it can be carried on for generations, as it is now. But it's also a way of personal growth, to learn more about yourself — as Bruce used to say, all knowledge is really self-knowledge, you learn more about yourself and how to fit into a variety of situations. So, in a nutshell, that's a way of describing it.

[Related: ‘Enter the Dragon’ 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Giveaway]

BE: Do you have a particularly good memory involving a fan of Bruce's, either an encounter with a fan or a story that a fan told about Bruce?

LLC: Actually, there are so many that I can lump them all into one person, in a way. [Laughs] I've received letters over the years and had personal acquaintance with so many people who have told me how they're truly so inspired by Bruce. And most of the time, especially after the passing of 40 years, it's because of a wanting to model Bruce as a way of life, in a way of improving their own lives. So not so much "Well, I want to be a martial artist" or "I want to learn how to beat up people" — I think many years ago that was the first thing that impressed people, his fighting ability, but I think after all these years people have discovered there were many more layers to Bruce and he was a person of great depth.

And he did an immense amount of writing, which we are blessed today to still have and has been reproduced a number of times in different forms and I think people use that as an inspiration to improve their own lives.

BE: The 1993 film "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" is mostly based on your 1975 book, "Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew." How do you feel about the film — was it a good adaptation or was it missing something?

'Enter the Dragon' (Photo: Everett)LLC: I have mixed feelings about the film. On the good side I think it hit on the high points of Bruce's life, the turning points, you might say. For instance, when he hurt his back and then he was laid up for six months, in bed a lot of the time, unable to be his usual physical self -- the doctors told him he would be unable to ever do gongfu again and all this stuff. That was certainly a turning point in his life, though the injury did not happen in the way they showed it in the film — they felt they had to make it more dramatic. But the point is he hurt his back and he used that time, the six months or more that he was laid up, to produce most of his writings — the philosophical writings about his method of combat, all kinds of things.

So the film took some liberties, it changed some facts, it had a mythical figure in it that I would not have agreed with but that a person can view on different levels. So there were good things and there were some not so good things and I hope that some day a really wonderful film is made about Bruce.

[Related: Bruce Lee Statue Unveiled in L.A.'s Chinatown]

BE: What are you dedicating your time to these days?

LLC: I have a wonderful life going on. I have a great husband named Bruce Cadwell, I live in Idaho, and between us we have nine grandchildren; I have one grandchild, my daughter's daughter who is ten years old and I like to spend a lot of time with her.

Actually, you know, my daughter Shannon has taken over the role of perpetuating and preserving her father's legacy, so I just show up at certain times and of course I'm interested in that goal as well and we have larger goals of some day wanting to build the Bruce Lee Action Museum and people in Seattle are very interested in sponsoring that. It's a long-term project and that's what we're aiming at in the long run.