Game of Death : the crazy story of Bruce Lee’s unfinished movie


Once is not usual in this blog, we are going to talk about movies. And for the first time, this post will be entirely dedicated to Bruce Lee, since it is about Game of Death, the unfinished movie of Bruce Lee. Why this movie rather than another one ? Because the story of this movie is completely crazy and there are a lot of anecdotes that deserve to be known.

To read this post, I propose you to get in the mood by listening to the soundtrack of Game of Death. The first theme is a demo proposed for the film by Bruce Lee (1972 version). The following themes were composed by John Barry for Game of Death 1978 version. Click below ?

Game of Death 1972 version

The genesis of this project was born in Bruce Lee’s mind, once the shooting of The Way of the Dragon was over, around July 1972. We all remember the final fight against Chuck Norris in the Colosseum of Rome, the climax of this movie. This fight scene became cult and is still quoted more than 50 years later.

The  fight perfectly orchestrated by Bruce Lee expressed the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do ; the martial art that Bruce Lee created in 1967. First dominated by Colt (the character played by Chuck Norris), Tang Lung (played by Bruce Lee) changes his strategy to adapt to his opponent and defeat him. The general idea of Game of Death was to repeat this process throughout the entire movie. The character of Hai Tien, played by Bruce Lee, had to face opponents in turn with the help of his teammates, while adapting his way of fighting in order to defeat them. Bruce Lee wanted a movie with a philosophical scope, in this case the philosophy of the adaptation of his fighting system ; the Jeet Kune Do. [1]

“I hope to make multi-level films in Hong Kong. The kind of movies where you can just watch the surface story if you like, or you can look deeper into it.” Bruce Lee [1]

The original Game of Death 1972 version (GOD72), is the story of a group of 5 martial arts experts recruited to recover a stolen Chinese national treasure held in a 5-level pagoda in South Korea. Each level of the pagoda is guarded by a martial arts expert who must be defeated to advance to the next level. At each level, one of Hai Tien’s partners is defeated, because he cannot free himself from his style and adapt to the fighter in front of him. Hai Tien, on the other hand, can adapt to the guard of each level and defeat him. [1]

Bruce Lee’s original sketch of the pagoda in Game of Death.

As for the nature of the treasure, Bruce Lee didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to represent and it didn’t really matter for the script. It was more as a MacGuffin, like in a Hitchcock movie, a driving force for the development of the script [2]. It was the philosophy of the film that was important to Bruce Lee ; the ability of man to adapt to a problem in order to solve it. In GOD72, this idea of adaptation was represented by the different battles that Hai Tien had to fight throughout his journey.

The introduction of the film as envisioned by Bruce Lee had a symbolic significance that was to set the tone for the entire film. In his own words : “What I want to show is the necessity to adapt one’s self to changing circumstances. The inability to adapt brings destructions. As the film opens, the audience sees a wide expanse of snow. Then the camera closes in on a clump of trees while the sound of a strong gale fills the screen. There is a huge tree in the center 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 wind. because it adapts itself to the environment, the willow survives. It is the sort of symbolism, which I think Chinese action films should seek to have. In this way I hope to broaden the scope of action films.” [1]


For his new project, Bruce Lee needed financing. His producer, Raymond Chow, the founder of Golden Harvest, who had previously produced the three other films in which Bruce Lee had played, was reluctant to finance GOD72. To make Chow react, Bruce Lee had a meeting in the studios of the Shaw Brothers, the opposing company of the Golden Harvest, and made tests of costumes for different characters. The pictures were soon published in the press and Raymond Chow ended up financing the project for fear that Bruce Lee would go elsewhere. [2]

1972, Bruce Lee trying on costumes in the Shaw Brothers studio.

The shooting of GOD72 started at the end of August 1972, Bruce Lee decided to shoot the fight scenes of the pagoda of levels 3, 4 and 5, even before having finished the script. He took advantage of a short period of availability of his student Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the NBA champion basketball player, to begin the shooting [3]. Kareem and Bruce had met in Los Angeles in 1968, Bruce Lee had immediately sensed an interesting cinematographic potential with Kareem Abdul Jabbar giving him the line : “With me fighting a guy over seven feet all, the Chinese fans would eat it up. [3] Kareem was the big boss of the movie, the guardian of the 5th level “The Temple of the Unknown”. [4]

From the end of August to October 1972, Bruce Lee also shot the 3rd and 4th levels of the pagoda. Dan Inosanto, his student and director of the Los Angeles Jeet Kune Do school, an expert in Filipino Martial Arts, was the guardian of the 3rd level, “The Tiger Temple”. Ji Han Jae, a Korean Hapkido expert, guarded the 4th level of the pagoda, “The Dragon Temple”. Bruce Lee and Ji Han Jae met at a martial arts demonstration in the United States in 1969 [4]. During this period of filming of the last three levels of the pagoda, two other actors played fight scenes alongside Bruce Lee. They are James Tien, an actor from Hong Kong, who had already played with Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and Chieh Yuan, a stuntman from Hong Kong. Both actors play the role of Hai Tien’s partner, which also brings a touch of humor in the middle of violent action fights, a process that had already been used in The Way of the Dragon. [5]

As with his previous film, The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee is fully committed to his new project. He is at the same time the director, the producer (one of them), the choreographer, the scriptwriter, and he also participates in the setting up and the lighting of the GOD72 sets. Of course, he is the main character of the film. Bruce Lee is very demanding and does not hesitate to redo the shots again and again if he thinks they are not perfect. For example, he took four days of shooting to realize a fight scene of only 5 minutes. [6]

The GOD72 shooting stoped in October 1972. In the end, about 90 minutes of rush were shot.

On the Game of Death‘s set. Left, Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow. Right, a promotional photo taken for the press, Bruce Lee, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Tien.
Bruce Lee, Chieh Yuan and James Tien.
Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto.
Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto, shooting the nunchaku fight scene.
Bruce Lee and Ji Han Jae.
Bruce Lee and his children, Shanon and Brandon, visiting their father on the Game of Death‘s set.

October 1972, Fred Weintraub the producer of Warner Bross came to announce a good news to Bruce Lee. He will be the star of the first co-production between Hollywood and Hong Kong, for the movie Enter the Dragon. The shooting of Game of Death is put on stand-by. [6]

For the first two levels, several people had been mentioned. First of all, Wong Shun Leung, Bruce Lee’s Sihing, a Wing Chun expert, but he declined the proposal. Then, James Coburn, the actor and private student of Bruce Lee, with whom he had already considered making a martial arts film in the United States, The Silent Flute. Finally, it was Hwang In Shik, a Hapkido expert, and Taky Kimura, his student and director of the Jeet Kune Do school in Seattle, who were selected to be, respectively, the guardians of the 1st and 2nd level of the pagoda. Hwang In Shik, who had already worked with Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon, was to play a kicking expert. Taky Kimura, was to play the role of an expert in Praying Mantis style. [4]

Training in Hong Kong, Hwang In Shik and Bruce Lee.

The pagoda’s was to be guarded by 10 henchmen and Bolo Yeung was to be the leader of the group.

Training in Hong Kong with the pagoda guards.
Bolo Yeung and Bruce Lee on the set of Enter the Dragon in 1973.

And what about the famous yellow jumpsuit ?

According to Andre Morgan, one of the producers of GOD72, when Bruce Lee arrived on the set of GOD72, the costume department offered him two suits, one yellow and one black. After reading the script, it seemed more appropriate for Bruce Lee to wear a yellow suit so that Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s footprint could be seen in the final fight on the 5th level of the pagoda. [7]

Bruce Lee had the idea of such a suit inspired by a ski jumpsuit he had worn during a vacation in Gstaad, Switzerland (February 1969) with Roman Polenski, his friend and private student. The yellow and black jumpsuit of GOD72, was not a traditional martial arts outfit, unlike the different pagoda guardians, it symbolized the modern vision that Bruce Lee had of martial arts which stuck to the philosophy of his Jeet Kune Do, the “style of no style”. It also gave him complete freedom of movement. The character played by Bruce Lee, Hai Tien, was able to adapt to each pagoda guardians, expert in a specific martial arts style. Finally, for the ending of the movie, the boss at the end played by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, did not have a particular outfit attached to a style, just like Hai Tien, he also represented a fighter of the “style of no style”. And because of the great difference in size between the two characters, this fight was a very good illustration of the Jeet Kune Do philosophy ; the total adaptation to his opponent. [8]

The ascent of the pagoda represented an allegory of Jeet Kune Do, as written by Eric Monsinjon, professor of Art History. The different levels of the pagoda constituted an initiatory journey for Hai Tien. Each successful test allowed him to develop a superior knowledge of himself. At the last level of the pagoda, he faced his double, a “no-style” opponent just like him but who could not access the supreme knowledge, he remained in the darkness (symbolized by the sunglasses and his weakness in front of the light). When Hai Tien defeated the giant, the game was over and the true treasure of the pagoda was revealed ; Hai Tien gained access to the divine light ; the supreme knowledge of oneself. [9]

Ski jumpsuits of this design, solid color with a stripe on the side, were very fashionable in those years (late 1960s, early 1970s). Bruce Lee was directly inspired by them for his yellow and black outfit that became famous in Game of Death. Source :

Once the filming and dubbing of Enter the Dragon was finished, in July 1973, Bruce Lee planned to work again on GOD72. He had to continue to refine the script and find a western type actor. George Lazenby, an Australian actor, who had made a name for himself as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), was considered for the role. George Lazenby was interested in shooting with Bruce Lee since he had seen him in The Fist of Fury.

For Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow it was a chance to have a famous actor in GOD72. On the night of his death, July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee was to have dinner with George Lazenby and Raymond Chow to discuss Lazenby’s participation in the film. [10]

The story of GOD72 ends here. With the death of Bruce Lee, the project of Game of Death is abandoned for a few years. The scenes already shot by Bruce Lee will however be exploited in a 1978 movie with a brand new script ; Game of Death (1978 version).


Game of Death 1978 version

Raymond Chow, the main producer of Game of Death, was in possession of the 90 minutes of rush shot in 1972. For a long time, he was not in favor of using the scenes already shot in 1972, but facing the strong pressure (the promotional photos of GOD72 had already been published in the press at the end of 1972) a brand new script was written in order to be able to use the fight scenes of GOD72. Finally, Raymond Chow hired Robert Clouse, the director of Enter the Dragon, to direct this new Game of Death [11] and Sammo Hung, who had played with Bruce Lee in the introductory fight scene of Enter the Dragon, is hired to choreograph the fight scenes.

Game of Death 1978 version (GOD78) was certainly the pinnacle of “Bruceploitation” films ; a sub-genre of Kung Fu movies that proliferated in the 1970’s after Bruce Lee’s death, with many lookalikes starring in low budget films. GOD78 still had the advantage of delivering fight scenes shot by Bruce Lee in 1972 that the public had never seen before.

The GOD78 plot : Billy Lo, a famous Hong Kong actor, is being stalked by a mysterious “syndicate” that forces him to work with them. After several confrontations, the “syndicate” decides to assassinate Billy Lo by shooting him in the head during a fight scene. Billy Lo survives, but pretends to be dead, so that he can take revenge on the “syndicate”.

Poster of Game of Death 1978 version

GOD78 gathered a respectable cast : Dean Jagger, played the role of Dr. Lang, the boss of the “syndicate” and Hugh O’Brian, played the role of Steiner, the n°2 of the “syndicate”. For the henchmen of the “syndicate”, the production wanted to integrate the actors of GOD72 but only Dan Inosanto accepted to take the role. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who refused to participate in GOD78, was replaced by an understudy. Still on the “syndicate” side, Bob Wall, who had worked with Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon, played the role of Carl Miller.

At the side of Billy Lo, played by Bruce Lee’s understudies (we talk about it just after), we find his friend and journalist, Jim Marshall, played by Gig Young, and Ann Morris the girlfriend of Billy Lo, played by Colleen Camp, a young American actress who began her career in the 70s.


No less than three actors are hired to play the role of Billy Lo.

First, Chen Yao Po, also known as Albert Sham, a Hong Kong actor. He was used for the dialogue scenes. Most often the character of Billy Lo wears large sunglasses which allows to camouflage his face. It is the Billy Lo that we see most of the time in close-ups.

Chen Yao Po played the role of Billy Lo in Game of Death,1978 version.

Kim Tai Chung, a South Korean actor, practicing Taekwondo. He participated in all the fight scenes of GOD78. The fight scenes were very well orchestrated by Sammo Hung. Kim Tai Chung imitated well the gestures and the fighting style of Bruce Lee, with his kicks and his twirling swings. The fights were quite faithful to those seen in other Bruce Lee movies. We already recognized the talents of Sammo Hung, one of Hong Kong’s greatest choreographers.

Kim Tai Cheung uses his kicks against Bob Wall.

Finally Yuen Biao, at the time he was only a stuntman in Hong Kong, he had played in the other films of Bruce Lee ; Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. In GOD78, Yuen Biao is used for the acrobatics scenes and was thus the double of Kim Tai Chung.

Yuen Biao doubles the most acrobatic action sequences.
Yuen Biao jumps in the air to avoid the cane with a knife used by Hugh O’Brian.

If the fight scenes are quite successful and remain quite faithful to what we have seen in other Bruce Lee movies, the problem is the use of Bruce Lee lookalikes. Whether it is Chen Yao Po or Kim Tai Cheung, hidden most of the time behind big sunglasses or even fake beards, we can see that the face is not the same as Bruce Lee. And to crown it all, the false good idea of GOD78, is to have used insertions of shots from other Bruce Lee’s movies (mainly Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon) to mix the whole. It doesn’t work. It looks like a DIY project. Amateur film.

The transition from the lookalike shots, to the real Bruce Lee is really very clumsy and completely trashed GOD78. Sometimes in a very rough way. For example, during the fight against Carl Miller (played by Bob Wall) which takes place in a locker room on a grey background, Billy Lo (Kim Tai Cheung) takes a punch, the following shot is a close-up of Tang Lung (Bruce Lee) taking a slap in the restaurant of The Way of the Dragon. Nothing fits.

Another example, when Billy Lo confronts Steiner at the end of the film, Steiner kicks him. The next shot shows Bruce Lee dodging Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s leg. Of course, the production had taken care to make Hugh O’Brian wear brown pants…

The most preposterous shot, which certainly has its place on the top ten of the most preposterous shots in the history of cinema, is undoubtedly the one at the very beginning of the film where a photo of Bruce Lee is stuck on a mirror. How could this genius idea come about ? Note that in the French version of Game of Death distributed by René Chateau Video, the VHS era, this shot was not present. Certainly unbearable to watch, this shot was censored.

The ultimate in special effects. A photo of Bruce Lee stuck on a mirror.

The fake good ideas could have stopped there, but no. The apotheosis of GOD78’s clumsiness is to have used the images of Bruce Lee’s real funeral in Hong Kong on July 24, 1973 to represent the fake funeral of Billy Lo from GOD78. You can see Bruce Lee’s face in his coffin. It’s really a crazy story this movie ! It’s incredible that we could use such images.

Following Bruce Lee’s death in 1973, there was a lot of speculation about the reason for his death. GOD78 did not help to silence them. Somehow, the script took up one of the many theories about Bruce Lee’s death, that is, the fact that he was not really dead… The script of GOD78 was unfortunately premonitory for Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, who died in 1993 on the set of The Crow, by a gun that should have been loaded with blanks.


In the 1978 version of Game of Death, the iconic yellow jumpsuit became a motorcycle suit worn by one of the “syndicate” henchmen that Billy Lo stole at the end of the film.

At the end of the film, the fights shot by Bruce Lee in 1972 finally arrive. In the end, out of the 90 minutes of existing rushes, only 11 minutes will be used in the GOD78 version. The fights of GOD72 are therefore supposed to take place in Dr Lang’s restaurant in Honk Kong and not in a pagoda in a South Korea island.

Bruce Lee is present on the screen only 11 minutes in GOD78, which correspond to the fights against Dan Inosanto, Ji Han Jae and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, without Bruce Lee’s partners appearing. For a long time, I watched GOD78 with only the fights against Dan Inosanto and Kareem Abdul Jabbar because the fight against Ji Han Jae did not appear in the French version distributed by René Chateau Video, at the time of VHS.

Actually, several versions were produced for GOD78 ; Cantonese, Mandarin, Singaporean and International. The editing was not quite the same from one version to another. Some shots (the most preposterous ones) or even some sequences are absent from some versions and appear in others. The endings of the film in particular were different. In one version Billy Lo is arrested, in another he leaves Hong Kong on a ferry with Ann, and in another the film ends immediately after Dr. Lang’s death when he falls from the roof of his restaurant.

For the soundtrack, the Chinese versions opted for a traditional soundtrack found in most Hong Kong martial arts films. The international version, on the other hand, was given a soundtrack that has become very famous, orchestrated by John Barry, the composer of the music of James Bond.

Despite the criticism, the 1978 version of Game of Death was a box office success. It is estimated that the film made a total of 50 million dollars in cumulative receipts. A very good result for the time.


Game of Death since the 2000s

It was not until 1999 that the rushes filmed by Bruce Lee in 1972 were rediscovered by Bey Logan, a Hong Kong producer. Finally, in 2000, John Little unveiled a documentary on Bruce Lee entitled Bruce Lee : A Warrior’s Journey, in which the original cut of Game of Death, as envisioned by Bruce Lee, was presented to the public for the first time. A brand new montage of 40 minutes is made, containing all the scenes of the last 3 levels of the pagoda.

More recently, in 2022, Alan Canvan presented a new version of the remastered GOD72 montage, entitled Game of Death Redux. This version was presented at an exhibition in Times Square (New-York) in November 2022 ; 2022 Urban Action Expo.


Bruce Lee became an icon after his death. This is still true almost 50 years later, Bruce Lee is still part of the pop-culture. Game of Death contributed to his fame. The yellow jumpsuit became iconic. It appeared in several video games, like Tekken from 1998. But especially in several movies. For example in La Tour Montparnasse Infernale (2001), where we can see a parody of Bruce Lee’s fight against Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Another famous example, Kill Bill vol.1 (2003), by Quentin Tarantino, which revived a whole fashion around the yellow jumpsuit, its variations, and sneakers Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66. An outfit worn superbly by Uma Thurman.

Left, Uma Thurman wears a remake of Bruce Lee’s outfit from Game of Death in Kill Bill vol. 1. Right, Marshall Law, one of the characters from Tekken, wearing the famous yellow jumpsuit.

Finally, Game of Death established an original concept in the modern epic ; a hero facing a different boss or an event, level by level, if possible ascending (the pagoda), to complete his quest. It seems banal today, precisely because it is a concept that has been used dozens of times, especially in video games. The origin of this concept goes back to GOD72, straight out of Bruce Lee’s mind.


A few years ago, when I started to get interested in Bruce Lee and GOD72, I had written in my notes a script inspired by GOD72 based on the original scenario. I imagined this pagoda with a lot of martial arts experts fighting each other ; Silat, Capoeira, Karate, Kungfu styles, MMA, Thai Boxing… . Somehow this kind of movie has already been seen many times, I’m thinking of all the martial arts movies whose story takes place around a tournament like Bloodsport (1988). But I would like to see one day a movie whose scenario is more faithful to the one of GOD72 as Bruce Lee had imagined it, it would be a nice tribute !


[1] Bruce Lee, a life, p381, POLY Matthew, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018

[2] Ibid, p384

[3] Ibid, p382

[4] Ibid, p383 + post Bruce Lee facebook page on  03/07/2022

[5] Bruce Lee, a life, p383, POLY Matthew, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018

[6] Bruce Lee : A Warrior’s Journey, by John Little, 2000

[7] post of South China Morning Post : The truth about Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit and interview of Andre Morgan by Bruce Willow

[8] Bruce Lee, a life, p384, POLY Matthew, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018

[9] post of Eric Monsinjon in

[10] Bruce Lee, a life, p439, POLY Matthew, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018

[11] Ibid, p481


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