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Remembering 1970's Martial Arts Films

Martial arts in Hollywood was practically unknown in the 1930's and 1940's, except maybe for the judo of Asian detective hero Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) and later in films by James Cagney. After World War II there was jiu-jitsu. After the Korean Conflict, tae-kwondo and karate. After Vietnam there was Thai boxing."By the 1960s, karate-chopping was used in lots of films, even in cartoons, but never central to the plot. Things were different in the Far East, where, beginning in 1949, Wong Fei-Hung (Master Wong) was a lion dancer mythologized into a Robin-Hood-style action hero. The character was so successful, more than 100 features were made. Hong Kong studios cranked out mass-quantities of action tales that combined balletic fighting styles with motifs drawn from history, folklore, nationalism, crime and bestselling novels.

These native martial-arts features were worlds away from the Hollywood productions where kung fu was just another weapon up the sleeve of cop, detective or spy. Beginning in the 1970's, martial-arts movies with cryptic plots and outrageous stunts began being exported to the U.S. The films were shoddily- overdubbed into English, in a mishmash of accents with no real care for what the original Hong Kong scripts might be saying. With few recognizable stars (except for Bruce Lee), the movies were widely ignored by mainstream critics and audiences.

One place they were not ignored was in my home. Because my brother, Mark, was into martial arts, we watched a lot of those movies during the 1970's, usually on Sunday afternoon. Each one had the really bad English overdubs and outrageously iconic sound effects. I remember Kung Fu Theater, Jimmy Wang Yu, Jim Kelly and Chuck Norris, although specific movie titles elude me. While we often giggled at the poor overdubs, the movies were actually good. Lots of fighting and Bruce Lee was all that was needed to keep us watching. The bad English overdubs were an added attraction. While on the screen you could plainly see the Asian actor speaking many words, the English overdub would only be three words, like "I KILL YOU."

1970's martial arts films are a cherished memory from my childhood. I would love to go back to those days and watch those movies again.


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