‘Birth of the Dragon’ is a 2016 martial arts drama set in the martial arts scene of 1960s San Francisco. The film follows Bruce Lee as a young martial arts trainer and his student as they embark on a battle against the local mafia. The film’s high point comes when Lee faces off against another kung fu master, Wong Jack Man, in an epic battle. The legacies of the two martial arts masters, and the life of a young woman, rest on the outcome of the legendary battle, which is as much about physical prowess as it is about competing philosophies. So just how much of ‘Birth of the Dragon’ and its epic faceoff is actually true? Let’s find out.
Is Birth of the Dragon Based on a True Story?
‘Birth of the Dragon’ is partly based on a true story. The film is inspired by the legendary battle between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man that took place in 1964. However, apart from these two characters, the rest of the film’s situations and characters are fictional, making it a fictional retelling inspired by true events, as opposed to being based on true events. Written by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, the film also seemingly takes some inspiration from Michael Dorgan’s article— ‘Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight.’
The film follows Lee’s time in San Francisco, where he runs a martial arts school. His student, Steve McKee, from whose perspective the story unfolds, falls in love with a girl held hostage by the local Chinatown mafia, and his only chance of saving her is to precipitate a face-off between Lee and Man. McKee’s character is loosely based on Steve McQueen, who studied kung fu under Lee. However, the film’s narrative and what actually happened essentially diverge on almost every aspect.
Lee and Man’s epic battle took place across the bay in Oakland, where Lee had spent his formative years after coming to America. It was also not a publicized fight and was reportedly witnessed by at least seven people. This included Lee’s pregnant wife Linda and his friend and colleague James Lee. The other five spectators came from Man’s side.
The real origin of the fight is also a far cry from the “damsel in distress,” and local mafia scenario portrayed in ‘Birth of the Dragon,’ and goes back to Lee’s very public disdain for the more traditional martial arts masters and the styles they were teaching their students. Lee, who spent his teen years immersed in the streamlined, results-oriented Wing Chun style of kung fu at Ip Man’s school in Hong Kong, found the prevalent styles being taught in America to be more focussed on showmanship than on the fight itself. His widely attended demonstrations, speeches, and even the book published by him, ‘Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense,’ all detailed how his Wing Chun style surpassed those of many of the respected masters.
Wong Jack Man, a practitioner of the Shaolin style of kung fu, was a newcomer who had recently arrived in the US from China. The reason for him being drawn into a fight with Lee remains contested. One theory is that Man planned on opening his own martial arts school and took on the fight to promote himself. There is also support for the possibility that he was somehow cajoled into taking on the challenge without knowing the true gravity and nuances of the situation. In either case, the fight took place in a small kung fu school in Oakland and held only a couple of spectators.
As for the outcome of the fight, the film once again diverges from history as it shows a coming together of the two fighters who then unite with the common aim of taking on the local mafia. In reality, both Lee and Man claimed to have not lost the fight in its aftermath. However, the encounter with Man seemingly led Lee to rethink his own style, whose flaws were possibly revealed to the iconic kung fu figure during the showdown.
‘Birth of the Dragon’ takes inspiration from a brief but legendary battle between two young kung fu masters in 1964. However, the film’s overarching dramatic license keeps much of the narrative completely fictional and focuses on Steve McKee’s character, from whose perspective the story is told. The controversial fight between Lee and Man remains an elusive and hotly debated subject to this day, which is possibly why so many liberties are often taken with its portrayal.
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