What was the first martial arts movie released in the US?
Martial arts pioneers in western films were not necessarily martial arts practitioners nor were the films just action adventures. After World War II, Blood in the Sun, was made with James Cagney. Cagney used judo to defeat a Tokyo chief of police, when he tried to inform the west of imminent war against Japan. In this film, Cagney is shown in one of the greatest judo fights ever put on the silver screen. Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1964), portrays a one-armed war veteran. He discovers corruption in a western town and uncovers the secrets behind it. Tracy used karate to accomplish justice. Even the release of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai with Toshiro Mifune, caused a new sensation in western films. This highly acclaimed film changed the way Americans would view films for the next two decades. By the transformation of this film to the western imagery, Seven Samurai emerged as the "spaghetti western" "The Magnificent Seven." In the sequal to "A Fist Full of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," the new screen hero, Clint Eastwood, uses a 'karate chop' to take out one of his victims. The sixties brought us other movies with stars such as Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther (1964), and The James Bond Adventures with Sean Connery (1964), which showed the elite training of a secret agent. Elvis Presley, who was an expert martial artist in real life, utilized his training in his movies and stage shows. He also was a private student of the late Ed Parker of Kenpo karate. James Colburn was a spoofing James Bond type of American secret agent using martial arts to get out of trouble in In Like Flint (1964) and Our Man Flint (1964). The Television Explosion In 1969, karate was seen for the first time on American television in an early episode of The Detectives (1959-1961) with Robert Taylor, in which he learns how to kill with "empty-hands" techniques. Another show, the British syndicated import The Avengers (1964-1969), brought us female agent Emma Peal (Diana Rigg) as a martial artist/spy. From 1965 through 1968, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby took their skills to exotic locations in the series I Spy. The Wild, Wild West gave us Robert Conrad, a former student of Bruce Lee, as a government agent in the Old West. Martial arts flourished and grew by the success of shows like The Green Hornet. This show introduced the world to the true talent of a master of Kung Fu: Bruce Lee. Lee showed grace and flash, along with the stunning kicks of Chinese boxing. Later, he was shown on Longstreet as he portrayed his extraordinary art of Jeet Kune Do – the way of the intercepting fist. With the advent of Kung Fu fighting to television and the introduction of Bruce Lee to America, a new show came to the airways and changed the television viewing of the American public. That show was Kung Fu. The ABC television Movie of the Week, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine, first aired on February 22, 1972. In this story, Kwai Chang Caine, a Chinese-American fugitive flees from a murder charge in Imperial China and becomes a superhero to the coolies building the transcontinental railroad in the Old West. Caine, a Shaolin priest seeking peace, while capable of inflicting instant death, helped to introduce the beginning of mass interest in the Chinese martial arts in the United States. The producer, Jerry Thorpe, feeling that the time was right, expanded the trend into the American television market. Thorpe said, "This is an opportunity to make a positive statement incorporating Chinese philosophy which is as basic and beautiful as any philosophy ever written. Since I felt that we had lost much of our sense of morality during these times of violence in America (1960s through early 70s), here was a chance to give viewing audiences peace and brotherhood." Caine would simply dispatch his opponents, subduing them with no real sense of killing. The show never showed any spurting blood. They never hit below the belt. The show revealed the art of conflict under control. Emotions checked and trouble controlled, the show was written very close to poetry. Kung Fu gained more and more viewers and was deemed a hit. It became a weekly series in January 1973 and became the number one television program in the United States. Today, over 20 years later, we had Kung Fu: The Saga Continues, with David Carradine in the lead role of grandson to Kwai Chang Caine. Movie Explosion Pure martial arts movies bloomed in 1973, when Warner Brothers imported the Chinese film The Five Fingers of Death, a story about a Tiger-claw stylist who indulges in sword play on the way to becoming a Kung Fu boxing champion in China. Bruce Lee was well on his way to stardom after his stint with the soon-to-be-ended Green Hornet series. Though Lee was a co-star in the show here in the United States, Lee was considered the star of the show in Hong Kong. His rise in stardom and the effect on the action film was then seen in Lee’s performance in The Fists of Fury and later The Chinese Connection in August 1973. Enter the Dragon was released in the United States only a few weeks after Bruce Lee’s death in 1973. This Golden Harvest/Warner Brothers production became an instant classic and an unqualified hit. Its worldwide box office gross today total more than $150 million. Lee portrays a Shaolin discipline with multiple motives for entering the mysterious Master Han’s karate tournament and for destroying his worldwide drug operation. Lee’s success catapulted him into super stardom as the first Chinese-American with his name above the title, in the biggest film ever made. He died one month before it previewed in America. The shock of his demise on July 20, 1973, incited rumors that he died of poison, was shot, or was a victim of the "dim mak" or "death touch" at the hands of his enemies. Lee brought about the change in how people of the west view the action film. In Return of the Dragon (1974), Lee introduced audiences to a new cult martial arts hero in fighting champion Chuck Norris. Norris has brought us films like Breaker, Breaker! (1977), A Force of One (1979) in which Bill "Superfoot" Wallace made his debut, Good Guys Wear Black (1978), Octagon (1980), and many others. Today, Norris brings his successful television show Walker: Texas Ranger into the home of millions.
Martial arts pioneers in western films were not necessarily martial arts practitioners nor were the films just action adventures. After World War II, Blood in the Sun, was made with James Cagney. Cagney used judo to defeat a Tokyo chief of police, when he tried to inform the west of imminent war against Japan. In this film, Cagney is shown in one of the greatest judo fights ever put on the silver screen. Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1964), portrays a one-armed war veteran. He discovers corruption in a western town and uncovers the secrets behind it. Tracy used karate to accomplish justice. Even the release of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa