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The Missing Big Boss by Jason Hart

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Bruce Lee's first film for Golden Harvest, the often over-looked and under-appreciated The Big Boss, has quite a long and complicated history of censorship and editing. A few shots of excessive blood-letting were cut by the Hong Kong censors shortly before the film was released there in October 1971, and numerous further cuts were made for Singapore, the second territory to show the film. Other modifications were made for the USA release in April 1973 (where, oddly, it was renamed Fists of Fury), by which time it was quite a different film to the one which premiered in Hong Kong 18 months previously.

Further quick shots of violence - mostly involving weapons such as iron chains, sticks, knives and an ice pick - were cut from the prints in the UK and a few other European countries. These cuts were inexplicably maintained for the "pan and scan" videos released in the 1980s and 1990s but thankfully waived for the UK DVD release by Hong Kong Legends in late 2000. Also restored at this time, surprisingly, was the bloodier death scene of the big boss. Sadly however, the material cut in 1971 for Hong Kong and Singapore has never been restored, and remains missing.

In fairness, it is not hard to see why some of the cuts were made, particularly to the shots of blood and gore, since nobody involved in the making of the film could have possibly imagined the impact it would have, and after all, it was only really intended for Chinese audiences, who were accustomed to seeing buckets of blood and over-the-top violence in their films.

Director Lo Wei and fight choreographer Han Ying Chieh knew they had to match the graphic, bloody violence seen in the wuxia (swordplay) dramas directed by Chang Cheh for the rival Shaw Brothers studio, which were very popular with young Chinese audiences at that time. What is baffling though, is why Golden Harvest also decided to remove a few seemingly inoffensive scenes of non-violence. There seems to be little logic to some of the early cuts in the film, and we probably will never know the real reasons because the editing took place such a long time ago.

Bruce Lee Film Festival 1979

Bruce Lee Film Festival 1979

On December 1st 1979, the legendary British poster magazine Kung-Fu Monthly held the world's first ever Bruce Lee Film Festival in northwest London. Over 1,700 lucky fans packed into the impressive Gaumont State Theatre on Kilburn High Road for this historic event. KFM had originally tried to secure English dubbed prints from then distributor EMI, but they refused, fearing that such an event might affect their own plans for re-releasing the films around the same time. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as KFM were instead given original, uncut 35mm Mandarin prints of Bruce's three Chinese films by Eddie Leahey, a 'mole' at Golden Harvest's London office.

The Big Boss was the first film of the day, beginning at 10.45am, and some fans actually missed some or all of it due to late trains! Others were seeing the film for the first time, as this was a private screening, and the usual lower age limit for X-rated films didn't apply. The print that was shown was indeed the uncut Mandarin version that was originally released in Hong Kong, parts of southeast Asia and some Chinese movie theatres around the world in the early 1970s, shorn of a few explicit moments (including the 'saw in the head' scene), but otherwise complete. Strangely, there is no specific mention in any issue of KFM or the Society news sheets of the significance of the print screened at their Film Festival. It's hard to believe it now, but at the time The Big Boss simply wasn't a big deal; fans were far more interested in seeing uncut versions of the other films. The following excerpt did however appear in issue 53:

"It's vital that I tell you the following disastrous news. Once the reels that we were showing wear out (and already they're looking somewhat 'tired') I'm told there can NEVER be any replacements! That's not the case with the usual, English dialogue, censored version - just the uncut originals. Therefore, what we were showing is a slice of history that will quite soon disappear for ever!"

The following list of all known cuts is based on photographs; footage of some of the missing scenes in the original trailer; some speculation on my part, and most importantly, eye-witness accounts from people who actually saw the uncut Mandarin version all those years ago. Of course, memories of events witnessed in the 1970s are a little vague, and inevitably some people remember details that others do not, but hopefully I have compiled a fairly complete and accurate puzzle.

1 Cart Attack / Family Home

The first instance of missing footage is also the most significant; it occurs just after the fight near the gambling den. In all current versions of the film, after the four defeated thugs have run off, Cheng Chao-an (Bruce) and Hsu Chien (James Tien) share a joke about Bruce's promise not to fight, and the scene then cuts to the following morning, with Chiao Mei (Maria Yi) looking at the sunrise. However, what we should have seen was Bruce and James continue their journey along the road. They enter a narrow alleyway, with barbed-wire running along the walls. The thugs from the gambling den return, and push a flaming cart towards them. To avoid it, the pair grab hands and leap backwards onto a wall (Bruce and James were filmed jumping off the wall and this was then played in reverse). The cart smashes into a wall and the villains flee. Foreshadowing the brutal climax of the film, James says to Bruce, "Some people will do anything to get revenge."

Burning Cart Deleted Scene

Deleted Scene

This scene was the last one to be filmed, in a studio in Hong Kong in early September 1971 (Golden Harvest had not as yet moved into their famous studios on Hammer Hill Road). The gambling den villains were not clearly seen, due to the unavailability of the Thai actors/stuntmen, who had already filmed their scenes in Thailand.

Details about what happened next are sketchy, but there are clues in photos and the original theatrical trailer. In a trailer clip, Bruce and James have arrived back at the family home, and the other cousins are in their pyjamas ready for bed. While a smiling Bruce looks on, James eagerly describes the fight to them, and while demonstrating one particular move he used against one of the thugs, grabs Ah Kun (the chubby cousin, played by Li Kun) by the genitals. A shocked Kun tells him, "Watch it! I might have use for those!" A photo shows Maria apparently chastising James for fighting, although the exact dialogue is unknown. The scene then cuts to the following morning, and more deleted footage, in which Maria gives Bruce and his uncle a drink on the balcony outside before they leave for the ferry dock. Then we see the familiar shot of Maria looking at the sunrise, although I believe she is actually looking at the pair as they leave the house (notice when she wakes the cousins for work she is carrying a tray with two empty glasses, and that Bruce is not in the sleeping quarters).

It's difficult to understand why all this footage was removed. The general consensus seems to be that distributors felt that it slowed down the pacing of the early part of the film, which placed more emphasis on James Tien's character than on Bruce Lee. Further, the trimming of these scenes would have helped bring the running time down to under 100 minutes, making the film more attractive to potential buyers (it is thought that the original Mandarin version ran to approximately 104 minutes, which equates to five minutes of extra footage).

Bruce Lee and Nora Miao

2 Bruce and Nora Miao

The aforementioned trailer shows a brief clip from this scene, in which Bruce, walking down the road, sees Nora Miao sitting at her refreshment stall; the camera zooms in to show her smiling at him. This scene is a bit of an oddity, as nobody seems to recall seeing it in the longer Mandarin version. There's also some uncertainty as to where it would have occurred. Some Big Boss fans speculate that had it appeared, it may have been directly after the scene where Bruce sees his uncle depart on the ferry, as Nora's other two scenes in the film are preceded by scenes of Bruce at the nearby ferry dock. Other than the trailer clip, details about the rest of the scene are unknown. It is interesting to note that Nora's scenes were filmed in a rural suburb of Phra Pradaeng District near Bangkok, on the last day of filming in Thailand, and not Pak Chong as was originally thought. She was in Thailand on vacation and also to make a short film with Bruce on Jeet Kune Do. Sadly this never happened due to time constraints, so she was instead cast in a cameo role as a roadside vendor.

3 Cutting Up of the Cousins

There was a reduction to the gruesome cutting up and disposal of the bodies of the two murdered workers, Ah Wong (Li Hua Sze) and Ah Chen (Ricky Chik). There are clearly two edits: the first being just after the circular saw begins cutting into Ah Wong's back (the body being completely cut apart was removed by the Hong Kong censors). The second cut is at the end of the scene, when one of the Thai factory supervisors opens up the ice container and places the body parts (including a severed head) inside; in the current version, we can just see him reach down to open the container before the scene ends abruptly. Directly after this sequence, most versions then show James Tien asking the other workers at the factory if the two missing men have arrived at work yet. In some old prints however, we see a brief shot of Tien, Bruce and the other four cousins running towards the factory, which was omitted from many releases due to print damage.

4 James Tien's Bleeding Head

James Tien

The scene in which Hsu Chien (James Tien) and Ah Pei (Billy Chan) visit the big boss's house and are brutally murdered by his gang suffered cuts. When the boss's son (Tony Liu) first joins the action, he leaps over Tien and cuts his head with a knife. A shot was cut which showed blood pouring profusely from the wound, like water running from a tap. This has partially survived, thanks to its inclusion in the Super 8 version of the original trailer, which is included on some UK DVDs and Blu-rays. This is a very obvious cut in old copies of the film (pre-digital remastering), as a visible splice can clearly be seen where the scene has been trimmed. Unwitting observers watching the current version can be forgiven for wondering why Tien's head is suddenly covered in blood. I also suspect that further shots of blood-letting have been cut from this fight, especially when Tien kicks a hook-wielding assailant in the face, sending him staggering back with a bloody nose, but without seeing a complete print it is impossible to be sure.

5 Workers' Revolt

More quick shots of blood spurting have been trimmed during the first fight at the ice factory, between the striking workers and the Thai foreman and his supervisors, who are later joined by some henchmen sent over by the Boss. One example is when a worker is struck on the head by a wooden pole (a scene missing completely from old UK prints). Another cut occurs when a worker is slashed across the chest by a knife; old prints once again show a negative cut where the scene has been trimmed.

Head in ice

6 Banquet

The banquet scene, where the factory manager plies Bruce with cognac, was slightly different. In the original version, when a drunken Bruce approaches the prostitute Wu Man (played by young Thai actress and former beauty queen Malarin Boonak), he imagines her topless. In the current version, this has been replaced by an innocuous shot of Maria Yi smiling at him. This scene was filmed in the back room of a Chinese restaurant in Bangkok, close to the Thai Hotel where the cast and crew were staying.

7 Body Parts in Ice

Head in ice

The sequence in which Bruce discovers the various body parts encased in the ice, was longer. Nowadays, we only get to see a severed hand and the heads of James Tien and the prostitute (how did they get her in the ice so quickly?), but the Mandarin print showed body parts of other people in the ice as well. That Super 8 trailer mentioned above contains an eerie looking shot of a blood-spattered face in the ice, presumably that of the cousin who was struck on the head with a hatchet.

8 Saw in the Head

Was this, the most notorious and well known of all the censored scenes, ever in the film? Does it still exist, and if so, where is it? These questions have been the source of much debate and discussion among fans for decades. The scene was certainly filmed and was even in Lo Wei's original director's cut, but was removed by the Hong Kong censors, who felt that the killing and bloodshed was dramatised to an intolerable extent for the general audience. It was supposedly in a print shown at a special pre-screening in Hong Kong before the film went on general release, but hasn't been seen since; all that survives of it are a few stills.
Inevitably, a few fans claim to have seen it in various prints and even videotapes over the years, but there is no evidence to back up any of these claims.
Roy McAree, who handled the world sales and distribution of the film in the early 1970s, has said it wasn't in any of the early prints that he saw, and the shot was not in the Mandarin print screened at the KFM Bruce Lee Film Festival in 1979.

Notice how much people have moved after the edit has occurred. Just before the cut, Bruce kicks a thug wearing a light-blue T-shirt (stuntman Peter Chan Lung); he falls back towards the ice blocks, and one photo shows him actually on the ground. However, a second later, after the edit, he has moved considerably and is back on his feet attacking Bruce again with a pole, which Bruce promptly kicks in half. I suspect that, after the grisly "saw in the head" shot itself, further footage featuring Peter Chan was also cut by the Golden Harvest editor (Sung Ming), to make the edited scene look as coherent as possible.

Saw in head

The entire sequence would have played something like this: after Bruce picks up the saw, he wards off the first attacker (the boss's son), and then kicks a man to his left who runs at him with a pole (Peter Chan). Another assailant in a navy blue shirt (who is quite prominent in the footage leading up to the attack) then approaches Bruce with a raised knife; Bruce swings the saw overhead and embeds it deep into the man's head, causing blood to pour down his face and shirt. Bruce lets go his grip on the saw and the man sinks to his knees with the saw still inside his head. Peter Chan resumes his attack and then we cut back into the usual censored version of the scene, with Bruce kicking the pole in half. Although brief, this is nevertheless an extremely annoying omission which disrupts the flow of the fight dramatically, and is certainly the most (in)famous censored scene in the Bruce Lee canon of films.

9 Family Massacre

Following the battle at the ice factory, Bruce returns home and discovers the bodies of his slaughtered relatives. This scene has been trimmed slightly, for when Bruce lifts the mosquito net, more of Ah San's blood-soaked body was shown. It now cuts just before we see his face and the knife protruding from his chest.

10 Riverside Revenge

For some reason, a couple of edits were made to the scene in which Bruce sits by the river contemplating revenge, as indicated by jump cuts in the original music score found on some DVDs and Blu-rays. In addition to the usual flashback image of the cousins laughing and joking superimposed over the waterfall, there were also more graphic shots of their bloody dead bodies. Secondly, after Bruce throws his possessions into the river and glances skyward, he raises his fist and shouts repeatedly, "Revenge!" Now, we just see him look up, then turn and run. This was one of three scenes filmed on the banks of the Lam Ta Khong river in Pak Chong, just behind Bruce's hotel, the New Wanchai (now renamed the Rimtarninn).

Bruce Lee Deleted Scene

11 Second Prostitute

Prostitute Deleted Scene
Second Prostitute Deleted Scene 2

In the original version, Bruce paid a THIRD visit to the brothel, just prior to the final showdown with the boss. Most fans will be familiar with the infamous photograph of Bruce standing naked behind the bed, and the few seconds that appear in the early trailer. But how many people know exactly how the entire scene played? Bruce, having thrown his bag into the river, runs off down the road. In the current version, we then see him arriving at the boss's house holding a bag of crisps. However, in the original version, Bruce runs into the town and stops outside the brothel. He pauses for a moment and decides to go in. Inside, he pays some money to someone behind a counter, and goes upstairs to where the prostitutes are sitting. The camera pans over them (as if from Bruce's point of view), and he points at the small girl in the short orange dress, who can be seen in the current version sitting next to Malarin Boonak when he visits the second time. They go to the same room he had slept in two nights before (this was actually filmed in the bedroom of a riverside bungalow, due to the bedrooms in the brothel being smelly and unhygienic). After closing the door and the curtains, she approaches him and he pushes her onto the bed. He then takes off his shirt and she removes her dress. They face each other; Bruce is standing naked behind the bed (this is in the trailer). The girl lies on the bed and Bruce (waist-high shot) walks toward the camera and blurs out the scene. Next, he is shown putting on his shirt (after he has supposedly had sex), while the girl is still lying on the bed. He looks at her, takes out the rest of his money and places it on her stomach. As Bruce is about to leave the room, he sees a bag of crisps on a table. He picks them up, tries one, and then leaves. Then the scene cuts to the one which is in the current version - Bruce arriving at the boss's house with the crisps.

This scene is symbolic and quite important. In the previous scene we saw Bruce throw away his possessions and here we see him give away all his money, and enjoy his final pleasures and one last meal before he is either killed or arrested for murder, a message which is now partially lost in the current version.
Director Lo Wei stated: "The hero of The Big Boss is an energetic young man. When such a man prepares to kill the villain at any cost, he naturally will want to give vent to his desire. So, he goes to the whorehouse and makes love to a prostitute."
Despite the message Lo Wei was trying to get across, the scene did not go down well with some Hong Kong audiences, who were often very vocal when it came to voicing their opinions (good or bad) about new films. Some cinemagoers reportedly booed when Bruce chose the prostitute, played by an unknown girl who was certainly no Malarin Boonak.
Bruce himself tried to justify the inclusion of this controversial scene when he was asked about it during a HK radio interview with journalist Ted Thomas shortly after the film's release. He explained: "The way I look at that is that it was a suggestion of the director, and I accept it in such a way and that is, him being a very simple man, when all of a sudden he made up his mind that he is going to go and either die or kill or be killed, right? So he walks past and it's kind of a sudden thing, of human beings, that a thought just occurs - well, doggone it, man... such is the basic need of a human being... I might as well enjoy it, man, before I kick the bucket!"

Second Prostitute Deleted Scene

Linda Lee also briefly referred to it in her 1975 book, 'Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew': "I remembered a moment when we had sat in the dark watching The Big Boss unfold and the scene comes up where Bruce is brought face to face with a naked prostitute; Bruce had leaned across to me and whispered, 'Part of the fringe benefits.'"

Bruce's "encounter" with the second prostitute was longer in the original director's cut. The Hong Kong Censor notes from 1971 describe a scene which was filmed, but hit the cutting room floor before the film was released. It was recorded as follows: "Bruce and a prostitute make love in bed. The noise produced is so great that another couple in the adjacent room are disturbed. The girl peeps through a hole into Bruce's room. The man also wants to see, but the girl will not give way until he pays her some money. The man cannot held (sic) himself, he pays." It is not known if Bruce himself was in the trimmed scene, but it is thought that the "peeping" prostitute was played by the short-haired girl in pink, who is visible in other shots in the current version.

12 Bruce vs. Han Ying Chieh (The Boss)

Bruce Lee Deleted Scene

During the fight between Bruce and the boss's son, Bruce tastes the blood from one of his own wounds, a ploy used to unsettle his opponent. The idea for this came from Larry Hartsell, one of his Los Angeles students, who had used it in a bar fight. Many fans may not realise that a similar scene occurred in the film's climactic fight scene, just after the boss slashes Bruce's abdomen when he first produces his knives. This shot was in the original Hong Kong version and also the Kilburn print, but is strangely absent from all other versions.

The gory death scene of the boss, in which we see blood pouring down from underneath his jacket and Bruce's fingers penetrating the man's ribcage, was at one time virtually unseen in the Western world, but, unlike many of the other missing shots of blood and gore, has now been restored to most versions on DVD and Blu-ray. On the other hand, older versions of the film that do not contain this scene instead show a non-bloody, alternative shot of the two men circling; very few versions show both shots, but the full sequence has been reconstructed in some excellent fan-made edits that are available on YouTube.

In addition to the scenes listed above, there are also audio clicks and 'jump cuts' at the following points in the film, which could indicate further cuts: when Nora Miao gives Bruce and his uncle their shaved ice desserts (some missing dialogue perhaps?); as the bouncers are leaving the gambling den and also near the start of the training sequence at the boss's house, prior to Tony Liu's trampoline jump, although this could be down to sloppy editing rather than a cut. The scene where Bruce arrives at the factory for his first day at work and speaks to cousin Ah Kun (Li Kun) is missing a few frames in most versions due to print damage, where Kun animatedly describes the foreman as having "a beard and a pigtail". However, this shot is included in a few old versions which are in the public domain, so was not included in the main list of missing scenes.

Other oddities appear in photographs: one shows Bruce's uncle performing a Thai-style prayer at the entrance to the factory while Bruce looks on. In other stills, the villainous Thai factory supervisor in the blue hat is seen wearing a white shirt as opposed to the black top he wears in the film. One possible explanation for shots such as these is that they could be photos of scenes filmed by the original director, Wu Chia-Hsiang, who was fired after just a few days' filming at the ice factory. While it appears that none of his footage has survived, it certainly would have been photographed.


Deleted Scene

Sadly, the footage cut by the Hong Kong censors prior to the film's release has almost certainly been lost to the ravages of time. However, the other missing scenes - some of which are longer and arguably more significant - are thought to still exist, but have not been seen since the Kung-Fu Monthly event in December 1979. Presumably they were removed from the master copy in 1971, discarded, and then only existed in the Mandarin prints which were doing the rounds in Hong Kong and Chinese movie houses; these too would have been deliberately destroyed on their return to Golden Harvest due to the unstable, flammable nature of celluloid in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong. The shorter master then became a template for the international and Cantonese versions, which remain prevalent to this day.

The questions in the minds of all Big Boss fans are, do any of those early, longer prints still exist, and if so, where are they hiding? It's common knowledge that Bruce sent a print to the late Fred Weintraub in 1972. Bruce had been working with Fred on developing a US TV show called The Warrior, and, after being turned down for the starring role, sent him a print of The Big Boss which ultimately led to Bruce being offered the lead in Enter the Dragon. Presumably Fred kept that print, but was it uncut, and if so, who has it now? The print screened by KFM also apparently still exists and is rumoured to be in the hands of a private collector. There could well be others in private hands or languishing in the vaults of a foreign distributor. We can only keep our fingers crossed and hope that one day, one of these prints will turn up, and we will all finally have the opportunity to see the longer version, as Lo Wei intended. Until then we are left with a mere handful of photographs and tantalisingly brief glimpses of some of the missing scenes in the original trailer.

Hopefully this article has raised awareness of The Big Boss's missing scenes, and also helped to dispel a few myths. However, if you have seen a complete print and would like to correct anything in the article, or would just like to contact me about any of the issues raised, please do so at:

2023 Update:

In spring 2022, a longer Mandarin print was found in Hong Kong, and was released in July 2023 in the UK as part of a ten-disc UHD and Blu-ray boxset, to mark the 50th anniversary of Bruce Lee's passing. The print contained some - but not all - of the above scenes, along with a few surprises. Rather than edit this article, I decided to leave it as is, and write a new one, which can be found here:
The Big Boss Mandarin Cut by Jason Hart

Jason Hart - copyright

Sources: film festival info taken from Kung-Fu Monthly magazine, issue 53; info on filming locations taken from Bruce Lee: Mandarin Superstar by Steve Kerridge and Darren Chua; Linda Lee quote taken from Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew by Linda Lee; Lo Wei quote and "peeping scene" info taken from Bruce Lee & JKD Magazine, issue 4.

Page created by Nick Clarke. Photo Credits - Steve Kerridge, Brandon Bentley, George Tan and Greg Freeman.