While other studios would eventually distribute kung fu movies of their own in the United States, it was Warner Brothers who was largely responsible for starting the craze. Warner Brothers' motivation for bringing Hong Kong kung fu movies was very plain and simple--the box office. As of 1972 Warner Brothers was on the brink of bankruptcy. The studio was then on the lookout for hits. They would have a huge one in 1972 in the form of the blaxploitation movie Super Fly, which coincidentally featured a good deal of Asian martial arts. Looking for easy money to make, it was perhaps natural that Warner Brother would look towards the Hong Kong cinema. By 1972 a few Hong Kong kung fu movies had made their way into Western countries, from Argentina to Lebanon. And wherever these movies played, they generally performed very well at the box office. Warner Brothers then guessed that such success could be repeated in the United States as well.
Beyond the box office that Hong Kong kung fu movies drew in many Western countries, there were other factors that would play a role in Warner Brothers' decision to import kung fu movies to the United States. Among these was the success of their TV series Kung Fu. Although hardly a smash hit in terms of the ratings, the show was very popular, particularly with young men. The success of Super Fly also demonstrated an interest in Asian martial arts, particularly among urban black audiences. In 1972 President Richard Nixon visited China, the first president to do so in decades. This stirred interest in the country here in the United States. For Warner Brothers the kung fu movies of Hong Kong may well have seemed like a sure bet.Warner Brothers would then fuel the kung fu craze at the box office more than any other studio.
Here I should perhaps dispel some commonly held misconceptions about the kung fu craze of the mid-Seventies. First, kung fu movies did play in the United States prior to 1973--King Boxer (better known here by its American title, 5 Fingers of Death) was not the first kung fu movie released in the United States by any means. Prior to 1973 kung fu movies, undubbed and unedited, were common fare in theatres in the various Chinatowns in major cities. That having been said, King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) would be the first kung fu movie to receive distribution from a major studio in the United States. And the first to become a certified hit here as well. Second, as must be obvious given the above, Bruce Lee did not spark the kung fu craze at cinemas in the mid-Seventies. In fact, besides King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death), two other films would be imported before Bruce Lee ever made his first appearance in a lead role in American movie theatres. That having been said, Bruce Lee was certainly responsible for making the kung fu craze even bigger than it might have been.
Regardless, Warner Brothers began importing Hong Kong kung fu movies in 1973, the first being King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death). King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) had been produced by the Shaw Brothers and released in China in 1972, where it performed remarkably well at the box office. Warner Brothers picked up the distribution for King Boxer (retitling it 5 Fingers of Death in the process), initially releasing it to the European market before doing so in the United States on March 21, 1973. Word of mouth would send King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) through the roof with regards to the American box office. Ultimately, King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) would remain in the top ten movies of Variety's box office chart for very nearly three months. Ultimately it would take in $3.8 million in rentals in the United States.
If the TV series Kung Fu kick started the kung fu craze, King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) brought the craze to full throttle. That this was the case can be seen in the May 16, 1973 box office chart for Variety. That week saw no less than three kung fu movies at the top of the American box office. At number three was King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death), still in the top five almost two months after its release. At number two was Deep Thrust--the Hand of Death, distributed by American International Pictures and taking its American title from a certain, then popular pornographic film. At number one was a film then called in the United States Fists of Fury, but now better known by its original title in Hong Kong, The Big Boss. Produced by Golden Harvest and distributed by Warner Brothers, The Big Boss was the first movie Bruce Lee ever made in Hong Kong. Its American debut marked Lee's debut in a leading role on American movie screens. Variety's box office chart for May 16, 1973 seems unprecedented for two basic reasons. First, it is perhaps the first time in American history that three foreign films topped the American box office. Second, it also marked the first time that the American box office would be dominated by kung fu movies.
Regardless, in 1973 the box office chart of May 16, 1973 would not be a singular event by any means. In its box office chart for June 20, 1973 Variety shows how huge the kung fu craze had grown. There were no less than five kung fu movies in the top fifty. Deep Thrust--the Hand of Death and The Big Boss (under its then American title of Fists of Fury) were still on the chart, having been joined a few weeks earlier by another Bruce Lee movie (Fist of Fury under the American title The Chinese Connection). That week would see two more kung fu films join them in the top fifty--Duel of the Iron Fist and Kung Fu: the Invisible Fist. As the summer of 1973 passed yet more kung fu movies would enter the top fifty of Variety's box office chart. The Chinese Boxer (known in the United States then as The Hammer of God) was the number one movie for the week of June 27, 1973. The Chase (then titled Shanghai Killers in the U.S.) and Fearless Fighters would both be released in August and see similar success.
With no less than two movies in the top fifty of the box office chart of Variety in June 20, 1973, it is clear that even then Bruce Lee was the king of the newly popular (at least here in the United States) movies. In fact, Warner Brothers had expressed interest in Lee from the moment they decided to import kung fu movies to the United States. Even as King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) was first released in American theatres, Warner Brothers was signing a deal to co-produce Enter the Dragon with Golden Harvest, making it the first kung fu movie in history to be produced by a Hollywood studio. And while Bruce Lee was the undisputed star of kung fu cinema in both the United States and Hong Kong in 1973, it must be pointed it took him quite some time to become such.
Bruce Lee had been a child actor in China, making as many as twenty five films before he was 18. It was in the United States that he decided to pursue martial arts rather than acting. Cast in the 1966 series Green Hornet, Bruce Lee found himself in front of a camera once more. Sadly, the series only lasted one season. Afterwards Lee would guest star on various TV shows and make his memorable appearance in Marlowe. Lee would eventually become dissatisfied with receiving only supporting roles in the United States and returned to Hong Kong in 1971. Learning that he had a cult following there due to the success of The Green Hornet (there called The Kato Show), Lee signed with Golden Harvest to make movies. His first film, The Big Boss proved to be the biggest movie in Hong Kong of 1971. This success was followed by Fist of Fury (AKA The Chinese Connection) and Way of the Dragon (initially released as Return of the Dragon in the United States). In fact, it was largely the box office of Bruce Lee's movies worldwide that led Warner Brothers to decide to import kung fu movies from Hong Kong and led them to co-produce Enter the Dragon. During the summer of 1973, then, Bruce Lee was the star. And he died just when his success was at its peak, on July 20, 1973.
Enter the Dragon would be released on August 17, 1973, a little under a month later. With fans still reeling from Bruce Lee's death and the kung fu craze in full swing, it was a guaranteed hit at the box office. Even in limited release it ranked in the top twenty of the box office chart in Variety. When it went into wide release, it would become the number one movie on Variety's box office chart for the week of September 5, 1973. It stayed in that spot until September 19, when it dropped to number 3. It would remain in the top ten of Variety's box office chart for nine weeks, with eleven weeks total in the top twenty. In all it earned an estimated $25 million at the American box office.
Of course, Enter the Dragon was hardly alone in being at the top of the box office. Hapkido (then known in the United States as Lady Kung Fu) topped the charts in September. Fist to Fist (then known in the States as Fists of the Double K--it was directed by a young man named John Woo) and Outlaws of the Marsh (then known as Seven Blows of the Dragon) made the top fifty that same month. The Opium Trail (then known as Deadly China Doll in the States) topped the charts in October. That same month Thunder Kick made the top fifty of the box office chart.
Amazingly given their success in the summer of 1973, the dominance of the box office by Hong Kong kung fu movies would end abruptly. Beginning around mid-November of 1973, no kung fu movies could be found in the uppermost reaches of Variety's box office chart. Still, kung fu movies would remain in the top fifty until January 1974, but by February 1974 they were gone. While Hong Kong kung fu movies would continue to make their way to the United States throughout the Seventies, they would increasingly become fodder for grindhouses and drive in theatres.
Of course, the end to the box office dominance of Hong Kong kung fu movies did not mean the end of the kung fu craze. The Hong Kong kung fu movies had proven exceedingly popular among urban, black audiences. Warner Brothers in particular, but other distributors as well, would often book their kung fu movies in inner city theatres, often double billed with the latest blaxploitation movie. While Hong Kong kung fu movies may have been on their way out in February 1974, Asian martial arts then found a place in many blaxploitation movies. Cleopatra Jones (released July 1973), Black Belt Jones (released January 28, 1974), Bamboo Gods and Iron Men (AKA Black Kung Fu, released the same month), Three the Hard Way (released June 26, 1974), Black Alley Cats (released September 1974), and many other blaxploitation films involved Asian martial arts in some way, shape, or another. By late 1974 and early 1975, the blaxploitation cycle would also end.
Martial arts would also be blended with yet other genres. The Stranger and the Gunfighter was an Italian spaghetti Western blending kung fu and the old West, starring Lee Van Cleef and Lieh Lo of King Boxer. Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers Studio would team up to blend horror and kung fu in the movie Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, released in 1974 (it was butchered--I mean, "re-edited"--for its American release and retitled The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula). Another Hammer/Shaw co-production, Shatter (released in 1974), blended kung fu with a plot involving an international hitman.
Not only would the kung fu craze not completely end when the dominance of Hong Kong imports ended in January 1974, but it would continue for a time in other media, chief among them comic books.
To a small degree martial arts were not entirely new to comic books in 1973. The Golden Age, Harvey Comics superhero The Black Cat was skilled in judo. One can probably guess which martial art in which Charlton Comics' Silver Age character, Judomaster was skilled. The Karate Kid first joined the Legion of Superheroes in July 1966, years before the kung fu craze. Still, Asian martial arts would remain a rarity in comic books (Batman was still relying on old fashioned, American fisticuffs as late as 1970) until the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974.
For those familiar with comic books in the Seventies it should come as little surprise that the industry would embrace the kung fu craze wholeheartedly. At that point in their history both Marvel and DC Comics had a tendency to follow the latest fads in society. When the cycle of blaxploitation movies began in 1971, Marvel Comics was swift to introduce its own blaxploitation character, Luke Cage, in the pages of Hero for Hire. He would not be the last by any extent. Quite naturally, then, when the kung fu craze arrived in 1973, both Marvel Comics and DC Comics would follow suit with their own martial arts oriented characters.
The most important of these may well have been Marvel Comics' Shang-Chi, whose adventures were published in The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. Having purchased both the rights to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and the television show Kung Fu, Marvel Comics blended the two for Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi was the son of Fu Manchu (here it must be noted he does not appear in Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories, but was created specifically for the comic books) who rebelled against his father's evil. Skilled in kung fu, he allied himself with Fu Manchu's traditional enemy, Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Shang-Chi proved to be a very popular character in the Seventies, so popular that his magazine The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu ultimately outlasted the kung fu craze. Debuting in December 1973, it lasted until June 1983.
Another Marvel Comics martial arts character created during the kung fu craze was Iron Fist, who first appeared in May 1974. Iron Fist was Daniel Rand, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who was lost on an expedition to the mystic city of K'un L'un while still a child. Taken to the city, he was trained in their martial arts. When his father and mother were murdered, he left K'un L'un to become the superhero Iron Fist to avenge their deaths. Iron Fist appeared in ten issues of Marvel Premiere before going on to 15 issues of his own magazine. Afterwards he teamed up with Luke Cage, whose magazine was retitled Power Man and Iron Fist, where he appeared for another 58 issues. Like Shang-Chi, then, Iron Fist survived the kung fu craze.
Ultimately, during the kung fu craze Marvel Comics would create several characters devoted to the martial arts, including Mantis (who appeared for a time in The Avengers), the detective team of Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, and the Sons of the Tiger. Under their imprint for their black and white comics magazines, they would also publish Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. First published with a cover date of April 1974, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu included stories featuring such characters as Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, and the Sons of the Tiger, among others. Sometimes it would even include articles related to kung fu as well. Deadly Hands of Kung Fu would outlast the kung fu craze, but not by much. It ended its run in 1977 after 33 issues.
Being more conservative, DC Comics was never as swift as Marvel Comics was in jumping on the bandwagon of the latest craze. Perhaps for that reason, DC's first martial arts oriented character created while the kung fu craze under way really wasn't a new character at all. Detective Comics #437, October-November 1973, saw the debut of a revamped version of the Golden Age character called Manhunter. Re-envisioned by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simsonson, Manhunter was given a new costume and a newly found skill in martial arts. Among the weapons at his disposal were shurikens, a katar or "bundhi dagger," and a Bolo Mauser. Manhunter would appear in his back up feature in Detective Comics until issue #443, Oct-Nov 1974.
Another important DC martial arts character would not debut until the kung fu craze was nearly over, in Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter #1, April-May 1975. Richard Dragon had first appeared in the novel Dragon Fists by Denny O'Neill and Jim Berry in 1974 and was later adapted by O'Neill for comic books. As a young sneak thief in Japan, Dragon was trained in kung fu after he attempted to break into a Chinese dojo as a teenager. Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter would last for 18 issues.
It was also largely because of the kung fu craze that the Karate Kid of the Legion of Superheroes, after being around for literally years, would receive his own title, albeit pretty much after the craze died down. The Karate Kid was portrayed as having travelled back in time to settle in the 20th century for the 15 issue run of The Karate Kid, which debuted with a cover date of March/April 1975.
While many of the characters created during the craze would survive for years, ultimately the kung fu craze would come to an end in the world of comic books as well. The craze more or less having ended for the rest of society in 1974, it would end in comic books around 1975. After that year we see fewer new martial arts oriented characters appearing and, when they did, it was almost never as the stars of their own magazines. The kung fu craze would leave its mark on comic books in more than just popular characters. Martial arts became an established part of the skills of many superheroes, from Batman to Daredevil.
Of course, the kung fu craze was a fad that cut across many media. In 1973 and 1974 there weren't only movies and comic books dedicated to the subject, but there would be magazines, toys, and even songs as well.