Enter The Dragon, a Hong Kong-USA co-production and Bruce Lee's final film, was submitted to the BBFC for classification in August 1973, one month after his death.
Stephen Murphy, the then BBFC Secretary, felt that the film, like others in the wave of kung-fu movies in vogue at the time, exploited violence purely for the sake of entertainment. He therefore considered such a presentation of violence without any qualifying context to be potentially harmful to teenage boys, to whom the BBFC recognised such films would be very attractive. While the highly choreographed fighting was viewed as a 'fantasy', the level of aggression, sadism and violence in the film could only be accommodated at the adult level: the X category, restricting the audience to those aged 18 years and over.
Even if classified at X, Stephen Murphy deemed that Enter The Dragon would still require edits. These would remove visuals of a number of violent combat techniques that the Board considered excessive, and could be easily imitated by audiences. There was also concern about the violence being potentially encouraged by such a charismatic actor, at the height of his (posthumous) fame and popularity.
On 14 August, an extensive cuts list was drawn up. Cuts were required to almost every reel and covered every aspect of the violent action in the film. However, in the end, only five separate edits were confirmed. In one or two cases these were requests for reductions to the action rather than an outright deletion of the scene. These cuts included crotch kicks and neck breaks during fight scenes, and a sequence in which glass bottles are smashed and wielded as weapons. With these cuts made, Enter The Dragon was classified X on 23 October 1973.
Nevertheless, the decision attracted criticism from both sides. Some members of the public felt the film was still too violent and voiced fears that it was dangerous and could encourage people to try kung-fu for criminal purposes. For example, a cinema exhibitor from Bridgend secured a meeting with Murphy in January 1974 to discuss his concerns that a scene in the film in which two police officers are beaten up and their car stolen could promote attacks on UK policemen. He urged the BBFC to remove the incident from Enter The Dragon and followed up his meeting with a series of letters. In a terse reply, Stephen Murphy responded to the one of the exhibitor’s letters: “I can find no evidence that would support the point you are making”.
Fans, particularly young ones, of both the genre and Bruce Lee angrily protested the film’s X certificate and the cuts imposed by the BBFC. One fourteen year old, who had recently taken up kung-fu, wrote directly to the Board asking for permission to see Enter The Dragon in his local cinema.
This polite teenager was not alone: following the film’s release in 1974, there are letters on file from members of the public reporting seeing children as young as 12 in screenings of the film.
The success of Enter The Dragon, and the kung-fu genre in general, saw public concerns arise at the concurrent spread of the use of chainsticks (or nunchaku) and other martial arts weaponry among London youths. Media coverage of the issue caught the eye of Murphy’s successor as BBFC Secretary, James Ferman. In December 1979, Ferman recalled Enter The Dragon for another look in the light of these anxieties. Ferman asked the film’s distributor to remove sight of chainsticks in the fight sequence between Bruce Lee and his attackers. The images of chainsticks were also requested to be removed from the film’s trailer and its promotional posters.
The removal of chainsticks, as well as other martial arts weaponry such as throwing stars and flails, soon became standard BBFC practice with the advent of VHS bringing violent kung-fu films into the home in the early 1980s. When Enter The Dragon was classified for VHS in 1988, a kindlier view of the film’s violence was taken. The original five cuts were reduced to two; however, sight of the chainsticks remained cut.
Throughout the 1990s, specific public concerns about chainsticks declined, while fears about more accessible weapons, such as knives, grew. Despite a modification to the BBFC’s blanket ban of martial arts weaponry in 1991, when Enter The Dragon was resubmitted for video classification in 1993 and in 1996, cuts to sight of chainsticks in action were maintained.
In order for its policies to remain relevant and in tune with public feeling, the BBFC regularly reviews and adjusts them accordingly when issuing a new set of Guidelines. In 1999, the previous firm distinction between martial arts and other weapons was abandoned in favour of a more context-based, proportionate approach. Nevertheless, depictions of offensive weapons continue to be liable to cuts if they are considered likely to encourage violent behaviour in the real world.
Enter The Dragon was classified at 18 for video in 2001, with all previous cuts (both to violence and weapons) fully restored.