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Only Scratches the Surface
on 16 August 2010
Perhaps it is a common pitfall for the biographer: trying to view with objectivity and dispassion someone who may well have had a huge influence on your own life. But it is a pitfall into which the author, Bruce Thomas, tumbles time and time again.
The book is written in simple prose, chronologically detailing Bruce Lee's life from his childhood on the streets of Hong Kong to Hollywood fame. The biography is factually well researched and one of the book's few strengths is the focus on Bruce Lee's passion for martial arts. The author, a long-time student of the martial arts, clearly shares this passion and is very knowledgeable about its roots and history, detailing the evolution of Bruce Lee's own art: jeet kune do. Given that Bruce Lee considered himself first and foremost a martial artist, this is a key pillar in any biography of his life. Thomas has also gone to great lengths to put Lee's path to stardom into a cinematic context, highlighting his childhood performances in Hong Kong, as well as the theatrical environment to which he was exposed as a young child.
But Bruce Lee now lives on as more than just a movie star, and to draw his life around the camera is to only to glance at the man who became one of the twentieth century's greatest cultural icons, and around whom - perhaps more so than any other person - myths have been built on myths.
Disabusing the reader of the more far-fetched of these is hardly a commendable challenge. I doubt very much any readers thought that there might be a grain of truth in the theories suggesting that black magic or a group of "stealth ninjas" were responsible for the star's death. But in the same breath that Thomas derides such fantasy, the author salivates over rhetorical questions about who would win in a fight - Muhammad Ali or Bruce Lee? And any opinion that questions Bruce Lee's ability as a fighter rather than an artist is swiftly nipped in the bud. Joe Lewis, for example, praising Lee's technical proficiency but doubting his ability to perform in the ring (Bruce Lee never fought competitively) is quickly countered by a few lesser sources who cannot separate the icon from the artist, claiming that Bruce Lee was the greatest fighter that ever lived - not pound-for-pound, just simply undefeatable. And, whilst Thomas doesn't put his head over the parapet and state so explicitly, the reader is left with little doubt as to which way his opinion lies on a question that neither needed asking nor warrants an answer.
At other times the book devolves into a medium through which Thomas can thrill himself with his idea of the "formidable fighting machine" - detailing small incidents (Bruce Lee allegedly spin kicking two Hong Kong thugs in the shins when they started to hassle him, for instance) that bear no relevance whatsoever to the chapter and only serve to betray the high school student in Thomas that can't quite let go of the playground hyperbole.
This almost sycophantic attitude can be seen throughout the book. Once Bruce Lee was finally on his path to international stardom, there is a lingering sense that he wasn't always appreciative and respectful to those who had gone out of their way to get him in front of the camera and help him achieve his goal. But any paragraph that begins with such a latent suggestion invariably ends with the author either trying to justify Lee's behaviour or taking a quick and spiteful jab at those that dared to express such an opinion in the first place, for fear that they might deflate the myth that the author himself doesn't dare to burst.
Bruce Lee is one of the twentieth century's most fascinating figures. He was a movie star, a master of his art, and, above all, a cultural icon who had a tremendous impact on the image of Asian people in a post-war era when racial discrimination was surfacing. That Thomas manages to write a biography of Bruce Lee without putting his life and achievements into this broader context is a farce and one the book's greatest failings. Had he not died so tragically young I doubt, as Thomas is convinced, he would have become the world's greatest movie star: he was not a versatile actor and, like romantic comedies or periodical dramas, there is a market for only so many Kung Fu action movies. And like so many others (James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley), his premature death perversely provided the foundations for his goal: fame beyond fame.
If you want a warts-and-all biography of Bruce Lee that sheds some light on why Time magazine rightly regarded him as one of the most important people of the twentieth century, look elsewhere.