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How Filipino martial arts shaped Bruce Lee’s on-screen fighting style

martial arts Bruce Lee Enter the Dragon
The legendary Bruce Lee electrified his fans with his performance in Enter the Dragon.

I remember watching Enter the Dragon with my dad on a hot summer night where there was nothing better to do than watch karate movies until it was cool enough to sleep. I remember being engrossed in the film’s tournament arc, rooting for Bruce Lee, the super spy, to take down the bad guys and take down an old foe. In one of Bruce Lee’s most epic fights, after taking down a few bad guys with his bare fists, Lee picks up an unassuming wooden pole and continues to deliver the beat-down of the century. Fun fact, one of the guards in that scene was a young Jackie Chan, whom Bruce Lee accidentally punched in the face.

Lee, Bruce Lee’s aptly named character, obviously gets the pole broken in half by the never-ending nunchuck-wielding goons. But Lee looks more in control than ever. Blow after blow lands on the poor henchmen with Lee exclaiming his signature-fighting onomatopoeia.

After rewatching that epic fight scene, I recall reading a comment that brought to light an interesting tidbit that piqued my fascination. The comment claimed that Bruce Lee was using a Filipino martial-arts style known today as Eskrima. Depending on the region or the dojo one ascribes to, it is also known as Kali or Arnis.

The basic principles of these martial arts are close combat, to land quick parries and jabs while also combining the use of weapons of any variety. Sound familiar? That’s right, after doing some research I learned that Bruce Lee was a firm believer in learning different forms of fighting and incorporating them into his style of fighting, Wing Chun.

Diving into the history of Filipino martial arts

That said, Richard Bustillo, a former sparring mate of Bruce’s, makes it clear that Bruce would never use the art form in a real fight, but it looked good on screen. He’s not entirely wrong with that assumption. If the hero of a movie can deal fast strikes and use literally anything as a weapon, you better believe the villains of that film are going to get what they have coming.

These discoveries were so fascinating that I had to dive deeper into the history of this martial art. How did it come to be? From my sheltered life living in Vancouver, I always associated being Filipino with being agreeable and avoiding conflict. Sure, Filipinos are also notorious for having a hot temper, but how could we have developed a martial art that caught the attention of one of the world’s most famous fighters?

In 1521, the Philippines was introduced to their new oppressors who would govern their colony for the next 377 years. The Philippines was a profitable colony but the difficult task of maintaining a hold on the 40,000-plus islands and its inhabitants proved to be quite taxing on the Spanish colonists. Uprising after uprising sprung in different provinces of the Philippines.

There was the Pampanga revolt in 1585, the famous failed attempt at a coup of Intramuros, the guarded citadel in the heart of Manila. Dashed by a Filipina who was married to a Spanish soldier.

In the Tamblot uprising in 1621, residents from the southern island fought against the Spanish Jesuit priests. There are even accounts of the fierce Muslim Moro tribesmen to the south who declared a Jihad on the Spanish and were able to maintain their independence for the majority of Spain’s occupation.

A hidden martial art

It is evident that Spanish aspirations of an easy colony to subdue were met with heavy resistance from a war-hardened Philippines. This fact rings so true that in 1764, Spain made it illegal for Filipinos to train in any forms of martial arts and forbade Filipinos the use of swords, outright. Logically, if you get rid of weapons and a people’s ability to fight, that should equate to a smooth colonizing. The Spanish did not account for the Filipino fighting spirit.

Eskrima’s origins were similar to the Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira, which was conceived by Brazilian slaves halfway across the globe, who were under Portuguese colonial rule. Capoeira, the famous dance fighting, is a rhythmic and fluid way of combat that slaves hid from the Portuguese by disguising it as a dance. Similarly, Eskrima was shrouded in secrecy. As mentioned before, fighting of any kind or the use of swords were heavily banned. Any hint of sedition was snuffed out at the bud with swift and often violent retaliation.

Thus, the stage for a hidden martial art was set. To avoid detection of the Spaniards, Filipinos integrated everyday items from cooking knives to farm tools as a way to defend themselves against their invaders. And since then, the martial-art form has flourished.

Fighters from around the world will travel to the Philippines to train in Eskrima, Kali or Arnis. Even the Marines heavily integrate its principles into their training. The ability to adapt and use any item as a weapon and to emphasize close combat have proven to be essential in modern warfare.

Although Bruce Lee didn’t use the fighting style in active teachings, it’s a powerful statement to know that Eskrima has been seen by audiences around the world. That our resistance against our colonizers has a lasting legacy on the big screen. No matter what the odds, Filipinos will fight for freedom.

Jorelle Almeda is a Vancouver writer, comedian, and storyboard artist with a keen interest in history. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Jorelle Almeda

Jorelle Almeda is a Filipino-Canadian writer and comedian.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.