Tarantino defends Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s portrayal of Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee, Mike Moh, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino

It wouldn’t be a Quentin Tarantino film without a sprinkling of controversy, and one of the big ones surrounding ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is the film’s portrayal of Bruce Lee. The scene in question finds Lee (Mike Moh) swaggering around on the set of Green Hornet where he criticizes Muhammad Ali and picks a fight with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Naturally, this portrayal came under fire by both critics and those who knew Bruce Lee personally, including Shannon Lee, his daughter, and Dan Inosanto, his protégé and training partner.

During a recent press-junket for ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, Quentin Tarantino defended the film’s “arrogant” portrayal of the martial arts legend. “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino said. “The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that.” Tarantino also addressed those who were upset that Cliff Booth was able to hold his own against Bruce Lee, even throwing him into a car at one point.

Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could. If you ask me the question, ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up. The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in WWII in hand-to-hand combat. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is that he admires warriors. He admires combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person. If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.

It was also revealed last week that the fight scene between Cliff and Bruce could have gone a different way which likely would have received a much harsher reaction. Instead of the fight being broken up before a true winner could be declared, the original screenplay found the pair engaging in a much longer bout until Cliff made a “cheap-shot move” which put Bruce Lee on his ass. Both stunt choreographer Robert Alonzo and Brad Pitt expressed concerns with shooting the scene that way, and Quentin Tarantino later changed it to what we now see in the film.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is now playing in theaters, so be sure to check out a review from our own Chris Bumbray.

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