After gaining popular exposure on American television in The Green Hornet (1966-67) and, later, Longstreet (1971), martial arts great Bruce Lee made his film debut in Chinese film director Wei Lo’s Tang shan da xiong (1971). Now a cult favorite, and a superb display of Lee’s abundant talents, Tang shan da xiong had become Hong Kong’s highest-grossing film of all time in 1971.
When Cinerama, the film’s German distributors, got hold of the film, not only did they have no idea who Bruce Lee was, they thought Wang Fu-Ling’s traditional music score would sound much too foreign to Western ears to make any sense or help the film make much money. They changed the title of the film to The Big Boss (the film was called Fists of Fury in the U.S.) and brought in composer Peter Thomas to score the film for all the places the film would show outside of China. Curiously, though, Wang Fu-Ling retained musical credit on all prints of the film (and it's worth noting that Joseph Koo composed new music and used stock music from Don Peake's The Hills Have Eyes for the Cantonese-dubbed version of the film in the early 1980s).
Thomas (b. 1925), was best known at the time as composer of the great German Edgar Wallace and Jerry Cotton films and had only the year before laid down the tremendous and memorable Chariots of the Gods? score. His style had a signature like no other. He calls it “crazy jazz” and it came out no matter what he was doing – and it usually sounded just right: slightly comical, but certainly swinging and action-oriented. He was excited to take this project on.
The budget was, of course, limited. So Thomas composed music for only about half of the film and used pieces from his vast cornucopia of library tunes to complete the score. Here, for the first time ever, is the score to The Big Boss (All Score Media/Chris’ Soundtrack Corner, 2010). Interestingly, Peter Thomas had contacted Wang Fu-Ling to ask his permission to “affect” his music. But in the end, Thomas, didn’t even want to hear the original soundtrack before setting out to do what he wanted to do. And, of course, The Big Boss is all Peter Thomas.
The result is an absolute gem, not only maintaining the tuneful “crazy jazz” of Thomas’ previous scores, but actually prefiguring the entire Blaxploitation craze – which both Lalo Schifrin and John Barry would incisively tap into for later Lee films. The Big Boss is one of Peter Thomas’ most grooving and exciting action scores.
Highlights include such jazzy signature Thomas moments as “Big Boss Theme,” “Hard Drugs,” the funky “The Amulet,” the ballad “China Love,” the Vegas-y “Malaparte Sinus,” “Blood & Dead Friends” (my favorite track here), “Revenge & Corruption” and “He [sic] Fist of Fury.” There are subtle hints of oriental inducements (“Big Boss Theme,” “Finding the Drugs,” “Big Boss and His Friends” and “Blood & Dead Friends”), but more in the manner of the Western-oriented Charlie Chan or Fu Manchu epics rather than Schifrin’s studied approach to 1973’s Enter the Dragon. Still, they are subtle and hardly worth disapproving of.
It’s not easy to tell here which of the tracks are original to the score and which are from Thomas’ music library, but I’m willing to bet the library music – which actually accounts for less than half of the soundtrack – probably includes the more electronic-oriented music, such as “Communication in Hyperspace,” “EKG,” the Batman-sounding “Moontown,” “Dream for Two” and “Bruce Lee Forever,” which astute listeners will recognize as “Beige Turtleneck” from the terrific Peter Thomas compilation of library tunes Moonflowers & Mini-Skirts (Marina, 1998).
Suffice it to say, that The Big Boss works well when it’s all put together and is an excellent addition to the pantheon of Peter Thomas Sound Orchester discs out there.