Escrima owes its first global exposure to the late Bruce Lee. Escrima was featured in two of Lee’s film—Enter the Dragon (released in1973) and Game of Death, the kung fu superstar’s last and unfinished movie (released in 1978 with additional scenes spliced with the original footages).
In Enter the Dragon, Lee demonstrated his prowess in double sticks while in Game of Death, his protégé, Filipino-American martial artist Dan Inosanto showcased the espada y daga (sword and dagger), doble baston (double sticks) and solo baston (single stick) skills of escrima.
It was Inosanto who introduced Lee to the Filipino martial arts (FMA). In his classic book The Filipino Martial Arts (1980), Inosanto recalled of how Lee quickly absorbed the concepts of escrima even though he had no prior training in it, “Bruce could perform the Filipino martial arts naturally, because he had already reached that level on his own,” he noted.
Being Lee’s protégé as well as a top escrima practitioner in the United States, the FMA through Inosanto became closely associated with jeet kune do, the martial art that Lee founded. To determine the degree of Lee’s exposure to the FMA and whether it profoundly affected the development of jeet kune do, it is best to look for answers in Inosanto’s writings.
In an earlier book, Jeet Kune Do: The Art and Philosophy of Bruce Lee (1976), Inosanto wrote of the nature of Lee’s introduction to escrima, it reads, “As early as 1964 at the first internationals [Long Beach International Karate Championships], I had introduced Bruce to the art of Escrima. At that time, however, he took a pretty dim view of it. Then later when I visited him in Hong Kong, he told me what he liked and what he didn’t like about Escrima. I think what changed his mind was the emphasis on the empty hands and seeing through the movies that it had a lot of functional value. And I was really flabbergasted when he grabbed the sticks one day and said, ‘OK, now I would show you what I would do.’ I watched him closely, and with no previous background or training he ad libbed a style of Escrima that he never could have known even existed. Shocked, I yelled out, ‘Hey, that’s Largo Mano.’ Bruce said, ‘I don’t know what you call it, but this is my method.”
Based on the above passage, Inosanto is implying that through his works in films, Lee first appreciated the FMA’s cinematic potentials before its functional combative value. Such an outcome of Lee’s scrutiny of the FMA through the medium of cinema can be further understood by reading Inosanto’s commentaries on his mentor’s movies in the book Absorb What is Useful (1982).
On Enter the Dragon, he wrote, “The combative lessons here [that Lee is trying to convey to the public]would be: know all combative ranges; be able to pick up anything (snake, staff, double sticks, nunchaku); and be able to use it.” On Game of Death, he has this to say: “Bruce’s original concept for the Game of Death was to educate the film public by making people aware that there are many different types of martial arts and that each martial art has a value in a certain environment. That’s why he used me for the Filipino martial arts (weapons); he used a Korean guy to show what Hapkido is about; and he wanted to use Taky Kimura as a Praying Mantis/Wing Chun stylist to show the close-quarter system of trapping. Finally, he chose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to illustrate the unknown style, to show how you must adapt to someone who has a 1 +-foot reach on you.”
Being an intimate friend and student of Lee, Inosanto is in the position to observe up close his mentor’s evolution as a martial artist. And based on these observations, one can only surmise on the degree of influence Lee absorbed from the FMA. In a letter to Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione dated March 6, 1983, Inosanto wrote, “As a whole, his hand techniques resembled Western boxing, Wing Chun gung fu, Filipino kali, Thai boxing and Indonesian pencak silat, which are totally contrary to Bob Wall’s and Chuck Norris’s style of karate.” Notice that the use of the word “resembled” implies that the aforementioned is but Inosanto’s personal ruminations and not Lee’s personal description of his repertoire of hand techniques.
After Lee’s death, Inosanto decided to continue teaching jeet kune do in addition to the FMA. Through the years, some people have criticized him, saying that his brand of jeet kune do has deviated from Lee’s original teachings. The confusion could be attributed to the similarities of concepts between jeet kune do and the FMA as well as Inosanto’s approach to teaching, “Therefore the curriculum at the Filipino Kali Academy can be described as Wing Chun, Escrima, Jeet Kune Do, etc. – it makes no difference. But I have to admit that the Filipino art, in particular, seems to be a natural vehicle for the maturation of JKD,” he wrote in Jeet Kune Do: The Art and Philosophy of Bruce Lee.
Inosanto stands firm though that he never misrepresented the FMA by calling it jeet kune do, “I never ever said that kali is jeet kune do,” he said in a 1990 Blackbelt Magazine interview by Jose Emiliano Alzona.
Personally, I would like to hypothesize that respect for weapons is the highest lesson that Lee absorbed from escrima for he himself once wrote, “You are at a disadvantage against someone with a weapon, so keep away from him.”