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Treasure Of ‘70’s Film Footage Recovered: Includes Elvis Sponsored Karate Film

By Christopher Caile

Raw movie footage, including an unreleased karate documentary financed by Elvis Presley, sat in the back of an old pickup truck in Hollywood, California, for 14 years.

There in the dusty, open back of the truck inside of a garage sat boxes of reels – a thousand-plus hours of classic karate and other footage dating back to the mid-1970’s. There was the karate documentary, “The New Gladiators,” financed but never released by Elvis’s film production company. The film had been produced by George Waite, a well known karate practitioner, entrepreneur, and friend of Elvis’s. There was also 32 minutes of Elvis himself demonstrating karate, a pristine color print of one of Bruce Lee’s famous demonstrations, and other footage showing such music greats as David Crosby, Graham Nash and Steven Stills.

Don Warrener

“We still haven’t viewed all of it yet,” says Don Warrener, who rescued the footage and is now promoting it. “But what we have found so far is an unbelievable treasure trove. It just sat there all this time. Now the world can enjoy it.” Warrener is the founder of the video production and distribution company Rising Sun Productions, based in Los Angeles. He is also a well known Goju-ryu karate practitioner and author of several books on karate.

How the “New Gladiators” film and other footage was recovered is a story in itself.

A couple of years ago Warrener invited a friend of his, Joe Hyams, to his office. Hyams is well known for his promotion of karate in Hollywood, and is the author of the books, “Zen And The Martial Arts,” and “The Journey.” He brought with him George Waite and and another friend, Emil Farkas. Farkas was a martial arts author and TV and movie karate consultant. Both Waite and Hyams were students of the famous karate pioneer Ed Parker and had trained together for years.

George Waite

Warrener had learned about the unreleased documentary financed by Elvis Presley’s film company, TCB Productions, that had been produced by Waite. Stories about the film had circulated in Hollywood for years. When Waite arrived at his office with Hyams and Farkas, Warrender tried to talk to him about it, but Waite only said, “I don’t want to talk about the film.” Warrener then took them to lunch. “Warrener kept questioning me,” said Waite, but I said I didn’t want to talk about the film.

There were more meetings, and still Waite would only say, “I don’t want to talk about the film.”

It took about a year and one half and four meetings before Warrener got through. “Warrener gave me some videos he had produced for other martial artists. They were quite good and I was impressed,” said Waite. Waite then promised several times to bring the film in, but never did. At long last, Warrener took action.

At their next meeting Warrener relates, “I said, What are you doing now? Do you have time?” And soon Waite found himself bundled into Warrener’s car headed toward Waite’s home in WestHollywood.

Behind Waite’s house was a garage. They pushed away a vehicle that sat in front of the garage door and entered. “It was full of stuff,” said Warrener. “It looked like he never threw anything away. And in the corner was an old 1963 GMC pickup van, and in the back, boxes and boxes of film reels.”

Warrener started loading boxes of film reels into his car. Waite said, “You should take this, it’s a film of Elvis doing karate.” Then he said, “Here, take this too, it’s a film of Bruce Lee.” He also got the rough footage of a documentary karate film that Warrener has now released under its original name, “New Gladiators.”

The idea for this documentary karate film came to Waite in 1972 or 1973.

“I got the idea for the film when watching the end of a football game,” said Waite. “There were shots of the trash being picked up, and of the athletes dressing. There were more shots of the players traveling to the next game and of them getting ready. It reminded me of going to karate tournaments.” Following a group of karate competitors through their training and then their competition from tournament to tournament could make a great film, he reasoned.

The idea was to produce a documentary that would show real karate, with its discipline and the excitement of competition.

During this time Bruce Lee and Kung Fu had exploded into public attention. Lee had been featured in several TV shows and movies which culminated in the release of the movie classic, “Enter The Dragon,” in 1972. His and other Kung Fu movies featured flashy, movie-style techniques.

Ed Parker

Waite took his idea to his teacher, Ed Parker, the famous karate pioneer, founder of Kenpo karate who had become a Hollywood celebrity. “We had just finished a video commercial. Parker was advertising his Long Beach International Tournament. So, I showed Parker the concept. I was actually thinking about him for the film, but he picked up the phone and called Elvis,” said Waite.

Parker was a close friend of Elvis and his karate teacher. His association with Elvis also helped catapult Parker and his Kenpo Karate into national prominence.

Elvis had been introduced to karate in Germany while in the military. He started studying the art there. Back in the US, he continued training. In his book “The Journey,” which profiles Elvis’s Kenpo history, Hymas notes that in 1960 Elvis’s wrote his German karate instructor, Jurgen Seidel, about his desire to promote karate through film. Hymas notes that “a decade before Bruce Lee and David Carradine brought martial arts to the big and small screens, Elvis recognized that his use of karate brought a unique element to his onscreen presence.” A decade later Parker helped Elvis, who was then his student, incorporate karate movement into his stage presentations.

Elvis Presley with Ed Parker

Elvis loved the art, and constantly surrounded himself with martial artist friends. “Elvis had trained with Ed Parker regularly,” said Waite. “In fact he was really quite good. Elvis had one unusual quality: he did not feel physical pain and this made him part of the karate guys so to speak. In Elvis’s last days, only his karate friends were present and he really felt close to them. It was they he trusted.”

In 1974 Parker awarded Elvis an eighth degree black belt in Kenpo karate. Karate also bled over into how Elvis staged his concert presentations. He also demonstrated karate in many of his films. After receiving a number of threats on his life in 1972, Elvis intensified his training and hired one of Parker’s black belts as the first of his karate trained bodyguards.


Back to the story: Parker took Waite to Elvis’s house in Beverly Hills at 5 pm. Elvis was just getting up and was dressed in pajama bottoms, covered with a karate uniform top with a robe over it. They sat at the dining room table, and “I talked to him about my idea. I had a two page summary of the concept and some sketches,” said Waite.

“We also talked about how Elvis would participate and decided he could narrate and give a demonstration,” Waite said. Apparently Elvis had seen promotional TV shots Waite had made for Parker and asked “Can you make me look like that?”

Elvis liked the idea for the film, said Waite, but said he was going to Las Vegas for a show the next morning, and he would think it over.

The next day Waite received a call from Elvis. Elvis asked Waite and his girlfriend to come to Vegas as his guest. Waite took a commercial flight and Elvis sent his private plane to pick up Waite’s girlfriend, who was in another city.

That evening they attended Elvis’s show and sat on the far right end of the stage during his performance at the Las Vegas International Hilton. At the end of the show Elvis talked to the audience about his new karate film and then introduced Waite to the audience as the film’s producer. He also introduced other guests including Charlton Heston.

A private penthouse party followed with Bill Bixby, Charlton Heston, Mort Sahl and others. Elvis entertained with a short karate demonstration and then asked Waite to take over. “I had just finished a series of demonstrations with Parker,” said Waite, “so a demonstration was easy for me.”

“Elvis then took me aside,” says Waite, “and wrote out a check for $50,000. He told me to take the check downstairs and get it cashed so I could start the project immediately.” Waite estimates that the film was produced for the bare-bones cost of approximately $200,000. The participants were not paid, and many people volunteered their time. They decided to call the film “New Gladiators.”

The film follows a team of five American fighters who took on the challenge of the best karate fighters in the world. The film was shot over a year and one half period. Team members included Darnell Garcia, Tom Kelly, Ron Marchini, John Natividad, and Benny Urquidez,. Parker and Waite led the team.

Steve Sanders who fought in the Beverly Hills tournament

Ralph Alagrea fighting Cecil Peoples

Benny “The Jet” Uriquidex against John Natividad

They traveled first to England to fight with the best Great Britain had to offer, and then to Belgium to fight Europe’s best in late 1974. The film follows their return to the US to fight in tournaments in Long Beach and then Oakland. It ends with the final match between Roy Kurban (now a judge in Texas) and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. It is one of classic matches of all times in sport karate.

“There is some truly great action. The competitors were some of the most talented of our time,” says Waite. “In the 1970’s there was no safety equipment and competition was also rough and tumble. Fights were hard and there was a lot of contact.”

Belguim’s Gert Lemmens

In one film segment, America’s Ron Marchini gets his face split open with a strike from the Belguim team captian Geert Lemmens. In another segment US Champion Dan Anderson is seen receiving a front kick to the face, in slow motion, which levels him.

Ticky Donovan

The film also features other great martial artists of the era -- Ed Parker, Eric Lee, Mike Stone, Roy Kurban, Emil Farkas -- as well as international fighters, such as England’s Ticky Donovan, and many others.

George Waite produced the film and it was directed by Robert Hammer. They enlisted some of the best available talent at that time for this film. Participating were names like Allen Davio and John Hora, who went on to win an Academy Award for cinematography. And the music score was written by David Crosby and Graham Nash, who were part of the legendary quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Elvis contributed custom-made red, white and blue karate uniforms for the team. They were flown in from Japan.

In January or February of 1974, Waite relates, Elvis called from Memphis to get a film crew to cover him giving awards and a demo. “We didn’t have a crew available but flew to Graceland where Elvis handed me a 16 millimeter film of his performance. After looking at it hard, however, we decided it was not suitable for the film.”

“New Gladiators’ was never really finished,” relates Waite. The original 40 hours of film we shot had been edited down to four hours of rough takes and shown to Elvis, and later edited down again to two hours. “Bob Hammer and I spent nearly a year editing it down,” said Waite.

“Elvis thought that was good enough,” Waite continued. “He then wanted us to produce a racket ball film. In one day he flew us to Florida, Dallas and Back to Memphis to look at matches, but we didn’t pursue this further.”

In a 1977 interview with Inside Kung Fu magazine (quoted in Hymas book), Waite said that the film was something that Elvis had wanted to do for years – a film of him and karate and what it was all about, not a Bruce Lee like film with a lot of flash, high kicks and jumps.

Unfortunately, however, Elvis’s demo was never re-shot. It was difficult to coordinate with Elvis’s schedule, and he gained a lot of weight. Then he died not long afterward.

“After Elvis’s death, I just lost interest,” said Waite. “I had liked Elvis a lot and when he died I felt a great sense of personal loss. Elvis was also the heart and soul and driving force behind the project as he called us nearly every day to see how the progress was coming along. He really was deeply involved in the project since he loved martial arts and would do anything to promote it.”

As a result, the film was never finished. It sat in storage, and then Waite took the footage home and stored it in the back of his pickup truck where it sat for the next 14 years.

After Warrener recovered the film, it was edited, cleaned up and converted to video and DVD format and released. It’s 93 minutes long.

As to the 32 minutes of raw Elvis Presley footage of him demonstrating karate (which was never incorporated into “New Gladiators”), as well as a 16mm color print that contains 8.5 minutes of Bruce Lee demonstrating and free sparring at the 1967 Ed Parkers Long Beach International Tournament, Warrener is still looking into possible projects for their release.

The Elvis footage shows him demonstrating both technique and self-defense. He also shows his tolerance to pain. Red West is shown pushing against Elvis’s throat. Elvis is also shown absorbing punches to the gut. This Elvis footage also contains a presentation given to Bill Wallace by Elvis accompanied by Linda Thompson. There are also shots of Wallace demonstrating his kicking skills.

“There is still a lot of the discovered footage that remains to be viewed,” said Warrener. I think there is also footage of David Crosby, Graham Nash and Steven Stills. Also there is a possibility of Jimi Hendrix footage as well.”

“This continues to be a great adventure,” said Warrener.

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Acknowledgement:

FightingArts.com wants to thank both Don Warrener and George Waite for the interviews that contributed to this article. We also appreciate Warrener’s provision of the many photos that appear in this article.


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About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com. He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. Arriving in Japan (1961) he was introduced to Mas Oyama (by Donn Draeger) with whom he studied. Caile later became a US Branch Chief of Kyokushinkai. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido (under Sensei Roy Seunaka, founder of Wado-Ryu Aikido), diato-ryu (under Sensei Shogen Okakabayashi, founder of Hokukai Daito Ryu), kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He is also a student of Tai Chi under Dr. Shen whose father and teacher trained in China under the Yang family. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He has frequently returned to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Elvis Presley, Bruce Lee, New Gladiators, George Waite, Don Warrener, Joe Hyams, Emil Farkas, Ed Parker, Kenpo karate, Roy Kurban, Benny ?The Jet? Urquidez, Ron Marchini, Geert Lemmens, Eric Lee, Mike Stone


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