“I seek not to know the answers,” soft-spoken Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine says at one point, “but to understand the questions.” And that, in a handful of words, captures what made the Western TV series Kung Fu (1972-1975) unique. Superficially, the novelty of the series involved juxtaposing Eastern martial arts with the traditional milieu of the American frontier—and, for that matter, giving Eastern martial arts some of their earliest mainstream exposure in the U.S. On a deeper level, the series was about spirituality, seen through the prism of a soulful young man struggling to reconcile his quest for inner peace with the realities of a violent world. That fascinating paradox infuses the Kung Fu pilot movie, which has aged beautifully. A strong piece of work introducing all of the clever stylistic flourishes of the series while remaining grounded by leading man David Carradine’s compelling performance, Kung Fu works well both as a stand-alone narrative and as a lead-in for the subsequent series.
As did episodes of the weekly show, Kung Fu cuts back and forth between “present-day” scenes of the American West and flashbacks to China, tracking Caine (Carradine) as he makes his way through the U.S. with only the humble rags he wears and the small pack he carries on his back. In flashbacks, we learn that when he was an orphaned child, Caine won entrance to a Shaolin temple by demonstrating endurance and humility. Trained in martial arts and spirituality, Caine left the temple but soon found trouble—after witnessing the pointless murder of a beloved teacher, Caine responded by killing the Chinese nobleman who was responsible. Fleeing China to avoid execution, Caine travelled to America, where his long-lost brother lives. The contrivance of the series is that while Caine searches for his brother, he happens upon a new group of troubled people every week, helping them with his combat skills and his transcendent worldview even as bounty hunters hired by the Chinese aristocracy try to capture or kill Caine.
In the pilot movie, Caine finds work on a railroad crew, eventually leading a rebellion against callous white overseers who endanger Chinese laborers in the name of quick profits. As directed by Jerry Thorpe, who later won an Emmy for directing one of the series’ weekly episodes, the Kung Fu pilot is visually impressive. The Western scenes are crowded and dusty, while the flashback scenes to the temple have a magical quality thanks to image-softening lens filters, moody lighting, and the selective use of slow motion. (The abundance of candles within the temple, as well as the gentle flute music on the soundtrack, adds to the soothing effect.) Playing Caine’s principal mentor, the blind Master Po, Keye Luke gives an indelible performance, making the script’s fanciful analogies and aphorisms sound like wisdom for the ages. Radames Pera is equally well cast as Young Caine, capturing the character’s determination and need for connection, and it’s a kick to see David Carradine’s real-life younger half-brother, Keith Carradine, playing Caine as a teenager.
Not every episode of the ensuing series works as well as this pilot movie, and some of the stylistic flourishes lost their potency through repetition. (Furthermore, the less said about the 1987 TV movie Kung Fu: The Next Generation and the 1993-1997 syndicated series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, both of which are set in the present with David Carradine playing a descendant of his original character, the better.) Nonetheless, the first Kung Fu movie set a high bar in terms of artistic, cultural, and thematic ambition. No surprise, then, that controversy emerged over its authorship—to this day, rumors persist that Bruce Lee generated the idea for the show, although what’s undisputed is merely that Lee was briefly considered for the leading role.
Kung Fu: GROOVY