When the 90-minute pilot film of Kung Fu first aired on ABC in February 1972, western audiences hadn't seen anything quite like it. Martial arts movies from Hong Kong were still generally limited to downtown movie palaces or in Chinese-American neighborhoods. Enter the Dragon was still a year away, and Jackie Chan was just 17 years old. The weekly series that premiered the following October proved a hit with audiences looking for something different and the series hobbled along for three seasons. (Star David Carradine says he walked off the show while it was still on top, others say it was simply cancelled due to low ratings. In any case, it was later revived as a 1986 TV-movie, and then again in the 1990s as a syndicated series.)
What was new and exciting in 1972 plays awfully dated in 2004, and this Western / martial arts melodrama is mostly a curiosity. Nevertheless, Warners has done a fine job packaging Kung Fu: The Complete First Season on DVD, though with it a long-feared aspect ratio issue has finally reared its ugly head. More on that later.
The DVD includes the original 74-minute pilot film, also called Kung Fu, which set the template for the entire run of the series. In 1873, Kwai Chang Caine (Carradine), a Shaolin monk, wanders the American West and eventually finds work laying track for railroad baron Dillion (Barry Sullivan). At the campsite, the many Chinese workers are treated as something less than human, and Caine is viewed with suspicion by both whites and Asians.
As with every subsequent episode of the series, the main story thread is intercut with scenes from Caine's youth, when he was a young boy-monk in China. In these scenes, usually paralleling the main story, young Caine (Radames Pera) is trained by Master Kan (Philip Ahn), leader of the order, and especially Master Po (Keye Luke), a blind old man of enormous wisdom. (Spolier) In the pilot, Caine is forced to flee the country after killing the "royal nephew," whose guards had in fatally wounded Master Po.
Wanted for murder, Kung Fu is essentially The Fugitive set in the West and featuring a Chinese protagonist. In the series Caine, like David Janssen's Richard Kimble, usually befriends some sort of misfit / outcast like himself, helps set things right, and moves on before the law closes in. "Nine Lives," for instance, sees Caine befriending an Irishman (Albert Salmi) and together they dig a well for a crippled widow (Geraldine Brooks). In "Alethea," Caine is on trial for yet another murder, whose chief witness is a lonely, mandolin-playing orphan (10-year-old Jodie Foster, uncannily adult in her performance).
There's also usually someone hot on Caine's trail, or who recognizes him from wanted posters (the reward is "$10,000 alive, $5,000 dead"). This subplot is usually perfunctory at best, and of interest mainly for the presence of terrific character actors like Royal Dano and Charles Tyner.
Indeed, after Ahn and Luke, the best thing about Kung Fu is the parade of guest stars. Besides up-and-comers like Foster, Gary Busey, and Harrison Ford (who shows up in a second season show), the series is like a Who's Who of character actors, including Dean Jagger, Chief Dan George, Will Geer, John Anderson, Robert Wilke, John Doucette, Ken Tobey, William Schallert, and Mike Mazurki. Of course, Asian-American actors had a field day with Kung Fu. Virtually every Asian in Hollywood was on the program at least once, including Richard Loo, James Hong, Mako, Soon-Tek Oh, Victor Sen Yung, and Khigh Dhiegh in the first season alone. Carradine's father and most of his siblings also appeared on the show.
Caine himself is patterned more after Mr. Spock than Bruce Lee, who famously auditioned and didn't get the role. Though Carradine has an undeniable presence, his wooden Indian performance and clipped dialogue play almost like parody. When he does speak, it's almost exclusively "Confucius-Say"-type bits of wisdom: "Each moment is as a rung on an endless ladder. Each step we take is built on what has gone before." Some episodes, like "Alethea," almost flesh Caine into a human being, but he's never real in the way Ahn and Luke are in the flashback scenes.
Those scenes have a genuine warmth, despite their own occasional ridiculousness. Ahn and Luke, both Hollywood veterans with careers going back to the 1930s, are the best things about the show. The show's producers seemed to recognize this, considering the actors were brought back for the entire run of the series. Both are terrific, and the little lessons they teach young Caine resonate better than the mostly arch dialogue given to Carradine.
Conversely, the temple and other supposedly Chinese aspects of the show are an absurd jumble of cultures. Temple exteriors consist mainly of the Medieval castle set originally built for Camelot (1967) which, even redressed by famed production designer / director Eugene Lourie, is unconvincing. (During the opening titles, one can glimpse an electrical tower in the distant Hollywood Hills.) An exclusively Japanese shrine dominates some background shots. In the pilot Caine wears a polyester costume with a big bow tied at the tummy, making him look more like a circus acrobat than a Shaolin monk.
And by today's standards, the martial arts sequences only look silly. They have no vitality or authenticity, though the show's directors and DPs do what they can to liven them up with slow-motion and other optical trickery.
Video & Audio
Testing the waters, Warner Home Video has released Kung Fu: The Complete First Season in 16:9 anamorphic format, with an aspect ratio of about 1.77:1. While the pilot conceivably may have been shot for cropping with an eye on a theatrical release overseas, the series was definitely standard 4:3. On one hand, the series plays reasonably well cropped, with most compositions surviving the transition to widescreen unscathed. Faces aren't cropped at the eyebrows, etc., and one wonders if Warners spent time reconfiguring the image to get it to fit as well as it does (and whether the original producers / DPs / directors were consulted). The image is also clean and very sharp. Except for the titles, which have their fair share of negative dirt, the series looks almost brand-new. The pilot and first 15 shows are spread over three discs, which offer English, French, and Spanish subtitles, in addition to the 2.0 mono soundtrack.
That said, TV shows are no different from films in that they should be presented in their original format. What plays okay with Kung Fu would never work with most shows; a 16:9 I Love Lucy would look awful, for instance. As the medium slowly, slowly moves permanently into widescreen format, the debate over this issue will only heat up. One suspects Warner's decision to release Kung Fu this way is to gauge consumer reaction with a low-profile catalog title. Though more successful than this reviewer would have guessed, it can't be condoned, either.
The supplements begin with From Grasshopper to Caine: Creating Kung Fu, a 22-minute documentary presented, oddly enough, in 4:3 format. For an in-house documentary, the program is reasonably frank about the series' production hurdles, particularly star Carradine's eccentric behavior. (Executive Producer-Director Jerry Thorpe refers to Carradine's attitude as "somewhere between uncommunicative and belligerent.") Most of the surviving key talent is interviewed, including Carradine and Pera, as well as guest stars like John Saxon and Mako. The Tao of Caine: Production and Beyond is more of the same, 20 minutes of production stories from, among others, director John Badham, writer Howard Friedlander, series creator Ed Spielman, Warner Television VP Tom Kuhn, and Kung Fu fan and historian Herbie J. Pilato. Philip Ahn's brother shares an amusing story about their Korean (?) restaurant in Panorama City.
Kung Fu is a reasonably entertaining show, though hardly Great Television as its second documentary suggests. Beyond its cast, the program is notable mainly in its unusualness, rather than the quality of its writing. Warner Home Video has produced a handsome-looking if problematic DVD that puts the program in the best possible light.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.