By: Herbie J. Pilato
The Kung Fu Book of Caine
The Complete Guide to TV's First Mystical Eastern Western
By Herbie J. Pilato
(Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1993, 206 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Even with the astronomical proliferation of martial arts TV and film during the past fifty years, it is entirely possible that no single example is as well-known worldwide as Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. The original series, which aired a movie-length pilot and sixty-two fifty-minute episodes over three seasons from October 1972 to April 1975, not only introduced Chinese kung fu to the general Western audience, it also brought with it a healthy dose of Taoist and Buddhist wisdom, also unfamiliar to Westerners. Most people regard Kung Fu as a martial arts program, but really it is a family drama. Kwai Chang comes to America to search for family, and all of the sequels feature his literal offspring and those who came after them. Even today there is an addition, and even if its woman hero bears no familial relationship to Kwai Chang, she is one of his spiritual successors. In addition, many, if not most, of the programs involve families of one sort or another in need of succor or healing.
To my knowledge, The Kung Fu Book of Caine was the first book devoted to the show, and though there might be others, I am not aware of them. But this one is enough, covering almost every aspect of the show’s inception, development, production, and aftermath that it could at the time of its publication.
The book opens, appropriately enough, with a foreword by Kwai Chang Caine himself: David Carradine. “Way back in the prehistoric seventies…a bunch of us started shooting a movie for TV called Kung Fu,” he writes. “We had no idea what it would lead to; we just thought it was a really great script.”
The foreword was written while Kung Fu, The Legend Continues was in production, and it’s a straightforward, well-written piece on how the original series exploded, how Carradine dealt with that, and how he developed the character of Kwai Chang. Along the way, he reveals a few interesting factoids regarding the several motifs that ran continuously through the series. The primary one was fidelity to the Taoist and Buddhist precepts that molded Kwai Chang’s personality, but the others are less philosophical.
For example, at the beginning of the series, Carradine started with a shaved head, and from then on, he did not cut his hair at all until the final episode, when he shaved it again. Thus, he says, you can roughly gauge an episode’s placement in the series by the length of his hair. Another example is that, upon hearing of Bruce Lee’s death, he changed the color of his shirt from brown to saffron to mark that sad event. He also talks about the flutes. The many flutes. In fact, Carradine continued to make and play flutes throughout the rest of the life.
After a short preface by the author, the book opens with “Part One: The Making of Kung Fu.” This section lays out the show’s premise and the nature of Kwai Chang Caine’s character. “One thing I figured out for myself,” Carradine is quoted as saying, “was that the story was not about truth, it was about love.” But it also was about love in conflict with all the negative qualities of human character: greed, violence, hatred, intolerance, arrogance, indifference…the list seems never-ending, and humans are bound to invent more. Those conflicts gave viewers at least one, and usually two, fight scenes in which Caine was compelled to use his skills. I’ve written elsewhere about Carradine’s personal kung fu skills, which were obviously nil in the pilot but which visibly improved during the course of the series. (HERE)
Many elements, of course, contributed to the show’s success, and Pilato covers them ably. Throughout are quotes by the people, aside from Carradine, who made the show possible: the writers, directors, producers, and other actors, giving real personality to the show’s development. The story begins with Ed Spielman, who, as a teenager, was enchanted with Japan samurai movies. He studied martial arts while he was in college, and it was then that he first learned about kung fu. Years later, while attempting to write a comedy script with his friend, Howard Friedlander, the two found the idea morphing into an idea for a kung fu movie. The original setting was to be China, with an American partnering up with a Shaolin monk, but Friedlander suggested they flip it around and make an Eastern Western, with the monk coming to the American Wild West.
They wrote the script, which came to the attention of Jerry Thorpe, who was looking for a unique project to produce and direct. The final element was to give the character of Kwai Chang a reason for his wanderings, and so his journey became a search for family, which was symbolic of his search for self-identity. The role Bruce Lee played in the project as it developed is given some space, and certainly there always will be contention about this aspect of the show.
A chapter on the styles, practices, and tenets of Shaolin kung fu leads to one on the character of Kwai Chang. His unfamiliarity with his new American surroundings allows the writers to define those surroundings in nontraditional, often critical ways to point out social, political, and cultural ills. This sets up natural situational conflicts that are apt fodder for morality plays on an incredible variety of topics, such as slavery, greed, cruelty, intolerance, corruption, and even mental illness, among many others.
The use of different actors to portray Kwai Chang at earlier stages of his life is discussed, as is the development of the character over the course of his “life.” Carradine, in particular, has a number of things to say about how he approached the character. The author also delves into the choice of Carradine, a non-Asian, to play an Asian character and how the Asian-American acting community reacted. In general, the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists felt that Carradine was an artistically good fit for the role, and even more, the group appreciated the boost the show gave to the careers of the numerous Asian-American who populated the cast of masters and other supporting characters. Some of these folks are the subject of the next chapter. Pilato does not go into the accusations of yellow-face and other racial and gender biases that have dogged the show since it aired.
A chapter on technical matters follows. The first element it looks at is the sets for the Shaolin temple, which were originally constructed for the 1967 film, Camelot, and redone for the 1973 remake of Lost Horizon before being dressed up once more, this time in Shaolin clothing, for Kung Fu. Even film sets have to play different roles. Located in Burbank, the set was the largest in America at the time. Pilato writes about the show’s props next, including Caine’s flutes, then he moves on to a discussion of the series’ film techniques and visual effects. Some of these, such as specific camera techniques, were groundbreaking and added significantly to the visual language of film and video.
Makeup effects comes next, and this was an important element given the number of younger actors who had to appear to be old and how many bald heads showed up in each episode. Radamas Pera, the young Caine, describes the dilemma of either being the only bald kid in school or opting for hours of sitting in painstaking makeup sessions. Preferring a head of hair, he did the latter, and though he hated the sessions, he had a liking for makeup artist Frank Westmore, of the famed Westmore family of movie makeup artists. Actor James Hong, whose long and prolific career spans numerous genres, also speaks highly of Westmore. The contact lenses that Key Luke wore to make him look blind as Master Po also get a little space.
Then, over the next hundred pages, the author catalogs the series, beginning with the pilot and working his way through to the end. Each entry lists the episode number and title, followed by the names of the writers, director, and principal guest stars. After that is a two- or three-paragraph synopsis and a paragraph of interesting factoids about the episode or its cast. Black-and-white stills from the show are randomly scattered throughout.
The next chapter, titled, “The Return of Caine,” takes a look Caine’s reappearances during the two decades between the end of the show in 1975 and the publication of this book. They begin with a cameo in the Kenny Rogers vehicle, Gambler Four: Luck of the Draw and an appearance in a parody on Saturday Night Live. Carradine says that those were tests to see if he could still play the character.
Apparently he was convinced, because he initiated the production of Kung Fu: The Movie (1986), featuring a realistically older Kwai Chang. This was followed the next year by the little-remembered, Kung Fu: The Next Generation, with David Darlow as Kwai Chang’s grandson, also named Kwai Chang Caine, and Brandon Lee as his budding delinquent son, Johnny Caine. This TV pilot, though largely forgotten now, was a decent attempt to further the Kung Fu series in a contemporary urban setting.
Pilato devotes an entire chapter to Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, in which Carradine once again takes the helm as…wait for it: The original Kwai Chang Caine’s grandson—though not, of course, the same grandson as in The Next Generation. And he can’t even be a brother grandson since Carradine’s new Caine is also named Kwai Chang. Like his alter ego, who apparently exists in another timeline, he also has a son, though this one’s name is Peter. A police detective, Peter is different in every way from Johnny Caine except in their hot-headed recklessness. The setting, though, is still contemporary urban. Also in an urban setting is the 2021 adaptation, Kung Fu, starring Olivia Liang, which has been renewed for two more seasons. So, apparently, the Kung Fu legend does continue.
The last section of the book is a series of appendices, beginning with selected bios of principal cast members and production people. These are short and usually to the point, but one element lacking is the martial arts background of David Chow, the original kung fu advisor for the series. Chow does say in the section devoted to his involvement that he was simply in the right place at the right time. In other words, he knew some kung fu and he also knew somebody who was looking for someone who knew some kung fu. But he gives no clues to his training and who he learned from, although his bio reveals that he was a very interesting and humane fellow whose life outside of Kung Fu was equally remarkable.
The next appendix is a list of Emmy nominations and awards, followed by one showing a sample shooting schedule for the show: specifically December 11, 1973. The book ends with a good index.
Realism in fight scenes on TV and in film has improved exponentially over the years since Kung Fu first hit the screen, and it’s easy to look at the ones on Kung Fu with a jaundiced eye. But then, consider the alternatives available at the time: Japanese samurai films, fewer than a handful of Bruce Lee films, and dozen upon dozens of turgid Hong Kong chopsocky films, none of which had yet appeared on American TV. With those as a backdrop, Kung Fu presented an open atmosphere and dramatic—and often spiritual—learning experiences because, obviously, the fight, while sometimes necessary, isn’t the important thing. The people are. If you’re not fighting for someone or some humane principal, you’re just fostering brutality. That is the real lesson of Kwai Chang Caine’s journey to the West and why that lesson will remain long after the dust of combat has settled.
The Kung Fu Book of Caine is recommended for those interested in the general history of the martial arts in media representation and in the development of this series in particular.