Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) wanders the late 19th Century American West, sometimes aimlessly... sometimes with purpose. An orphan born in China to mixed parentage of American and Chinese, he finds himself fitting into neither world perfectly.
This is one of the most singular series ever produced. A person of mixed lineage espousing peace while dealing with assorted adventures and trials involving martial arts, most prevalent being the fact that he has a price upon his head for a crime he is wanted for in China, by the Emperor no less.
Throughout the the shows run, both the scripts and Carradine stay within the noble parameters set out by the tenets of his faith and discipline as a Shaolin priest. Though he may fight in self defense or for the protection of others, he doesn't succumb to the temptation of trying to kill his opponents despite the fact that he clearly has the physical capacity to do so.
The stories follow two lines, his wanderings in the American West and the recollections of his years in China:
The first is populated by an extremely wide variety of persons, each either entering his life as a threat or he entering theirs as a possible teacher, confessor or protector.
The memories mostly revolve around his interaction with the priests who reared him (mainly Masters Po [Key Luke]and Kan [Phillip Ahn]). Many times they go as far back as his childhood (portrayed by Radames Pera). Nearly always, the memories pertain to an event or lesson that sheds light on his perception of the adventure on hand.
The fact that Caine is presented with the full human experience - with multiple strengths, weaknesses, influences and what I find exceptionally important, the ability to reassess and alter his behavior - makes the show a rich offering. His teachings, parables and demonstrative actions would carry far less import if he did as most heroes are shown. As with most great characters it is hard to ignore Shakespeare's examples... and as we well know, though many might try to emulate or simply copy the Great Bard, few ever attain his depth of characterization. Because Carradine's performance rings true, making Caine believable, it is often easy to forget he is indeed acting.
Since his embodiment of the lead role is of the utmost quality, when coupled with such a full persona it lends credence to the ethic of the tales without being compromised by whatever violence occurs. Thus the stories and messages stay with you.
As is the general rule with classic television with involved plots, we are served numerous fine actors as guest stars. Perhaps my personal favorites are: John Saxon in the very first episode after the pilot (King of the Mountain) and Morgan Woodward late in season two in The Nature of Evil. Still there are dozens of others very good guest turns which upon reflection I might rate as high.
The only thing that keeps me from rating Kung Fu as perfect is the fact the the third season drifted from the lofty level of quality uniformly presented in the first two.
Have you ever heard of the book "Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarden"? Well, everything I needed to know I learned watching Kung Fu, and I think Quintin Tarrentino would agree with me. Besides being a kick a@@ action show it also imparted a lot of great eastern philosophy. David Carradien was excellent as Caine, the half breed wandering the American fronteer, confronting racism and injustice at every turn. First with words and then, if need with his hands and feet. This is a true television clasic. If you are to young to remember this gem, or you want to relive those glory days, all three seasons are on DVD.
It's a shame that the martial arts craze that this show created (in conjunction with the ascendant popularity of Bruce Lee in the early 1970s), in conjunction with the somewhat cheesy '90s spinoff, has served to somewhat obscure what a gem it truly was.
It's heartbreaking to think that a lot of people who haven't seen the show lump it in as old, campy action television, like "The A-Team" or "Charlie's Angels" or something like that. The fact is, any given hour-long episode of "Kung Fu" probably contained about 45 to 60 seconds of actual action--if not less. The fact is, David Carradine was as good a leading man as any TV drama has ever had. And the fact is, far from being a cheap exploitation of martial arts and Eastern philosophy, "Kung Fu" was created and written in true reverance to those concepts. Meticulous research was conducted, and the lessons that Masters Kan and Po (wonderfully rendered by Philip Ahn and Keye Luke, respectively) teach Caine, and that Caine in turn teaches those he encounters, are routed in authentic Shaolin philosophy.
Nor was the show cheesily made. It involved lush cinematography by televisual standards and innovative use of devices such as forced perspective and slow motion (this was the first show or movie to use different gradations of speed within a single take--the shot would move at normal speed until Caine made contact with an elbow or a fist, and then suddenly switch to delicate, poetic slow motion).
Caine was a true archetype of television--a complete reversal of basically every American screen hero that went before. Not just peaceful--but passive and serene. As Caine described it--"Kung Fu" was an "anti-revenge television show"--an amazing concept when you think about it.
Remember, the American public was not even acquainted with the phrase "kung fu" before this show. Zen Buddhism was gaining popularity in the late '60s and early '70s, but no one had ever heard of Shaolin monks. The creators of this show took a big risk on an untested concept and came up with TV gold.
chinese kung-fu monk in the west, wanted dead or alive for murder (in self-defense), drama and action, character constantly reminesces about his teachings at the temple that apply to the situation at hand
I would occasionally get frustrated at his mild fighting techniques or passivity all together, but believe that this was very realistic in the portrayal of the character. If you are used to Van Damm or Seagal, than this show won't cut it! This is more drama than action to these greats. As far as TV goes however, it was even better than Star Trek's Captain Kirk fight scenes. Some philoshical ideas come up on each episode. They are Chinese (at least portrayed as such (Budhist?)), but I felt could be applied to a Christian American person as well. I don't think Carradine played a nicer character in his whole career! (He is a veteran actor, so my limited knowledge likely is wrong. See IMDb)
I absolutely love Kung Fu. Davd Carradines performance is great, the flashback sequences have that sort of "words to live by" quality thats missing from many shows today, and it was a show about kung fu that wasnt all ninjas coming out of nowhere to fight. it had well thought out plots and story lines, and was a very interesting adaptaion of the wild west (probably not the most factual... but definitley an entertaining one.) This is one of the few non-comedy shows i watch because its a good show, not because its laughably stupid. Its unfortunate this show isnt on tv, but with 3 seasons on DVD, who can complain?
This show was very inspiring as it tackled moral issues on a deep level. The shows is about Kane who travels to America in search of his half-brother. Kane's ablities learned at the temple where he was taught kung fu is his only defense in world where is being hunted for the murder of a royalty back in his homeland.
The show later had a spinoff called Kung Fu: The Legend Continues where Kane stars as a father who was seperated from his son and later re-unites with him.
Since Kung Fu aired and ended way before I was born, I never even heard of it until I started to research David Carradine (Due to his incredible acting in Kill Bill). Luckily for me it was also just released on DVD and I picked it up. I was shocked at how cool it was. It presents great morals through Carradine's character Caine, but he never uses a weapon. It may sound wimpy but it's not. There is alot of fighting because although Caine is all about peace, American cowboy rejects are all about guns and a-brawlin'. Therefore Caine must use his self defence skills learned as a monk to defeat the immoral Old-Western Americans, while standing up for the good ones, all while dealing with a hefty price on his head. In order to thwart the sensors who believed the show was going to be too violent, many fighting sequences are shown in slow motion. This gives an excellent theatrical effect. This show is fantastic. If you really get into it, you'll find yourself trying to act like Caine. So pick this up and get with the past.