All life is precious, nor can any be replaced.”
~ MASTER CHEN MING KAN
February 22nd, 1972: During the preceding week, 60,000,000 Americans had tuned in to watch live as President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China, opening relations with a country that had been shunned and ignored for a generation. The VW Beetle eclipsed the Model T Ford as the most popular automobile in history. Nilsson’s power ballad Without You dominated the charts, and would finish 1972 as the #4 song of the year. Two future greats in the world of sports were born, Jerome Bettis and Michael Chang, as well as Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day. Cabaret and Pocket Money were packing them into theaters, and the ABC Television Network, already known for pushing the edges of entertainment with innovative shows from Monday Night Football to Schoolhouse Rock!, opted to take a chance on a Zen western, and aired the 90-minute television movie Kung Fu. At a time when the western series, a staple of 60s television, was in its death throes, edgy, youth-oriented ABC gave us a western about a man who carried no weapons and tried to bring peace and harmony to everyone he encountered. Of course, the show took its plot from the fact that some folks are more ready to embrace peace than others. It would go on to be one of the most popular television series of the early 1970s, receiving widespread critical acclaim and commercial success upon its release. So, let’s get into the pilot and begin the process of working out what made it such a success.
WARNING: It is my assumption as I write this 44 years after the series has ended and most of the stars have died that everyone who wants to see this has seen it, so I’m spoiling everything!
The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon
The pilot opened, as did every episode, with a long view of a completely barren desert, lifeless except for a man in rough-spun clothing walking out of the blazing sun. The camera moves in in zooms and steps until we see that it is Kwai Chang Caine, as portrayed by David Carradine. During the drawn-out scenes of him walking, meant quite effectively to imply a long time spent crossing the desert, we are shown the names of cast and crew.
The major stars who will drive the plot are Barry Sullivan, Albert Salmi, Wayne Maunder, and Benson Fong. Appearing for the first time, as they will in every episode, are Philip Ahn as Master Kan, Keye Luke as Master Po, and Radames Pera as the child Kwai Chang. The story is written by Ed Spielman and directed by Jerry Thorpe. Business concluded and commercials delivered, we open on Scene 1.
During Caine’s walk across the desert, flashback scenes are interwoven depicting young Caine’s wait with a dozen or more other young boys outside the Shaolin Temple, hoping to be admitted as a student. In twos and threes, the boys who play games or seek shelter from the weather are sent home until four are left. These four are brought into the temple, seated at a long table before Master Kan, and given cups of tea. When Kan lifts his cup, all the boys except Caine take theirs and drink. The master who brought them in tells them, “Please go home.” Caine rises with the rest of them, but is told that he may stay.
“Why did you not drink?” Kan asks.
“After you, venerable sir.”
Kan asks about Caine’s family, and is told that all are dead. He points out that no one of other than full Chinese birth has ever been accepted to the Shaolin Temple. As young Caine looks down, devastated, Kan ads, “But there is a first time for everything.” He produces a pebble, and tells Caine to snatch it from his hand. Caine tries, but fails. Kan tells him that when he can take the pebble from his hand, it will be time for him to leave.
Caine then walks into a ramshackle town made mostly of planks, and enters Bub’s Saloon, a busy, noisy place. He asks for water, is served without incident, and sprinkles some powdered herbs into it. As he begins to drink, a loud, bullying type at a card table loudly announces that he doesn’t like Chinamen coming into a white man’s bar, and Caine smells a little yellow to him. He gets up to manhandle Caine out the door, but Caine makes him look like a fool in front of his friends. Angered now, he attacks in earnest, first with a chair, then with a knife. Caine has no problem defending himself, and the guy is smart enough to quit before he is seriously injured. Caine, having established his badassery credentials, walks slowly to the door.
Caine steps into the street where he is met by Han Fei (Benson Fong), a worker for the nearby railroad, who invites him to come along and work for them. Mr. McKay (Wayne Maunder), the railroad’s engineer, joins them, and they board a wagon to ride to the camp.
In the first of what would become the show’s signature flashbacks, we see young Caine having his head shaved, and he begins sweeping in a series of scenes encompassing fall and winter as Master Kan watches. Back in the present, Caine and the others arrive at camp. McKay visits the crew boss, Mr. Dillon (Barry Sullivan) to inform him that the rock formation they are approaching is a “balsa” or “balsan” formation, which is likely to contain pockets of natural gas, and should be avoided. If the samples he took come back positive, they will have to survey a route around it, a process that will take two to three months. Dillon isn’t interested in this, as it will cost the railroad a ton of money, and reflect poorly on his own performance. Han Fei introduces Caine to the line foreman, a nasty piece of work named Raif (Albert Salmi) who verifies that Caine can speak English and warns him to behave himself and they’ll get along fine.
Caine is now a member of a work crew cleaning shale from between the tracks. Various conversations are in progress, but Caine isn’t joining in. Hsaing (James Hong) asks why he doesn’t speak.
“A man without words is a man without brains.”
“If one’s words are not better than silence, one should keep silent.”
A supply wagon arrives and the crew breaks to unload it. A crate starts to fall, and Caine reaches up to catch it. As he does, his sleeves fall back, exposing the dragon and tiger brands on his forearms that mark him as a Shaolin priest. Whispers fly through the crowd, and he turns to find everyone bowing to him.
We flash back to young Caine sweeping in the temple as he is approached by Master Po (Keye Luke). Surprised to see that he is blind, Caine surmises that to live in darkness must be the worst of all fates.
“Fear is the only darkness,” Po tells him. He orders Caine to strike him with his broom. Reluctant at first, young Caine quickly becomes frustrated and begins to attack in earnest. He is never able to score a hit on the elderly man.
“Never assume that because a man has no eyes, that he cannot see,” Po admonishes. “Close your eyes. What do you hear?”
“I hear the water. I hear the birds.”
“Do you hear your own heartbeat?”
“Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?”
Startled, Caine looks to find the insect that Po told him was there.
“Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”
“Young man, how is it that you do not?”
Po will call Caine “Grasshopper” throughout the series, and this is the origin of the nickname.
The Chinese watch Caine work, and speculate on what a Shaolin priest might be doing on an American railroad gang. In another flashback, young Caine is working at his menial chores around the temple when Master Kan stops to ask him how long he has been there.
“A very long time, Sir.”
After a long pause, Caine replies, “Not very long.”
Kan nods approvingly, and says, “Soon you will learn.”
In another flashback, young Caine watches a shuriken demonstration as Kan’s voice-over explains the difference between inner and outer strength.
“The outer is obvious. It fades with age, and succumbs to illness. The inner strength, or chi, is also possessed by everyone, but it is much harder to develop. Inner strength lasts through every heat and every cold, through old age and beyond.”
In this scene also, he begins learning to walk on rice paper, that his steps may not be heard.
Caine and Han Fei, over their meager fare in the workers’ tent, discuss destiny vs. free will. They agree that, while they seem opposites, both are true. Hsiang comes in, sits down between them, and begins to complain about how the railroad is starving and freezing their countrymen. The wind blows the candle out, triggering another flashback.
Young Caine is being taught that development of the mind can be achieved only when the body has been disciplined, this being the true purpose of kung fu. Master Kan explains the five sacred animals.
“From the white crane we learn grace and self-control. The snake teaches suppleness and rhythmic endurance. The praying mantis teaches us speed and patience. From the tiger we learn tenacity and power. And from the dragon we learn to ride the wind. All creatures, the low and the high, are one with nature. If we have the wisdom to learn, all may teach us their wisdom. When we perceive the ways of nature, we remove conflict within ourselves and discover a harmony of body and mind in accord with the flow of the universe.”
Back in the camp, some of the workers have heard of a renegade priest with a price on his head for murder. They believe that Caine is that priest, and begin to speculate about what it would take to collect the reward. One of them sneaks off to tell Dillon and Raif . . . something.
McKay witnesses blasting going on, and confronts Dillon, who denies having received McKay’s report. McKay says that he has more copies, and that one is going to the home office in San Francisco, and another to the adjutant general in Washington before he rides off in a huff. There is a wordless exchange between Dillon and Raif, who rides off after him.
As Caine drives spikes, we see a flashback to a teenage Caine (an uncredited Keith Carradine) sparring with Master Po with staves. They are evenly matched, and enjoying themselves. Caine then asks Master Teh (John Leoning) what is the best way to deal with force.
“As we value peace and quiet above all else, there is a simple and preferred method. Run Away.”
Raif and a henchman return to camp with McKay’s body in the back of a buckboard.
“Accident,” Raif says.
“Bury him,” Dillon orders.
They do so, and as Caine attends the grave, Raif comes over to tell him that Caine bothers him. He has the feeling that Caine thinks he’s better than the others. He threatens to teach Caine that he can bleed like the others, but as he levels his shotgun, the mountain erupts in a series of explosions.
It is night. The workers are waiting for daylight so they can begin the task of digging out the bodies. Two factions argue, one led by Han Fei, the other by Hsaing. Han Fei wants to continue the status quo while Hsaing wants to rebel against the bosses and do them harm. Caine, of course, counsels them to avoid violence, but Hsaing has been pushed too far. He’s going to confront them right now. As he leads some of the more vocal protestors toward Dillon’s office, he is gunned down by one of the henchmen. Caine sends the others back to their tent, saying, “Let one death be enough.”
Dillon was out with his guards because he was on his way to arrest Caine to hold for the agent of the Chinese Legation who is coming to collect him.
They bring Caine into the supply tent and hog-tie him to the tent post. Raif leaves orders that no one is to come in here. We flash back to the temple, where an adult Caine walks the rice paper with ease, leaving not a blemish on its surface. He then tries to sneak up on Master Po, who calls him by name. They have a discussion about the harmony of life, and Po admits to harboring one small ambition, to visit the Forbidden City five years hence.
Back in the present day, a henchman looks in to check on Caine only to find a pile of rope at the base of the tent post. Dillon says if he headed back to town, they’ll pick him up on the road. If not, then give him four days, then go out and pick up what’s left of him, implying that he has no food or water, and the harsh country will kill him by then. As they talk, we see Caine finding edible plants out in the wilderness.
In another flashback, Master Kan approaches Caine at his meditation and wordlessly holds out a pebble. Caine stands and faces him, and with a lightning motion, snatches it away.
“Time for you to leave. Remember always that a wise man walks with his head bowed, humble like the dust.”
A gate is opened, giving access to a corridor lined with masters, each holding out his bare forearm, branded with a tiger or a dragon. Caine bows to them, and they pass out on both sides, leaving him to face his last test.
“Goodbye, my master,” he says to Po.
“What do you hear?” Po asks.
“I hear the grasshopper.”
Po smiles and joins the others. Caine moves into a room with an exit blocked by a cast iron urn that looks to weigh about 300 pounds. Filled with burning charcoal, it features raised tiger and dragon carvings on both sides, glowing red hot. To leave the temple, Caine must lift this between his forearms and move it aside, thereby branding himself as a priest of the Shaolin Order. He does this, staggers outside, and falls face-down in the snow.
Caine digs a pit to shelter in, presumably during the heat of the day. In a startling continuity gaffe, he uses a shovel that was nowhere to be seen as he was making his way through the wilderness following his escape, and covers it with a tarpaulin, likewise nowhere in evidence during his escape. I’m willing to wink at this and enjoy the larger story, but shame on you!
A couple of henchmen arrive in camp with two wagons full of dynamite. Raif goes to tell Dillon that it’s arrived, and is told that they’ll start blasting again in the morning. Outside, a triangle is being rung to announce the evening meal, and as the workers are lining up, all the dynamite explodes. Raif tells Dillon that he’ll take two of his best men and go put a stop to this once and for all.
Raif and his men discover Caine’s hiding pit. They quietly surround it and empty their guns into it. Caine then leaps down onto them from an outcropping above. The next scene is of their riderless horses returning to camp. Han Fei smiles knowingly.
As neither Raif nor his two accomplices are ever seen again, we have to assume that Caine killed them. This is a far cry from the peaceful monk we came to know as the series progressed, and it would have been interesting to have been privy to the conversations that must have taken place concerning his willingness to take lives with his skills.
Dillon shouts into the landscape from the edge of camp, having been told that Caine will be able to hear him. He says that he wants to meet with Caine face-to-face, and he wants it to happen in the daylight while he stands a chance. If Caine doesn’t come in by nightfall, his henchmen will nail Han Fei to a railroad tie.
Caine is once again bound to the tent pole, this time with chains. Han Fei is tied on the ground beside him. Caine tells Dillon that he can let the old man go now that he has come in. Dillon says that Han Fei is his insurance, and tells his henchmen to kill him if Caine makes a move. He returns to his office and reads a telegram informing him that a Chinese agent is coming to collect Caine.
We move into another flashback, this time of adult Caine meeting Master Po in the Forbidden City. Po recognizes his “favorite pupil” by his footsteps, and as the two joyfully embrace in the street and begin catching up on old times, a procession approaches, uniformed guards pushing people off the street while shouting, “Make way for the Royal Nephew!” Po doesn’t move fast enough, and is pushed, but somehow makes the guard fall. Po apologizes. One of the guards strikes him in the face, a punishment he accepts without resistance, but at a nod from the Royal Nephew, the man seizes Po by the lapel of his robe. Po twists his arm, forcing him to the ground, saying, “Surely it isn’t necessary to punish an old blind man more than once.” More guards attack, but Po holds his own against three or four of them.
Back in the tent, the guards get careless as they’re playing cards. Han Fei tries to take advantage of their inattention and roll out under the side of the tent, but they spot him and shoot him, the shot becoming part of the flashback scene in which the Royal Nephew shoots Po. Caine grimaces in grief as the guards gather around to check Han Fei’s condition. Freed from the threat to Han Fei’s safety, he uproots the tent post and lays out all three guards, using the stout 4×4 as a weapon before freeing himself and coming to Han Fei’s aid. He cradles the dying old man as the flashback returns us to the street where he cradles the dying Po. As the nephew, hiding behind his palanquin, reloads his single-shot pistol, Caine, gripped by grief and rage, seizes one of the guards’ lances and throws it through the palanquin, killing the emperor’s nephew. Po tells him that there will be a price on his head, nowhere to hide. He must flee.
“If I had a son,” Po tells him, “all that I could give him is in this pouch. Please, take it.”
With these words, Po gives Caine the messenger bag-sized duffel that he will carry throughout the series, which is purported to contain everything he owns besides his blanket roll and the clothes he is wearing. We’ll be paying special attention to what comes out of that bag during the series; it’s more amazing than a Ringling Brothers clown car!
Dillon, feeling that something isn’t right, probably having heard the shot, draws his pistol and opens the door to his office. Seeing nothing, he steps out. As he walks out into the open, he is surrounded by armed Chinese workers. Caine tells him that the other henchmen have fled. Seeing the hopelessness of his situation, he surrenders to Caine and is confined in his office.
This scene always jarred me a little. If he’s responding to the shot that killed Han Fei, which is the strong feeling imposed by the scene, there doesn’t seem to have been enough time for the guards to have collectively decided it was time to leave. They had shot an old man, which was nothing new for them, and the loss of Raif earlier that day isn’t what spooked them, so maybe more time had passed between the last scene and now? But if, say, an hour had passed, why was Dillon just now acting on his curiosity? He has been shown to be a man of immediate action up until now, so delaying his reaction to the shot now seems badly out of character. This is just one of those things we’re going to have to hand-wave our way past if we’re going to enjoy the climax of an otherwise fine story.
And while I’m asking impertinent questions, why were there so many guards around this camp in the first place? These weren’t convicts sentenced to a labor crew, they were men doing a tough job voluntarily. A couple, maybe, to keep order I could see, but they were ubiquitous in nearly every scene. I suppose, to paraphrase Commander Spock, the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of reality or of common sense. Moving on, then . . .
It is presumably the next day. Dillon is trying to see out of his office as the workers are gathered around a cooking fire eating their fill of the camp’s supplies. Caine reclines near the group. Two Chinese ride up on horses. One announces that he is the agent sent to bring Caine back to China. This is David Chow, the show’s kung fu and Chinese culture advisor. He rolls back his sleeves to display his tiger and dragon brands. Caine is sorely disappointed that one of his own order would “sell himself for a handful of rice.”
“You are much more than a handful of rice. I have sought you for many weeks.”
“And now you have found me.”
They don their ceremonial fighting clothes for a knock-down, drag out fight that doesn’t disappoint. At the end Caine kills the man with a deliberate fatal blow, not the fortuitous accident that became the norm later in the series.
“People will remember what was done here,” a worker tells him. “They will think of it with respect.”
In what will become one of the show’s main themes, Caine replies, “The taking of a life does no one honor.”
“He will never let you rest,” the man goes on. “The emperor. He sent this man after you. He will send others. They know you are here in America. They will search you out.”
“Then let them find me.”
In a move that I still don’t understand and that seems badly out of character, Caine then burns the trestle they had just built, and is last seen walking off into the sunset. He must understand by now that the railroad is a driving force in this new land, and that his action simply ensures that more of his countrymen will be put to work in appalling conditions to rebuild it. It also seems an act of pure revenge, as Dillon looks on helplessly; I suppose Caine is subject to the same rages as the rest of us, but this is done in cold blood after having had time to reflect on what he was about to do. A beautiful story, yet one that leaves a strange aftertaste.
And now for that all-important conclusion: What did I get out of it, and what do I recommend you look for? I must first admit that I missed this when it was first-run, and in the time before VHS, DVD, and all the other things we take for granted now, I couldn’t just pop down to the corner Blockbuster and rent a copy; there was no such thing. This may have been poorly promoted, or I may have simply not been watching when it was, but that seems unlikely. Television and martial arts were huge parts of my life back then, and it seems like I would have been on this like a wet T-shirt had I had a clue it was coming.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t start watching Kung Fu until the series debuted almost eight months later, and I didn’t see the pilot until it appeared in reruns well after the first season. It is impossible to go back and unsee those episodes, and so the impressions I gained were colored by the character that Carradine had created by later in the series. All I can say is that, in light of that knowledge, he seemed to fall far short of the priest he had become by, say, the end of the first season. It is hardly unexpected for a character to evolve, but movie-Caine, while certainly gentle and priestly in word and most deeds, exhibited a shocking willingness to kill anyone who got under his skin, and also to openly judge the actions of others. Not that he didn’t do that later, but he became more subtle about it.
I suppose I have to say that, seeing it later when I did, it was more a point of interest to see how the character had developed than any lessons or fascination I might have taken away from it. The rest of the 63 episodes I saw first-run, and will have much more “raw” or “pure” impressions to share, but how about you? Did you see this first, and what were your initial thoughts? I’d love to have a chance to see it through your eyes. First run or not, what did you think about it?