Grass-hoppa Bill Treadway knows how to snatch the pebble from your hand, but he just doesn't feel like it right now.
No gun. No horse. No equal.
The quintessential martial-arts Western, Kung Fu is also a well-acted, deeply philosophical series that manages to transcend itself into something truly extraordinary.
The complete first season of this landmark series is now available on DVD from Warner Bros., albeit in a controversial fashion.
Facts of the Case
Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) is a half-breed raised in the Shaolin traditions by Masters Kan (Philip Ahn) and Po (Keye Luke, Alice, Gremlins). Caine is not a violent man by nature. However, in the old West, he must resort to violence to protect not only himself but those who need protection.
So begins a journey that lasted for three seasons on ABC-TV.
If there is a series whose success in inexplicable, it is Kung Fu. Today, the program would barely survive the season. But in 1972, the climate was much different. The martial-arts craze was reaching heights then unknown. Westerns were still highly popular on the small screen. Imagine the fresh appeal of a program that combined both risky genres into a weekly series. I had yet to be born, so I can only guess. I do remember the popularity of the syndication run, which exposed me to this very strange show.
I typically find most martial-arts films tedious, long on action and short on philosophy and character. The films of Bruce Lee did much to change the public's perception of what a martial-arts film could be. In fact, Kung Fu began life in the mind of Lee as a prospective vehicle for himself. It was the jaundiced eye of ABC-TV president Fred Silverman that ended Lee's association with the series. He felt that an Asian lead would not be accepted by mainstream America. (He had yet to see the grosses for Lee's classic Enter the Dragon, which would be released during the first season of Kung Fu.)
After long deliberations, David Carradine, then known for his work in Martin Scorsese's film Boxcar Bertha (1971), was signed to play Caine. Carradine turned out to be a fine choice for the role. He invests Caine with the philosophical roots and peaceful demeanor that Lee would most certainly have. Carradine also knows how to sell the delicate martial-arts sequences so that they do not look hokey and cheap like so many of the imitators did. It didn't hurt that Carradine was surrounded by a fine cast, including Keye Luke, formerly Charlie Chan's Number One Son. Luke plays the blind Master Po without resorting to cliché, instead giving the man dignity and strength. Philip Ahn is also impressive as Master Kan. He combines sympathy and toughness to create one of the most memorable supporting characters in television history.
The program is interesting as well. The blending of martial-arts and Western genres works better than expected. (Now that I think about it, what were modern Hollywood Westerns but adaptations of Asian martial-arts films?) Flashbacks are often a sign of narrative desperation, but here they really work. They allow us to take in the back story of Caine's life slowly but surely. It creates anticipation in the audience and leaves us eagerly anticipating more. The action set pieces are well integrated into the main drama, enhancing the plot without feeling gratuitous.
The original pilot and all 15 episodes from the first season are spread out over three double-sided discs. On a scale of zero to five fists:
"King of the Mountain"
"An Eye for an Eye"
"The Soul is the Warrior"
"Sun and Cloud Shadow"
"The Praying Mantis Kills"
"The Third Man"
"The Ancient Warrior"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Remember the opening statement earlier? It's time for the controversial part of this review. Warner decided to offer widescreen transfers of the 16 programs in this set. This is controversial since Kung Fu was shot in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1 (roughly the size of a standard television screen). The matting tends to throw off the framing, lopping off tops of heads and minor action at the bottom during the most inopportune times. It's nice to see Warner Bros. support letterboxing, but this is going too far. How does it look? The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers are mediocre. Colors are fairly sharp considering the series' age. Grain and blemishes (scratches, specks and dirt) appear throughout. I wish Warner had put the effort towards restoring these episodes instead of creating ersatz widescreen versions of a show never intended to be that.
Audio is a simple Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix. It is not a great mix, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is heard clearly enough, and the music sounds fine. The sole problem is that, at times, the music is mixed a tad too loudly than it should be.
Once again, a classic television program gets the royal shaft in the extras department. A pair of half-hour documentaries, "From Grasshopper to Caine" and "The Tao of Caine" are interesting to watch. David Carradine comments about his approach to his multi-layered performance as Caine as well as the production. It is a delight to watch. The most unsettling aspect of these documentaries is how the majority of the series's personnel attempt to take credit for the concept. Only one person (director John Badham, a hired hand) acknowledges Bruce Lee's involvement in the creation, which will leave you shaking your head in disgust. The most ironic part about both documentaries is how the clips from the program are presented in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
With a retail price of $39.99, Kung Fu is easily affordable for devoted fans. However, even they may take issue with the widescreen transfers. Those people will be better off sticking with the cable reruns. If it doesn't bother you, then by all means, buy this set.
I just hope that when Season Two is released, the programs will be presented in the original full-frame.
Kung Fu is off the hook, but Warner Bros. is incredibly guilty of tampering with the aspect ratio. They are also guilty of skimping out on the extra content. Sentence to be determined at a later date.
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