David Carradine in his signature role of Kwai Chang Caine on KUNG FU (1972-1975), with Keye Luke as the completely awesome Master Po.
As more details in the unexpected and rather shocking death of David Carradine come to light, I'm especially saddened by what looks to me to be a pretty sordid way to go for a guy who was a generation's symbol of peaceful enlightenment coupled with the hard-earned skills of Shaolin kung fu ass-whuppery. So I'll leave the tabloid sleaze-mongering to the news media and instead share what everyone's favorite faux "Chinaman" meant to me.
The KUNG FU television series hit at an interesting time in the history of American culture, striking a chord with those who’d allowed their minds to be opened during the 1960’s, either by drugs or the influx of Eastern philosophy during those heady days. The show followed the adventures of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese dude who spent years at a Shaolin temple where he learned all kinds of deep philosophy and wisdom and shit, along with obtaining an education in how to seriously fuck people up with hand-to-hand skills, weapons fluency, and a number of abilities that could be considered quasi-mystical. That’s all terrific, but the series would probably not have caught on with the general public if it only featured Caine hanging around with a bunch of vegetarian bald guys, spouting Buddhist ideas and never getting to bust heads in practical application, so in order to keep things moving Caine graduates from the temple and enters the outside world. Once outside, Caine witnesses the pointless and cruel murder of his beloved and blind master, Po (Keye Luke), and, in a fit of decidedly un-Buddhist rage, plants a spear through the killer, who happens to be a member of Chinese royalty. Now a wanted fugitive, Caine suddenly remembers he has family in America, so he hauls ass from China to find himself smack dab in the Wild West, whereupon he embarks on a quest to find his long-lost Caucasian kin.
But even with his hair now grown out and attired in an outfit I would swear was borrowed from Jed Clampett, Caine was still an unwanted “Chinaman” and thus ended up beset by a seemingly endless parade of old West miscreants and intolerant rednecks, all of whom were out to see him either jailed or killed for no reason other than that he wasn’t a white guy (an issue confused by David Carradine quite obviously being a white guy himself, albeit one who squinted a lot and spoke in a soft and dreamy voice familiar to anyone who’s ever either encountered or been a 24/7 stoner). But the abuses Caine suffered were always rendered moot by his skills at kung fu and the gentle wisdom he imparted to those he met along the way of his wanderings, and viewers tuned in each week to light up and root for their favorite badassed pacifist.
Caine’s portrayal and outsider’s point of view created a character whose personal outlook and philosophy were considerably more genuine than that espoused by that other 1970’s ethnically-mixed martial arts icon played by a white dude, Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), “the pacifist Indian who’ll kill for his cause.” While Billy Jack expressed himself with a slow boil that inevitably exploded in violent (and very entertaining) rage, Caine was a mellow soul whose propensity for kicking ass was nearly always a last resort, what with him having learned a serious lesson upon himself taking a human life, something he was very much taught not to do by the peaceful monks who raised him. If possible, Caine would talk his way out of confrontations with some “inscrutable” Chinese proverb that either got his enemies re-thinking themselves and their ignorant actions or left them in a tobacco-chawin’ state of utter confusion. Sure it was fun to see Caine take off his shoes and stuff his foot up the asses of deserving shitheads, but if you ask me, the thing that really made folks love him were the flashbacks to his youthful education at the temple and his fascinated and reverent absorption of his masters’ teachings, lessons that had very little to do with beating people up. The monks’ martial diligence was clearly depicted as something that allowed them to render their bodies as keen as their minds and allow them to defend themselves and others if need be, and it was fascinating to witness in those days when martial arts training was still something known to the general public mostly as an obscure pursuit for weirdoes or as something employed in spy movies when the latest 007 clone would take out a foe with a “karate chop.” But as the Viet Nam conflict neared its final days, Caine was a unique hero who had the ability to hurt others, but would have much preferred just hanging out under a tree, playing his flute and contemplating his own insignificance in the face of the genuine awesomeness of nature and the universe. That serene vibe permeated the entire run of KUNG FU and appealed greatly to its audience, many of whom for some reason never figured out that KUNG FU was the martial discipline Caine used and not the character’s name (my own mother was guilty of this). It’s too bad we never got to see some oddball “what if” scenario where Caine and STAR TREK’s Spock were able to get together and just talk for an hour or two. It would have been a festival of intriguing discourse and would have endured forever as a landmark in stoner entertainment, but alas such was not to be.
By the time KUNG FU wound down, the seventies martial arts movie boom was in full, bloody swing — having been kicked off in earnest by the feature films FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH and ENTER THE DRAGON — and a hero as respectful of human life as Kwai Chang Caine was destined to go the way of the dinosaur. Plus, let’s face it: David Carradine’s martial arts abilities were light years behind those of Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, or even David Chiang, so Carradine was destined to be bulldozed over by those who could much more convincingly deliver the bone-smashing goods without benefit of all-embracing positivity coming along as part of the package (Bruce’s HK movies had things to say, but most of us attended those to take in his singular example of fatal ballet).
Carradine as badassed race car drive/vehicular manslaughter virtuoso Frankenstein in 1975's DEATH RACE 2000.
The next of Carradine’s roles to make an impression on me was Frankenstein in 1975’s hilariously nihilistic DEATH RACE 2000, a character that was the polar opposite of Caine, being a master of intentionally running down innocent pedestrians in pursuit of points in a government-sanctioned trans-continental example of vehicular homicide as sporting event. Frankenstein turns out to be a revolutionary hero when the story reaches its climax — a so-called plot twist that’s somewhat beside the point, so I’m not really giving anything away — but still displays a sadistic streak as he runs over the film’s irritating announcer (Don Steele) immediately after getting married and being elected president. It’s a totally absurd movie, punctuated by black humor and ridiculous violence, and Carradine still somehow manages to imbue his character with a meditative and focused quality, although this time that focus is applied to outright murder.
1990’s completely fucking twisted SONNY BOY is a movie loaded with wrongness from start to finish, but perhaps no other element of the film is as weird and disturbing as Carradine’s portrayal of Pearl, the “mother” in a creepy family of utter psychos. Dave in full-on drag is nausea-inducing enough, but when coupled with the film’s other horrors you get the icing on a seriously nasty cake. I’m hoping this flick will get a DVD release now that Carradine has passed on, and I urge you see it as soon as you can. Take it from Yer Bunche, it’s very, very sick shit.
As Bill, the master assassin from KILL BILL VOL. 1 and 2, the true coda to a career portraying the thinking man's badass.
The two KILL BILL movies served as the ideal coda for a career featuring thinking-man’s badasses, with Carradine as the master assassin title character whose skills are never seen, only hinted at, and those hints are enough to make the audience buy his sinister capacities completely. His presence in the films is sadly brief, but Bill’s evil gets the narrative ball rolling and we do get to see a bit of the character’s past, thus allowing us to understand him. Bill’s defining moments occur in KILL BILL VOL.2, when he engages in a lengthy dialogue with Uma Thurman’s vengeful heroine, and even if I’d never seen another Carradine performance I would never forget him after hearing Bill’s theories on Superman (see the movie; that sequence was amazing).
And now David Carradine is dead, removed from existence through questionable means. As a lifelong fan of his work I never expected him to go out the way he did, but what people do in their private lives often comes as a shock to the world at large when made public, so I guess I should not be surprised. Whatever the case, Carradine’s Caine had a huge impact on myself and millions of others during that era, and that’s how I choose to remember the man: as a purveyor of good vibes who touched a generation with an action hero who had an active, contemplative mind behind his potentially lethal limbs. I ask you to do the same.
And, just for the record, I do not buy his family’s reported claims that he was killed by a secret martial arts sect that he was investigating. To paraphrase ENTER THE DRAGON, that shit comes straight out of a comic book and is just as ludicrous as similar theories about the untimely demise of Bruce Lee. Carradine was just a man, not some crime-fighting screen superhero who somehow crossed over into reality, and while I understand his family’s desire to spin doctor the details, I say just let it go.
"I seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions. "
-Kwai Chang Caine