David Carradine's finest hours were probably those spent inhabiting the character of Kwai Chang Caine in the early-1970s TV series, Kung Fu. In concept, Kung Fu was a masterly conflation of two wildly different genres: the old-style Western and the new martial arts movies, starring Bruce Lee. My teen generation, raised on both late-Sixties hippie mysticism and the suave violence of the James Bond/ Man from UNCLE franchises, admired this peculiar hybrid of saintliness and savagery, toughness and transcendentalism.
The set-up was simple. Kwai Chang, born to a Chinese woman and an American sailor, grew up in a Buddhist temple. There he studied under Master Po and Master Kan (who addressed him as "Grasshopper") and learnt the ways of the Shaolin priesthood – the wisdom of the ancients and the art of kicking three people in the face simultaneously.
After spearing the Emperor's nephew in the chest while defending his old teacher, he had to flee to the US, where he spent every episode looking for his brother, evading Chinese hitmen, doing good deeds and trying to stay out of trouble. Invariably, as he drifted through the dusty plains of Texas and Arizona, circa 1870, in his Buddhist robes and shiny bald pate – a prototypical Hare Krishna in the land of Wyatt Earp – he attracted the attention of mockers, bullies, gangsters and hard-nuts, who threatened him until he was forced (grudgingly, of course) to retaliate by kicking 17 shades of excrement out of them. We usually had to wait 52 minutes of each episode, through lots of dreamily shot flashbacks of the Shaolin temple, to reach this gratifying conclusion.
Caine was a Christ figure, peace-loving, virtuous and turn-the-other-cheek, until he was pushed too far. We little hippies loved that. We called each other "Glasshopper" in cod-Chinese accents, and lashed out with our feet until we fell over.Reuse content