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Kung Fu

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The Way of the Tiger,
The Sign of the Dragon

(Warner, New York, 1974)
price: 40p; 176 pages
click to enlarge
(Warner, New York, 1974)
price: 40p; 176 pages

The blurb on the back:

LISTENED FOR - they cannot be heard.
LOOKED FOR - they cannot be seen.
FELT FOR - they cannot be touched.
The Masters of the Elite Science of

Caine is such a master! Half-American, half-Chinese, he has been trained by Shaolin monks - taught the striking techniques of tiger, eagle, snake, mythical dragon, white crane and praying mantis. He possesses Chi, the inner strength.

Now, a fugitive with a price on his head, he finds protective coloration by joining coolie gang building the railroad across the Western United States. But his powers and his philosophy cannot remain hidden. Soon new enemies and old challenge him. He must resort to the deadliest form of hand-to-hand combat - the oriental art of KUNG FU.

Caine breaks out of a Fort Pike jail. Chained to him is another prisoner, Huntoon - a hulking brute of a man charged with murder. As the two escape into the hills, Caine has use for his unique powers. He must tame the beast in the heart of the man who is chained to him. And he must outwit the man who, with animal cunning, is tracking him down.

The early-1970s series Kung Fu was pretty much the definition of exploitation TV, combining three entirely separate and potentially antithetical trends: (1) the fashion for Oriental martial arts, as popularized by Bruce Lee, (2) the Old West mythology of American television, and (3) the off-the-peg spirituality espoused by the counterculture. It should have been a mess, it should have been cheap, it should have been kitsch at best.

In fact, it was none of these things. It was damn good.

And the reason was two-fold. Firstly, the style was lovely: it looked different to most TV shows and it was slower and more relaxed than we were used to. And secondly, it starred David Carradine.

The son of John Carradine - who made perhaps more films than any other actor in Hollywood history - David was never going to be a huge movie star but he had a fantastic face for TV. And he was perfectly cast in the role of Caine, a Buddhist monk who was fully trained in the controlled violence of kung fu, but was wandering around America in the 1870s. Admittedly Caine was supposed to be half-Chinese, half-American, and Carradine was entirely American, but once you looked into those remorseful, wearied eyes, you didn't care about such details.

There were stories that the role was actually offered first to Bruce Lee, but these appear to be exaggerated (check the site below), and in any event the show wouldn't have been as good if it had starred Lee. Carradine was a significant four years older than Lee (thirty-six when the pilot was shown) and based his characterization on slow-burning intensity rather than on the athletic ability that Lee brought to his roles. Carradine's Caine always looked sad at having to kick his enemies to the ground - he took no pleasure in his abilities and the languid laziness he displayed was matched by the slow-motion photography. Where Lee was a fast-fighting Oriental James Bond, Carradine was frankly a hippy.

These books opened a series that ran to four volumes, with the first based on the 1972 TV pilot. The show was conceived by Ed Spielman and co-written by him, Howard Friedlander, Paul Edwards and Gene L Coon, with novelization duties assigned to Howard Lee (behind which pseudonym were hidden sci-fi writers Barry N Malzberg and Ron Goulart for the two books respectively). And - cue the fanfare - they're not at all bad. Obviously the fight sequences don't work, but then they weren't the key bit of the series really either: much more importantly, the drawling atmosphere and the hooded haziness of the small screen version is preserved.

In short, one of the few novel series taken from TV that's worth reading.

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Trivial PS - You might also remember a professional wrestler named Kung Fu, who had nothing to do with the series except that he nicked the name and image.


from the maker of...
Phase IV
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