Kung Fu-Season 1 (1972)
Main Menu Audio
Bonus Episode-Pilot Episode
Featurette-From Grasshopper To Caine: Creating Kung Fu
Featurette-The Tao Of Caine: Production And Beyond
|Year Of Production||1972|
|Running Time||722:15 (Case: 792)|
|RSDL / Flipper||
Multi Disc Set (3)
|Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||2,4,5||Directed By||Jerry Thorpe|
Warner Home Video
Victor Sen Yung
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||Pan & Scan||
English Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.33:1||Miscellaneous|
English for the Hearing Impaired
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
"Quickly as you can, snatch the pebble from my hand. When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave." - Master Kan
"Never assume that because a man has no eyes he cannot see." - Master Po
Kung Fu is not really a martial arts series, it is a Western series with an unusual protagonist, and it borrows some basic plot ideas from The Fugitive as well. Kwai Chang Caine is left an orphan in China after the deaths of his American father and Chinese mother. He is taken in as a pupil in the Shaolin temple where he learns the wisdom and martial arts of kung fu. Forced to leave China as a fugitive from justice, he turns up in the American West of the nineteenth century, where he travels the countryside writing wrongs, helping the weak and downtrodden, spouting deep and meaningful aphorisms and belting the crap out of selected villains, most of whom are red-necked racists. Caine is also searching for his half-brother Daniel, who does not know he exists. Caine has frequent flashbacks to his time in the temple and the lessons taught to him by Master Kan and blind Master Po.
David Carradine is Caine. Carradine had little knowledge of kung fu prior to this series, but he did have a background in dancing which helped with the balletic kung fu moves. Carradine of course was the son of well-known character actor John Carradine, who had a habit of walking down the street speaking lines from Shakespeare in his deep voice. David appears to have inherited some of his eccentricities, but not his voice or talent. Though Carradine plays Caine with his eyes taped to make them look slightly slanted, he does not look especially Chinese. One of the unintentionally humorous aspects of the series is how everyone in the story immediately pegs him as being Chinese, even if the viewer may not agree. Carradine also spends most of the time speaking softly and deliberately with a half smile on his face, as if he was a hippie Shaolin priest. It may not be authentic but it certainly sets him apart from other Western heroes of the era.
In the flashback sequences the younger Caine is played by two actors. Radames Pera plays him as a boy, and Carradine's half-brother Keith portrays the young adult Caine. Both are more natural and less mannered than the lead actor, though I think David looped his younger brother's dialogue.
The soft-focus flashback sequences are enhanced by the veteran character actors who play the Shaolin priests, Keye Luke and Philip Ahn. When I saw the supporting cast list on the pilot episode my first thought was that they had scoured the surviving cast of the old Charlie Chan movies for this series. Number One Son Luke is the blind Master Po with the spectrally white eyes. Number Two Son Victor Sen Yung and Number Three Son Benson Fong also appear in the pilot. Ahn (Master Kan) and Richard Loo (Master Sun) also appeared in some of these old films. Only Luke and Ahn were Kung Fu regulars, though Loo crops up occasionally. The series is also notable for the veteran film and TV actors who appeared on the show. Even Harrison Ford makes an appearance in the second series.
Master Po provided the catchphrase for the series by referring to the young Caine as "grasshopper", and teaches him how to use all of his senses in the martial arts, as well as being a father figure to Caine. He is also handy with a staff. Korean-American actor Philip Ahn is temple head Master Kan, who tells Caine that when he can snatch the pebble from his hand it will be time for him to leave. Both masters have a steady supply of parables, aphorisms and metaphors for Caine to remember, and these are used like a Greek chorus to explain Caine's behaviour. In effect we are seeing his thought process presented on the screen as he remembers lessons that guide his behaviour in the present time, and this method is very effective in driving the narrative.
Something of a legend has arisen about the role of Bruce Lee in the creation of Kung Fu. The story goes that Lee developed the concept of the series and was tentatively cast in the leading role, but was dropped because (a) his English was poor (b) he was too Chinese or (c) he was too short. The evidence points to this being an urban legend. It appears that Lee had nothing to do with the conception or development of the series, and he was never seriously considered for the leading role.
Kung Fu ran for three seasons starting in 1972. It came to Australian TV not long after - in fact, I can dimly remember watching the first episode when it premiered (in black and white). I thought that after 30 years this series would look shoddy and dated, but most of the time it does not. It was made on a low budget, but the use of outdoor locations and being entirely shot on film gives it a more timeless look and hides the budgetary constraints. The art direction of Eugène Lourié, who worked on some of Jean Renoir's best films in the 1930s, makes the locations look authentic and realistic. You would believe that the Shaolin temple was created especially for this show, but in fact the sets were built for the film Camelot and have been cleverly altered to look like a Chinese temple.
There are less fight scenes than I remembered, and they are not impressive by current standards. Despite what is said in the documentary included as an extra, Carradine does not do all of his own stunts and his kung fu is weak and unconvincing. There is a bit too much of the slow motion stuff, but this is the style of the show. The clarity of the remastering has highlighted a few small things, such as the obvious body doubles and the bald wigs worn by Masters Po and Kan. But other than these minor quibbles, this first series was very well done.
In later years Carradine would return to the character in Kung Fu: The Movie and the updated TV series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. And of course in David Carradine's Kung Fu Workout Video. This is a case of the original being the best.
The series is spread out over three double-sided discs. The episodes are as follows:
Disc One Side B
King of the Mountain (46:30)
The first regular episode. Caine stumbles across a burned-out homestead and a young boy (Brandon Cruz). Indians have killed his father and made off with his mother. Taking him to his aunt, Caine ends up working for a young widow (Lara Parker), who is attracted to him. But stalking Caine is a bounty hunter with a lopsided moustache (John Saxon).
Dark Angel (48:56)
Heading towards the town where his father was born, Caine finds a man with an arrow in his side. After Caine fights off the Indians with his bare hands, the dying man gives him a map to a gold mine. In town Caine falls in with a money-hungry preacher and his mute sidekick. Caine discovers his father's birth records, and goes to meet his grandfather. Meanwhile, several people want the map, and Caine learns he has an older half-brother, which provides a narrative thread for future episodes. This episodes features more Carradines than you can poke a stick at. David's father John plays the preacher, and his half-brother Robert is the mute. The other half-brother Keith appears in a flashback. Veteran character actors Dean Jagger (Grandpa Caine) and James Griffith (the assayer) also feature.
Blood Brother (48:26)
Caine arrives in the town of Kilgore looking for his brother. He notices some boxes in the post office with the name of a friend from the Shaolin temple, and in searching for him uncovers the town's shameful secret. This episode features the usual group of familiar faces, with Robert Urich as the leader of the town gang, John Anderson as his father, Clu Gulager as the sheriff and Robert Emhardt as the post office clerk. Benson Fong also appears playing a different, younger character to the one he played in the pilot.
Disc Two Side A
An Eye For An Eye (48:28)
A young woman is raped by an Army sergeant (L. Q. Jones) and becomes pregnant. Her brother (Tim McIntire) seeks revenge. Caine tries to prevent the taking of lives. Also with Parley Baer as the doctor and Robert Wilke as an aged sergeant. This episode won two Emmys.
The Tide (47:39)
Still searching for his brother, Caine is wounded by the local sheriff (Andrew Duggan) and is taken in by a beautiful Chinese farmer (Tina Chen). Also features Mako as her brother.
The Soul Is The Warrior (47:16)
Caine is told to visit Rankin (John Doucette), by whom Caine's brother was recently employed. However, his brother has stolen Rankin's son's woman. This overwrought, overly-symbolic episode also stars Jim Davis as Rankin's offsider, Pat Hingle as the town sheriff and a bunch of rattlesnakes as themselves.
Disc Two Side B
Nine Lives (48:25)
Thrown out of a miner's camp by a kangaroo court judge (Dana Elcar) for accidentally killing the camp's cat, an Irish miner (Albert Salmi) and Caine go to look for another cat. Robbed of their belongings by a troupe of no-goods led by Royal Dano, they end up digging a well for the woman who runs the local ferry service (Geraldine Brooks).
Sun and Cloud Shadow (47:58)
Morgan Woodward stars as a man who disputes the ownership of a mountain with the Chinese prospectors mining it. Tragedy strikes. Caine has to battle a Chinese agent to the death.
Huntoon, who worked a claim with Caine's brother, is in the army prison for murder on Daniel Caine's testimony. In a repeat of The Defiant Ones, Caine ends up on the run chained to the somewhat deranged Huntoon. Geoffrey Lewis appears as a trapper.
Disc Three Side A
Caine no sooner befriends a young girl playing a mandolin than she accuses him of murder. Is he innocent or will he hang? This episode was directed by John Badham and the girl is played by 9-year-old Jodie Foster, who went on to have a minor career in films if I recall correctly... Also featuring Kenneth Tobey as her sheriff uncle and Charles Tyner as a road agent. Khigh Dhiegh appears as a magician in the flashback sequences.
A Praying Mantis Kills (47:29)
Caine goes up against a group of bandits ruling a town by fear, and helps a boy come to terms with his father's death. Features Wendell Burton, William Schallert and '30s film star Karen Morley.
Caine is arrested under false pretences and is sentenced to six months working as a slave in a mine on top of an Indian burial ground. The miners fear that whoever digs up bones will die the same day, but Caine teaches the miners to survive even a cave-in. Ford Rainey is the mine owner, Roy Jenson and Mike Mazurki also make appearances.
Disc Three Side B
The Stone (47:53)
Caine stops some rednecks from killing an uppity black man from Brazil (Moses Gunn) who not only knows martial arts but also has possession of a huge diamond. The diamond goes missing, and Caine must not only prevent the rednecks from killing the Brazilian but also the Brazilian from killing him. And there's a silly subplot with Gregory Sierra as a reluctant groom.
The Third Man (48:48)
Caine helps a problem gambler, but when the gambler is killed he must find the man's winnings and return them to his wife. Ed Nelson and Sheree North guest star.
The Ancient Warrior (48:57)
Caine meets an aged Indian (Chief Dan George) who asks Caine to take him to the place where he will die. Trouble is, it is in the middle of a town called Purgatory and they don't like Indians there. The producers obviously spent the budget on the supporting cast, so the flashback sequences are repeats from earlier episodes. Also starring Victor French (the sheriff), G. D. Spradlin (the gunfighter), Will Geer (the judge), Denver Pyle (the mayor) and Gary Busey and William Katt (the rednecks).
"Guard above all things the purity of your vision." - Master Po
"Faced with two evils, must not every man choose?" - Caine
This is an excellent video transfer, marred only by the modified aspect ratio.
This series is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. Does anyone smell a rat yet?
The back cover of the box says "this film is presented in "matted" widescreen format preserving a theatrical exhibition aspect ratio." What? Was this series shown in theatres? The pilot may have been shown in cinemas in some places, but surely the series was not. The original aspect ratio was 1.33:1 and this video has been cropped to the new aspect ratio.
Some reviews I have read of the Region 1 release suggest that the matting does not have a major effect on the image, with the tops of the actors' heads chopped off only occasionally. Well, I have to say I disagree. The cropping happens most of the time in this transfer. There are frequent close-ups of the actors' faces and often they are not just missing the tops of their heads, but the points of their chins as well. While none of the narrative action appears to have been lost or obscured by the modified framing, the constant reminder that this has been cropped added to my annoyance.
In my opinion, the modification of the aspect ratio means that this transfer is a travesty of the original. There is no difference between this and a pan and scan transfer of widescreen material. It has been suggested (again, in Region 1) that if this release is boycotted, then rather than re-releasing this series in the correct aspect ratio Warners will simply not release series 2 and 3. On the other hand, I think that if this set of discs sells in sufficient numbers, Warners and other distributors may be encouraged to butcher other series shot in 1.33:1, so the consumer is in a no-win situation.
Now for the good news. The original series was shot entirely on film, and the present transfer is from a high-definition master made using the original film materials. This means that the video looks a lot better than I can ever remember seeing it. It has the look of feature film material from the same era. The video is very sharp and clear, with good shadow detail in the few night and indoor scenes.
Colour also looks very good, with realistic shades throughout. Flesh tones are very well represented. The sky is often shown, and always looks a natural shade of blue. Blacks are very black, with no low level noise perceptible.
I did not notice anything in the way of aliasing. The footage shows some grain, especially at the beginning of each episode and in sequences which have been optically zoomed, but most of the time this is held in check. Edge enhancement is present but is only noticeable when the characters are outlined against the blue sky, with a very thin halo visible.
Film artefacts can be seen throughout. Some dirt is visible, particularly during the opening sequence which usually has footage of Caine trekking through the desert. There are also regular small white flecks (speckling) indicating some light print damage. Some episodes have more of these than others. Dark Angel features a couple of instances of a shower of blue spots appearing briefly on the screen, at 20:30 and 38:13, which occurs again in later episodes. Apart from that, the source material was in excellent condition.
Subtitles are provided in a number of languages, with both English and English for the Hearing Impaired available. The subtitles are clear, well-timed and accurate to the spoken word.
The series is presented on three double-sided discs. The discs are authored a little strangely, in that if you select the Play All option you sometimes get two layer changes. For example, on Disc Two Side A, episode 4 has the layer change, then episode 5 is on the same layer, but episode 6 is on the same layer as the one on which episode 4 started.
Disc One - Side A is single-layered. Side B is RSDL-formatted with the layer change occurring at 34:25 in episode 3.
Disc Two - Both sides are RSDL-formatted, with the layer change at 36:15 in episode 4 on side A and at 36:36 in episode 8 on side B.
Disc Three - Both sides are RSDL-formatted, with the layer change at 36:12 in episode 11 on side A and at 34:38 in episode 13 on side B.
All of the layer changes are positioned in fades to black, which may have signalled commercial breaks, and are therefore not disruptive.
The default audio track on each episode is English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, which of course is a compressed version of the original audio, so we get slightly less than the full dynamic range, not that there was much to begin with. No surround encoding is present. There is also an alternative French audio track, which if you only speak French would be useful, but having listened to some of it the voices do not fit the characters.
The sound is of reasonable quality given that this is an early 1970s TV series. Occasionally there is a thin, tinny sound to the audio, but most of the time I did not notice any issues with the sound, which is a good sign. I am half-surprised that Warners chose not to remix this into 5.1 surround given what they have done to the video.
Audio sync is an issue throughout but this is present in the source material. Much of the audio was looped in the studio. You can tell where this has happened because of the clean sound even in outdoor scenes, with no background noise apart from superimposed effects. Given that this was a TV series made on a relatively low budget, no great effort was made to ensure that the looping was perfectly synchronised with the actor's lip movements, so audio sync is a hit and miss affair. I would class this as mildly distracting, but as it is inherent in the originals there is little or nothing that can be done.
The excellent music score is by Jim Helms. Gongs, drums, flutes and bells are used in the flashback sequences in the temple, which sound idiomatic. The American scenes have a more Western sound, but elements of the Eastern sounds are present, so that there is a crossover between the two styles that is impressive. I was pleasantly surprised by the music score, having expected one of those run-of-the-mill TV series scores of the 1970s that consists of the music from the studio library played over and over.
|Surround Channel Use|
Not many extras have been provided. It would have been possible to add some audio commentaries for at least some of the episodes, given that the star, producer/director Jerry Thorpe and the creative team behind the series are still with us.
The main menu has audio from the theme music for the series. Note that the main menu is identical on each disc, so that there is a Special Features option on discs two and three that displays a screen stating that the Special Features are on disc one.
The booklet contains a list of the contents of each disc, including plot synopses and brief production credits. The glossy booklet also has a series of photos from the series, mainly of David Carradine.
Note that the booklet has the documentaries mixed up, and that they appear on opposite sides of Disc One to that stated in the booklet.
While it is not mentioned as an extra on the slick or booklet, the pilot is included as a Special Feature on the disc. The pilot is essential viewing in order to understand the rest of the series, so it should not be classed as an extra. This was screened in early 1972 about 6 months prior to the start of the on-going series.
Caine is first seen walking through the desert. He wanders into a town where, after dealing with the usual saloon bully (Roy Jenson), he is talked into joining the gang working on the railroad by an old Chinese man (Benson Fong). The railroad crew is run by the craggy-faced Dillon (Barry Sullivan) and his foreman Raif (Albert Salmi, who was born to play Western villains and Irish miners). They are only interested in the money the railroad construction brings and don't care about the welfare of their Chinese workforce. Of course, you know that Caine will confront the evildoers using his mixture of philosophy and violence. One good feature of this pilot is that it can stand alone as a film, and only at the end does it give any indication that further episodes will follow.
The slick says this runs for 90 minutes, but of course that was the TV running time including advertisements. You can see where the advertisements would have been, just as you can with the regular series episodes.
This interesting if self-serving featurette tells the background story to the creation of the series, and features interviews with numerous cast and crew members. Included are a haggard-looking David Carradine, Radames Pera (who grew up to look nothing like Carradine), John Saxon, Mako, directors Jerry Thorpe and John Badham, the writers and several executives from ABC, notably Tom Kuhn, whose dismissal of Bruce Lee is somewhat breathtaking. This is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and audio is Dolby Digital 2.0.
This is essentially an extension of the above documentary and looks at the production of the series. Interviewees include Philip Ahn's brother Ralph, martial arts co-ordinator David Chow and Brandon Cruz (the child actor in the first regular episode) as well as most of the talking heads from the first documentary.
This release is identical in content with the Region 1 release, which also has the same aspect ratio issue, although some reviewers mention a level of edge enhancement that is not visible to me on the Region 4. There is no reason to prefer one over the other, apart from television format, price and availability.
An excellent series which introduced much of the Western world to the martial arts, this is still entertaining stuff today. Sadly, I have to give this this disc a lower rating than I would like due to the modified aspect ratio.
The video quality is otherwise excellent.
The audio quality is very good.
The extras are less than copious.
|DVD||Pioneer DV-S733A, using Component output|
|Display||Sony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Amplification||Yamaha RX-V596 for surround channels; Yamaha AX-590 as power amp for mains|
|Speakers||Main: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Richter Harlequin; Rear: Pioneer S-R9; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175|