TV

Kung Fu and the cult of the gentle hero

HEATHER ROBERTSON January 1 1974
TV

Kung Fu and the cult of the gentle hero

HEATHER ROBERTSON January 1 1974

Kung Fu and the cult of the gentle hero

TV

HEATHER ROBERTSON

He walks towards the camera, the rising sun a red ball at his back. He is weary, stumbling with fatigue, barefoot, his clothes are rags, his hair lank and unkempt. All his worldly possessions are wrapped in a pack slung across his back along with a shepherd’s pipe. He is Odysseus, the Wanderer, the Stranger, the mythic hero of western culture. He is half-Chinese and half-American and his name is Kwai Chang Caine.

A Chinese Buddhist monk, expert in the deadly art of kung fu, who uses his skill only in self-defense, a celibate who lives in poverty and searches for wisdom, a gentle man who defends the weak against the powerful and who, having killed once, refuses to take another life, is a strange hero to appear in Nixonian California, produced in the same environment that churns out the calculated brutality of Kojack and Police Story, but it is precisely this element of mystery and surprise which gives Kung Fu (CTV—Thursday, 8 p.m.), like karate itself, its magical power. With all its pretentious homilies, ersatz Zen and faked fights, Kung Fu is the best adventure show on TV because it’s beautifully made and because it deals most truthfully with the relationships between men.

Kung Fu has become a cult, especially among children, because it demands initiation, a different way of looking at television. Its style is slow, rhythmic, oblique and much of it passes in silence — Caine says little and what he does say is usually cryptic. You get impatient for the big fight, the zap-zap action of shoot-out TV, and irritated with Caine’s slow, stilted English which sounds often like 1 Dream Of Jeannie, but once you get past all these barriers and accept Kung Fu as an epic romance, full of dragons and sorcerers and other fabulous beasts, it’s easy to be seduced by Caine’s shy charm and by the contest, not for men’s bodies but for their souls. Like Odysseus, Caine wins not because he’s stronger but because he’s smarter, and that makes him as much an American man as John Wayne.

Kung Fu is not the product of a new American fascination with China — the Oriental trappings are essentially theatrical, mystical hocus-pocus to enchant the audience and grab our attention — but an attempt to confront contemporary America by pretending it’s a fairy tale. A Chinese intellectual on the American frontier is as strange a creature as Gulliver in Lilliput and, like Swift’s classic, Kung Fu is satiric. Caine, the outsider with the ironic smile, provides a new focus, a different point of view from which to examine the things that everyone takes for granted. Kung Fu contains some of the toughest language, some of the most powerful portraits of vice and corruption I have ever seen on television. All the petty wickedness, the vulgarity and violence of America is played out in front of Caine’s quizzical stare. His innocence, honesty and courage provide a moral commentary for which kung fu is only the physical expression, like God zapping sinners with a thunderbolt.

Homer, as far as we know, was a poet in preliterate Greece who supported himself by reciting his poems. He was, in a sense, the television of his time. His poems are full of rhetoric and stock formulas and theatrical devices because that’s what he needed to communicate with his audience. Kung Fu uses much of the same art — slow-motion film, closeups, stylized language — to achieve a king of popular poetry in a post-literate age. The use of this florid style does not make the show any less real, or any less important in what it is saying, than the TV news. The secret is in the skill and intelligence with which the show is put together.

The Odysseus myth also provides the basis for CTV’s new series The Starlost (CTV—Friday, 7 p.m.), a scifi space drama about a lost spaceship drifting toward destruction with the remnant of the earth’s population. It can’t come soon enough. The Starlost, with its papier-mâché sets and three Frankenstein stars in superman outfits, is as boring as Kung Fu is dramatic, a cheap (for $100,000 a show) rip-off of Saturday matinee horror show gimmicks. At one point the three mouseketeers who are trying to save the ship arrive in Lotus land where they are plied with honeyed fruit. Devon, the Odysseus of the show, breaks the spell with the immortal words “C’mon you guys. It’s all in our heads.” The sorceress Daphne, played by a paranoid computer, uses all her wiles to seduce the stalwart Devon. “Listen, Devon,” she purrs, “you help me and I’ll help you.” “No!” cries the faithful Devon, “you can dream up your own reprogramming!”

With lines like these, Homer would have starved to death.