Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Episode 1: King of the Mountain

This was an excellent episode. It was the first episode to appear after the successful pilot for the show. Watching it now, right away it let's its audience know that this is going to be a different kind of western. It presents familiar westernandcarradine, kung fu, them on their ear by letting Caine interact with them. In this case, the themes are death and peril on the frontier, survival, revenge, and crime/apprehension/punishment.

I'll give a spoiler warning here. Also, instead of listing the names of actors, writers etc. in parentheses, I'd like you to refer to one of the episode guides in the blogroll for more information.

In "King of the Mountain," Caine discovers a young boy, Peter, whose family is wiped out by an Indian raid (I say Indian rather than Native American simply to use the parlance of the setting). Peter is the only survivor. Caine agrees to take the boy to some kin in another town. Peter is now alone, frightened, but determined to survive, clutching his dad's rifle – a quintessential western hero, really, who must accept violence and death as part of the price of frontier life and stand alone to impose order on the chaos, often through strength. On the way to the next town, Peter and Caine are accosted by some ruffians. The boy is appalled that Caine yields to them, letting them search him and potentially rob him. He doesn't yet see that Caine keeps his strength hidden and doesn't contend until he has to. This interesting dichotomy juxtaposes not just an eastern/kung fu ethic against a western one, but that of an older man against a younger. Peter could grow up to be Shane, John Wayne, Wyatt Earp or any tough out of a Louis L'Amour novel. He hasn't yet learned when to fight and when not to, as Caine has.

Once in the next town Caine drops Peter with his kin and finds work at a ranch. These characters exemplify what to me is one of the best aspects of the show – the supporting and minor characters, when sketched well, are as interesting or more interesting than the others, including Caine himself. In this case, Peter's extended family are ugly, disgusting people expressed with Snopesian accuracy. Upon seeing the boy and learning that his family has been killed, there's no empathy, no hugs or tears – they only want to know how much money or valuables he salvaged, and they want to take it. They're also indignant that a "Chinaman" may have helped himself to some of the family's stuff. So they pick him up by the ear and take him to see the Chinaman.

Caine, meanwhile, has befriended Amy, a woman who, against all odds, is running a ranch by herself. Caine agrees to work for Amy, who is kind. But while he's getting things straightened out in the stable here come the Snopes', the evil paw and some uncles. They accuse Caine of robbing Peter and attack him. Caine kicks all their asses in a wonderful sequence. (At some point I will riff on what I see as a worrying trend in action movies, that of chopping up the fight sequences into unviewable splinters. This being an old-school action film, that doesn't happen here. We may get treated to a scene of a Carradine foot in a bad guy's face, but the camera pulls back and let's us see the action in all its glory. Modern film-makers, please take note!) Caine turns to Peter when the fisticuffs are over and, with a disgusted sneer than even he cannot restrain, says, "Do you want to stay with these people? No? Then come with me." Peter joins Caine at Amy's ranch.

Peter, Caine and Amy settle in on the ranch. It's here we also see that Caine has a special ability, born of his Shaolin training, with animals (he calms a frightened and angry horse, and also has a great line, asking what "broken" means when referring to horses). Meanwhile, a black moustachio'd bounty hunter, Raven (played by our pal John Saxon of Enter the Dragon fame) shows up looking to collect the bounty on Caine – 5K dead, 10 alive. Caine's old enemies in China still want his head.

To make a long story short, a semi-romantic and possibly sexual relationship blossoms between Caine and Amy while Caine also begins to teach Peter valuable lessons about manhood. (There are some good Shaolin flashbacks that prompt deeper questions about the role sexual love plays in a Shaolin monk's life.) It's Raven's presence that now introduces the crime and punishment theme. After all, Caine is, in one context, a criminal, and Raven a righteous arm of the law. But we quickly see that Caine is spiritually and ethically more righteous while Raven is a blunt instrument of imprisonment and death, a nasty, self-centered and ultimately self-serving person who worships reward money, not any real sense of justice. Caine agrees to turn himself in but, manacled, fights Raven (another pretty sweet kung fu sequence). In the struggle, Raven loses his footing and plummets to his death. In the end, Caine must move along, knowing he still has to find his roots and that more bounty hunters and other agents will come gunning for him. He hopes he has empowered Amy and Peter enough to stand on their own.

An excellent episode and an excellent beginning to the series. Already, some of the things I love about the series – themes re-examined, characters, and of course great kung fu sequences – are present. Four out of four stars.

Here is the IMDB entry on this episode. which also contains an interesting bit of trivia. (Also says George Takei was in the episode, but I don't remember seeing him.)

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