Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The Praying Mantis Kills"

As I was watching "The Praying Mantis Kills" a second time, it occurred to me that there are three basic elements of the episodes in this classic first season that, at least to me, are at the core of the show. Even though the makers of "Kung Fu" tried hard, it seems, not to adhere too strictly to any formula for the series, the three characteristics of a great season one episode are a classic western scenario, exciting displays of martial arts culture, and fantastic performances by solid character actors in the supporting roles. "A Praying Mantis Kills" has all three and would make a great suggestion for anyone wanting to get a feel for the show by watching just one episode.

Classic western: gang vs. gang. Some great westerns retain the question of what exactly makes the good guys right and the bad guys wrong, but in the case of "Mantis" you've got a clear distinction between them, virtuous law on one side and destructive outlaw on the other. On the law side is the sheriff of another small town, Sheriff Crossman (Norman Alden), his son Marty (Wendell Burton) and a reluctant townsman, Mr. Roper (William Schallert). On the outlaw side, the Darrow gang (headed up by Don Knight). A quisling plays a role in the form of Victor (Dennis Redfield), Marty's rival and a pretender in the law camp.

Martial arts: into the scenario of a gang robbing the local bank and threatening to kill anyone that identifies them wanders Caine, who alone stands up to testify against the murderous thieves. As Caine comes under the sheriff's protective custody and befriends and mentors Marty, we are treated to Shaolin philosophy, displays of no-mind archery, and of course, excellent flashback sequences to the Shaolin masters Kan and Po. Caine, shooting bow and arrow blind, says, "It is not 'done.' It is experienced."

Great character actors: spend some time at IMDB and take a gander at the resumes of any of the actors who appear in this series and you will see a plethora of great roles that include such shows as "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "Streets of San Francisco," "Dallas" - various cop shows and prime-time soaps, family dramas, comedies, the list going on and on and spanning the 50s to the present. English-born Don Knight as Darrow brings a brogue to the villain and a classic, veteran "cold killer" aura. Dennis Redfield as Victor has one of those faces that I know I can place if I (and Google) just try a little harder (I swear I've seen him playing some kind of psychotic somewhere). Likewise the young Wendell Burton as Marty (IMDB says he is best remembered opposite Liza Minelli in "The Sterile Cuckoo"). William Schallert, too; he was the dad on "The Patty Duke" show and appeared in the "Star Trek" episode "The Trouble With Tribbles!"

The story in this episode is equally compelling, as it forces Caine to examine his views on violence (articulated by Master Kan as avoiding all violence except to protect yourself and others). Usually, Caine is passing sage lessons on to the characters of "Kung Fu." In this case, there is that, but his new found friends also challenge him to stand up to the evil of the Darrow gang, an evil that can not be ignored. One gets the sense in this episode, as one seldom does with this show, that Caine here is still figuring it out, right to the very end.

One more observation. As I was watching this episode it also occurred to me, as it has often, that David Carradine really was the right actor for Caine, rather than Bruce Lee. The myth still pervades popular culture that "Kung Fu" was Lee's brain child but the truth is it was created by Ed Spielman and nurtured by a company of very intelligent producers, writers and directors at Warner Brothers. Lee was considered for the role of Caine and didn't get it because, among other reasons, his accent was very thick.

Watching the show now, I can't help but think that all happened as it should. Lee went on to make his great films and left us far too soon. Carradine brought to the role of Caine a dreamy hippy quality that would have simply looked wrong on Lee - as capable an actor as Lee was. There's a scene in "Mantis" in which Caine gently leads a foal to a bucking stallion, calming the stallion. I can't imagine this being performed by Lee with the same sense of earth child peace as Carradine. Even the action scenes, which under Lee would have been so much stronger and more vibrant, are right with Caine. "Kung Fu" is to such great landmarks as Enter the Dragon what baseball is to football; they are in the same family of things, but they entertain us and delight us in different ways.

Anyway, that's my view! Four out of four yin-yangs. This image I got from a delightful blog called My Love for Liza: An Intimate Look at a Fan's Devotion.

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