Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Squawman

Kung Fu often concerns itself with outsiders, as Caine is an outsider. In “The Squawman,” the outsider is Marcus (Jack Elam), a rough hewn pioneer whose marriage to Kiona (Rosanna DeSoto), an Indian woman, has banned him from the society of other townsmen, which he craves. In this case, Marcus’ isolation is not a reaction to humanity’s wounds on him (as it is in “The Well”) but a sacrifice he makes for the love of his spouse.

Conflict with local bandits drags Marcus back into the fellowship of the townsmen, however. For a time, Marcus is a hero because he has shot marauder Cob Blake. His newfound friendships are tested when the rest of the Blake clan comes for revenge.

The flashback involves a man Caine saves from drowning but who is despondent because Caine cannot save him from poverty and hunger. In the present tense, “The Squawman” ends in a terrific fight scene. And the questions the episode raise focus on society and civilization: what is it on the frontier when its shape and boundaries are determined by a handful of men and dependent on their ideas? How are its dictates enforced? And what do you do when the crowd’s justice is injustice?

Good solid episode, not too surprising. Three out of four yin yangs. It was observed at the Facebook page that some episodes of Kung Fu concern themselves with the spiritual while others focus on the secular, the ethical. Interesting that "The Brujo" was the former while episodes like "The Squawman" and "The Ancient Warrior" are the latter. It's a resonant theme in the western genre: in the absence of a central authority, how is civilization defined and maintained? What does it mean when law and order is one man, a gang, a tribe, a mob?

Another interesting thing worth noting here is that part of what made this show so great was its endless supply of great character actors. Jack Elam is a prime example. Great quote from him on his IMDB page, describing what makes a good character actor: "Who's Jack Elam? Get me Jack Elam. Get me a Jack Elam type. Get me a young Jack Elam. Who's Jack Elam?"

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Friday, May 07, 2010

The Brujo

“The Brujo” is one of those episodes people seem to remember about Kung Fu. (Another is “The Cenotaph.”) It’s a terrific episode pulled slightly askew by what seems to me an unnecessary sub-plot. I feel that often, because the show followed a four-act format rather than a three- or five-act that might have given it a bit more symmetry, Kung Fu stretched too much and involved undernourished characters. That seems to be on display here in what is otherwise a splendid episode.

The show’s engrossing, consistent cinematography, courtesy of the professional that developed its look and feel (Chuck Arnold), is on display in “The Brujo” as well. It opens with a series of spooky shots of the title character, a raven haired Mexican sorcerer, working his black magic. The story involves the town of San Martin, its body controlled by the landowner, Don Emilio (Henry Darrow), but its soul fought over by two mystical forces. On one end is the Brujo, driven by revenge to exact tribute and terror from the villagers. On the other is a mysterious, silent white haired wizard and a mute, white haired boy (Jimmy Turner), aided by San Martin’s priest, Father Salazar (Julio Medina).

Into this struggle for the strength of the villagers steps Caine, who refuses to bend to the demands of the Brujo. The resolution of their conflict is classic; when someone tries to draw a circle of power around you, what really is it that binds you? When someone curses you, where does that curse draw its strength? Caine’s solution to the Brujo’s challenge is as simple as it is powerful. As Master Po explains in the flashback, the villagers, like Caine, must have a discerning mind, a mind that rejects. “The undiscerning mind is like the root of a tree. It absorbs equally all that it touches, even the poison that would kill it.”

I have a personal connection to this episode as well. As a child I saw a therapist for a time when I was having some trouble in school after my parents’ divorce. The therapist used anecdotes from this episode to illustrate to me the responsibility I could take for my own happiness. Three out of four yin yangs due to the weirdness I mentioned in the opening paragraph, and a salute to you, Dr. Self, for helping me 30 years ago with this show as an instrument. Anyone know who played The Brujo? IMDB seems to have missed it. UPDATE: See the comment below from Ex Lion Tamer on this remarkable Mexican actor!