Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Kung Fu Craze of the Seventies Part One


I am sure that many who watched Kung Fu Panda at the cinema this weekend probably felt a strong sense of deja vu. Many may have simply remembered the first time they saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Others may have recalled the first time they saw a Jackie Chan movie. But for many others, myself included, Kung Fu Panda may have taken them back to the years of 1973 to 1974, when the United States was gripped by a literal mania for anything related to kung fu. There were kung fu movies, kung fu comic books, kung fu magazines, and even a kung fu song ("Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas). In those years in the mid-Seventies, one nearly had to be living in a cave not to be exposed to Asian martial arts.

The Roots of the Fad

To trace the origins of the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974, one must look to the East and China. Literature about kung fu or, more properly, wushu (almost literally "martial arts), in China dates all the way back to the 3rd or 2nd Centuries BCE. The earliest full length novel in the genre, Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh (among other titles), dates to the 14th Century CE. Such early tales of kung fu or wushu would evolve into the genre known as wuxia, a semi-fanasy subgenre of martial arts literature, perhaps best known to Westerners from movies such as Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Wuxia would become for China what the Western is for the United States or the chanbara is for Japan, tales of a legendary past. Quite naturally, when film making emerged in China in the early 20th Century, wuxia movies and other martial arts films were among the first to be made. In fact, Robbery on a Train, perhaps the first kung fu movie ever made, dates all the way back to 1919. By the mid-Twenties wuxia and other martial arts films dominated the Chinese cinema. Forty to sixty different studios were involved in making them. In 1928 the wuxia genre would have its first certified hit. The Burning of Red Lotus Temple broke box office records and was so successful that it had 17 sequels.

Despite the fact that kung fu or wushu and even literature related to kung fu or wushu has a long history in China, Western exposure to Asian martial arts has been relatively recent. Judo may have been the first, brought to the United States by Yamashita Yoshiaki in 1903 (among his students was President Theodore Roosevelt). By 1932 judo was familiar enough in the West that a demonstration was given at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The West was also introduced to jujutsu during roughly the same time period, with Tanaka Yoshimatsu teaching the art to American servicemen in Hawaii as early as the late 1800s. It would be World War II, a war in which Americans came into direct contact with Far Eastern culture, that opened the floodgates to Asian martial arts in the United States. It was in 1945 that Robert Trias opened the first karate dojo in the U.S. By the Fifties and Sixties, karate dojos were scattered across the country.

Just as Asian martial arts were slow to make their way to the United States, martial arts received very little exposure in Hollywood movies until the Sixties. An example can be seen in the 1937 Cary Grant comedy The Awful Truth, in which a Filipino houseboy uses jujutsu to throw Cary Grant's character to the ground. Mr. Moto, the lead character of five popular movies in the late Thirties (played by Peter Lorre), was an expert in judo. In the 1945 film Blood on the Sun James Cagney's character utilised judo. The 1949 gangster movie White Heat has Edmund O'Brien's character utilising judo in the film. If there was a turning point in Western cinema with regards to Asian martial arts, it was probably the 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock. In the movie Spencer Tracey plays a wounded World War II veteran who also happens to be skilled in judo. The 1959 movie The Crimson Kimono would not only include judo, but karate as well. By the Sixties the appearance of martial arts in American movies and television shows would no longer a novelty. In fact, it would almost become commonplace.

The Beginnings of the Fad

The Sixties saw the appearance of Asian martial arts in more and more films and television shows made in the West. The reasons for this were twofold. The first was that interest in the martial arts had exploded in the United States, with most major cities being able to boast schools devoted to either judo or karate. Bruce Lee himself would open schools dedicated to kung fu at the University of Washington and later in Oakland, California. With this growth in interest in Asian martial arts in the United States, they naturally found greater exposure in the cinema and TV shows of the West. The second was a spy craze that started in the United Kingdom and would soon engulf the United States as well. At that time considered exotic and deadly, Asian martial arts would increasingly become one of the many tools at the disposal of the average superspy or his opponents.

With regards to television of the West, Asian martial arts may have received their first exposure in a 1960 episode of The Detectives entitled "Karate." In that episode (written by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry), karate is suspect in a string of unsolved murders. Captain Matt Holbrook (played by Robert Taylor) even learns some of the art himself. Later that same season Wanted Dead or Alive, the Western starring Steve McQueen, featured an episode entitled "Black Belt". In "Black Belt" bounty hunter Josh Randall was on the trail of a martial arts expert accused of murder.

As to what may be the first TV show made in the West to regularly feature Asian martial arts, that honour may well go to the British cult classic The Avengers. In 1962. during the second season of the series, John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) received a new partner in the form of Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman), who just happened to be an expert in judo. The show's producers had chosen the art as a means of explaining how Mrs. Gale could dispose of male opponents, who were often times bigger than she was. Quite naturally, the average episode would feature Mrs. Gale dispatching enemies with judo. While Mrs. Gale left the series in 1965, this did not mean that Asian martial arts would no longer appear on the show. Steed's new partner, Mrs. Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg), was skilled in both karate and kung fu. In fact, The Avengers may have marked the first time that kung fu received exposure in a TV show made in the West!

Mrs. Gale and Mrs. Peel were not the only television superspies skilled in Asian martial arts. Robert Conrad had been a student of Bruce Lee. When he was cast as Secret Service agent James West in the Western spy drama The Wild Wild West (which debuted in 1965), kung fu naturally became part of the arsenal of weapons at West's disposal. Kung fu would receive even more exposure, perhaps more than it had in any TV show or film before), in a most unexpected place, the 1966 TV series based on the classic radio show hero The Green Hornet. Bruce Lee was cast in the role of Kato on the series, primarily because of his fighting skills. Among the highlights of every episode would be spectacular fight scenes in which Kato would take out several men with kung fu. Lee would later guest star on both Ironside and Longstreet.

Of course, Asian martial arts were not only found in TV shows in the Sixties. They also appeared in films. The 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate is a notable example. Among the film's highlights is a karate fight between Major Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw's Korean valet Chunjin. The James Bond movies Goldfinger (featuring Goldfinger's henchman Oddjob, a master at karate) and You Only Live Twice (set in Japan, it featured ninjas for the first time in a film made in the West) both featured Asian martial arts prominently. Derek Flint, the hero of the movies Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, counted Asian martial arts among his many skills. The 1969 movie Marlowe featured a hilarious scene in which Bruce Lee literally destroys Philip Marlowe's office.

While interest in Asian martial arts in the United States was rapidly growing in the United States and United Kingdom in the Sixties, leading to greater exposure in TV shows and movies, events would unfold in Hong Kong that would further set the stage for the kung fu craze of the mid-Seventies. Throughout much of the Fifties and Sixties Chinese cinema had been dominated by wuxia movies. It was in the early Seventies that there was a shift away from wuxia films towards martial arts movies set in contemporary times and featuring much more hand to hand combat than swordplay. Leading in the move away from wuxia and towards more contemporary kung fu movies was the Shaw Brothers Studio. Released in 1970, the Shaw Brothers film Chinese Boxer would prove to be a hit, starting a cycle of kung fu movies that would dominate Hong Kong cinema well into the early Eighties.

While Chinese cinema was undergoing a revolution in terms of martial arts film, events would unfold in the United States that would result in the kung fu fad of the mid-Seventies. Among these was the release of the independent film Billy Jack. The character of Billy Jack had figured in the 1967 film Born Losers, in which he fought a biker gang. Born Losers had done well enough that its creator, Tom McLaughlin, decided to make a sequel. Lack of funding prevented McLaughlin from finishing the movie until 1971. When he did finish it, he found he had no one to distribute the movie. McLaughlin then distributed Billy Jack himself in 1971. The movie was successful enough that eventually Warner Brothers took up its distribution. Billy Jack was a part Native American, former Green Beret and a veteran of Vietnam. He also happened to be skilled in hapkido karate. The success of Billy Jack would increase interest in karate and Asian martial arts in general in the United States. It was also a harbinger of things to come.

Indeed, Warner Brothers would not only distribute Billy Jack, but they would become the studio largely responsible for launching the kung fu fad. It would not be a movie that would start the fad, however, but a television series instead. In 1970 Ed Spielman had developed an interest in Chinese martial arts and the history of China. It occurred to him that the exploits of a Shaolin priest wandering China might make for a good TV series. He bounced the idea off his partner, Howard Friedlander, who suggested that instead they move the milieu to the Wild West. The concept would become the TV show Kung Fu.

Kung Fu followed the exploits of Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Kaine, who was forced to flee China after killing his teacher's murderer (who just happened to be the Emperor's nephew). Wandering the Old West, he searches for his American half brother Danny Caine. Pursued by bounty hunters and facing injustice along the way, Caine often found himself forced to use his kung fu to defend himself and others. Produced by Warner Brothers, Kung Fu debuted as a television movie on ABC on February 22, 1972. The movie proved successful enough that Kung Fu would become a monthly series on ABC that fall. The series would prove successful enough that ABC would soon make it a weekly series. While Kung Fu never broke into the Top 25 in the Nielsens, it developed an exceedingly large and loyal following, particularly among young men. It was also Warner Brothers' first volley in a campaign to bring kung fu to movie screens across America. It would not be long before the United States would be in the midst of a kung fu craze.

1 comment:

Bobby D. said...

1919! I never knew how far back martial arts films went. But I did see a lot of old silent films recently that had Chinese themes, Buddhism, everything but the martial arts. (And the actors were not actually Chinese) so I was curious about martial arts films (Being a Bruce Lee fan) I wish I had watched all of the Spencer Tracy film you mention--I started watching it, but when he checked into the hotel and Lee Marvin (I think it was Lee Marvin) starts harassing him I wasn't in the mood so I turned it off. Had I known the Spencer Tracy character knew judo I would have continued watching.